Roberto “Ka Dodoy” Ballon

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Roberto “Ka Dodoy” Ballon
Environmental Champion

Long before experts sounded the alarm bells on depleting mangrove forests, Roberto Ballon, fondly called “Ka Dodoy,” and his fledgling group of fishermen were already knee-deep planting mangrove trees in their coastal community of Concepcion in the Municipality of Kabasalan, Province of Zamboanga Sibugay.

Ka Dodoy recognised early on that the mangrove ecosystem must be preserved for marine life to flourish and serve as a constant source of food and livelihood for his community. It drove him to organise the Kapunungan sa Gabay nga Mangingisda sa Concepcion (KGMC) [Association of Small Fisherfolk of Concepcion] in 1986 and form partnerships with government agencies and nongovernment organisations. His decades-long  leadership and efforts  to restore and manage the mangrove cover and protect the coastal resources of his community earned him the prestigious 2021 Ramon Magsaysay Awards (Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize).

“Before the 1980s, our environment was idyllic and unspoiled. Fish was plentiful and easy to catch. Our fishing grounds were close to shore, and so we did not have to spend hours paddling into the sea or spending too much on  fuel. Our parents, grandparents settled here because of this natural abundance. But by the mid-80s, we were venturing farther out into the sea to get a good catch. Our mangrove cover was shrinking. Illegal fishing was rampant. Dynamite fishing was poisoning our fishing grounds. The use of fine-mesh fishing nets was also common. Mangrove areas were getting converted into fishponds. The rest were being cut down and sold or turned into coal. Without mangroves, fish stocks and other marine life lose  their shelter and cannot lay eggs or feed.  As our mangrove cover diminished, so did our marine resources, such as crabs, prawns, and fingerlings. We were losing our food and livelihood sources. So most of us had to move farther offshore to catch fish, costing us a lot of money, gasoline, and time.

In the past, fishermen would tell their children, ‘study hard so that you won’t end up becoming a fisherman or farmer.’ This message is wrong. We should be telling our children, ‘study hard so you can become a professional fisherman or farmer so that someday, we have the capacity to export rice and fish.’

“Our work is not yet done. We still need to help a lot of fishermen in our community. We need to give them training, organise them, or strengthen their organisation. The government should fully support mangrove reforestation and coastal protection initiatives all over the country. There should be a law that mandates the government to invest in environmental protection and set up programs for small fishermen, programs that will organise, capacitate, and give capital to organisations  and cooperatives. The Philippines has the fifth longest coastline, yet we don’t have a Department of Fisheries, unlike our neighbouring countries like Viet Nam and Indonesia. We are also supposed to be the center of marine biodiversity, but we don’t have concrete programs to take care of it and our fishermen. There are talks about importing fish. We have not even maximised our potential for aquaculture, especially in Mindanao.  Government should invest in hatcheries, post-harvest services, aquaculture training, feeds industry, bangus (milkfish) production, multispecies fishery. We will end up exporting fish if the government invests in these. 

“In the past, fishermen would tell their children, ‘study hard so that you won’t end up becoming a fisherman or farmer.’ This message is wrong. We should be telling our children, ‘study hard so you can become a professional fisherman or farmer so that someday, we have the capacity to export rice and fish.’

Interviewed by Joanne Agbisit. The conversation has been translated, condensed, and edited for clarity. The views and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the interviewee and do not reflect the official policy or position of ASEAN.

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