Winning the Peace by protecting the fish
A fisherman prepares his gear in Lanao del Norte

SULTAN NAGA DIMAPORO, LANAO DEL NORTE. In this quaint sun kissed town on the shores of the Illana Bay in Lanao del Norte on the island of Mindanao, live several communities that tell the story of how working together to establish marine sanctuaries not only secured their fishing livelihoods, but also helped win the peace by achieving a high level of cohesion and harmony among Muslim and Christian neighbors.

It was around the year 2000 when the idea of a marine sanctuary to protect their livelihoods from illegal fishing activities was proposed by a non government organization called the Lanao Aquatic and Marine Fisheries Center for Community Development (LAFCCOD) Inc.

Local fisherman Johnny Balindong recalls that when LAFCCOD first came in, they were not easily impressed and inspired because they were primarily Christians.

"When LAFCCOD started organizing us and giving us training on the Culture of Peace and Community Based Coastal Resource Management, our perspective changed," Balindong relates in the local language.

This, according to him, became stronger with the implementation of the marine sanctuaries, as they saw the value of working together to achieve the common goal of protecting and enhancing their common fishing grounds.

This story is affirmed by local fisherfolk leader Zainoden Abdela of the Samahan ng mga Mangingisda at Magsasaka sa Sigayan (SAMAS), there was a time when prejudice was strong between Muslim and Christian neighbors in the coastal villages.

Another fisherman Abbas Maruhom related how the trainings eventually encouraged them to form the Muslim Christian Organization of Farmers and Fisherfolk where Muslim and Christian fisherfolk would both join the ranks of members.

"The leadership was mixed, The Chairman would be Muslim while the Vice Chairman would be Christian," he explains in Cebuano.

As time went by, they all say, the prejudice disappeared slowly as they started working together.

According to Fermin Flores, Executive Director of LAFCCOD, the initiative was a means to build peace by achieving better social cohesion between Muslim and Chistians in neighborhoods.

"When we entered in 2000, potential for conflict was high and the possibility of unrest and violence was always present, " he explains.

"Our entry point to get them together was the common aspiration to build sustainable livelihoods, from the fishing activities they both do" he said.

Establishing the sanctuaries, he said, was a multipronged approach that achieved community harmony and peace while helping them improve livelihoods in common municipal fishing grounds and prevent illegal fishing activities that depleted their common supply of fish. In turn, he explains, the sustained livelihood also promoted peace.

He explains further that the three sanctuaries located in Barangays Sigayan, Tantawon and Banga are now co-managed between the local government and the Peoples organizations.

On a deeper, cultural level he says, the sanctuaries gave them something upon which to foster cooperation and eventually, mutual acceptance and respect between fisherfolk of different cultural backgrounds.

"The trainings and shared effort in establishing the sanctuary over the years helped them

warm up to the idea of working together despite their being from different religions and past experiences," Flores explains.

To this day, Balindong fondly remembers a volunteer named Dave from a London based organization called Voluntary Service Overseas Philippines (VSO) who helped them understand the benefit of having a sanctuary.

VSO provided technical volunteers to help define the bounds of the sanctuaries in 2000, and for other technical needs of the communities.

Celebrating 60 years this year, VSO has been providing such assistance around the world since 1958. As a result of this cooperation between LAFCCOD, VSO and the various peoples organizations, the sanctuaries are covered by a municipal ordinance and have applied for protected area status. This allowed better enforcement of regulations governing the use of the common fishing grounds.

The secure livelihoods and common efforts built partnerships between government and civil society. This, in turn, made the area more productive, as the local government reported a slight increase in agricultural production of important crops like rice and corn.

According to Flores, the cohesion and peace achieved between Muslim and Christian fisherfolk and farmers is an important outcome and legacy of the sanctuaries.