Efren Forones jumped from his chair when he saw the news report on TV.
Boats were coming back from Scarborough Shoal. Fishermen were wading through shallow waters carrying buckets spilling over with fish.
“It is true! It is open!” the 55-year-old fisherman yelled to his bewildered family.
It had just been a little over a week since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came back from a state visit to China, and already his realignment from Washington to Beijing appeared to be bearing fruit. Chinese vessels had stopped their blockade of a vital Philippine fishing ground, bringing the hope of renewed prosperity to a western coastal swath of Luzon island.
Seeing the fishermen on TV with their catch fired up Forones’ old memories of his days in the fertile fishing grounds.
It had been three years since he had last been to Scarborough Shoal.
But the joy that the announcement brought to fishermen like Forones was soon tempered by a realization: Nothing that the Chinese and Filipino presidents had discussed about the shoal was binding. The blockade could be reimposed at any time. And no one was compensating the fishermen for all that they had lost.
Forones grew up a fisherman like his father before him. He started sailing the sea when he was 12, finding in it a source of adventure, food and good money. There was no need for school, nor was there time. He was always out fishing and the sea provided everything he needed — until it didn’t.
In 2012, the Chinese Coast Guard seized control of Scarborough Shoal, a triangular chain of reefs and rocks surrounding a lagoon in a disputed portion of the South China Sea.
A fertile fishing ground used by the Filipinos, the area is a crucial shipping access strip where an estimated $5 trillion worth of trade passes through every year.
The blockade escalated to intimidation and then aggression, with fishermen reporting that the Chinese Coast Guard had turned its water cannons on them to drive them away.
With access to the shoal uncertain, the financial costs of sailing out to Scarborough, about 150 miles from the coastline of Zambales province, became a losing proposition.
In response to the blockade, Manila filed a case against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. In July, the court ruled in favor of Manila. It found that China’s maritime claim was excessive and encroached on the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, where the Scarborough Shoal lies.
China disregarded the ruling and continued barring Filipino fishing boats from entering the shoal.
During his presidential bid, Duterte promised to assert the Philippines’s claims. If necessary, he joked, he would take a jet ski to the South China Sea and plant a Philippine flag there.
But after his election, Duterte refocused his vitriol from China to his country’s ally (and onetime colonial ruler), the United States. Smarting from President Obama’s criticism of his brutal drug war, he called the president a “son of a whore” and announced an economic and military separation from the United States. In Beijing, he told Chinese leaders that he had “realigned myself in your ideological flow” and would be “dependent on you for all time.”
He returned to Manila with $24 billion worth of funding and investment commitments from China along with an announcement. “Let us wait for a few more days,” he said. “We might be able to go back to Scarborough Shoal.”
The blockade of the shoal had set off a chain reaction of devastating consequences for people in the coastal village of Masinloc.
Seasonal fishing expeditions to Scarborough Shoal had meant as much as $250 per person, per trip, said Willy Cruz, regional director of the government’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. “The fishermen could maybe make about $10 a day if they don’t go to Scarborough. And that’s being optimistic.”
Without trips to the shoal, the men were forced to fish in nearby waters and compete with other fishermen for a smaller catch.
A rapidly growing population and destructive fishing methods such as dynamite and cyanide fishing had led to serious environmental degradation and a dwindling fish catch, the fisheries bureau said.
“Even before the issues with China, dwindling fish catch was a problem. The closure of Scarborough just made it worse,” said Leonardo Cuaresma, chairman of the Federated Assn. of Fisherfolk in Masinloc.
Various government programs were put in place to promote safer fishing practices as an alternative to dynamite and cyanide fishing. Fishing gear and motorized boats were given to qualified fishermen to make fishing in local waters more efficient.
Meanwhile, the fishing federation has been working with government agencies to train the fishermen in alternative skills.
When Forones couldn’t fish anymore, he started driving a motorized rickshaw commonly used as a neighborhood taxi. Still, he found it difficult to make ends meet for his wife and six children.
For many of the displaced men, their wives took up the role of the breadwinner and left to work overseas, often in the Middle East, as domestic helpers.
Forones’ wife, Gemma, left to work in Saudi Arabia in 2015. Soon after, her sister, Melinda, left for Dubai, and last February, their youngest sister Elvira also left for Saudi Arabia.
Viany Mula, 45, lives next door to the Forones family in a wooden hut on stilts. His wife also left when he couldn’t fish anymore.
Like Forones, Mula wants to go back to Scarborough. “I saw the reports on TV,” he said. “I’m thankful and hope we can go back soon. We made big money there.”
The local fishermen’s associations share his anticipation. They want to freely fish in what they believe to rightfully be Philippine territory, but they are skeptical and anxious — and a bit confused.
“China is very clear about stating their claim. Our president hasn’t said anything except that we can now fish there. What does that mean?” said Laureno Artagame, chairman of the provincial group of fishermen associations.
“It’s as if we were given permission to enter what is ours, and that’s it,” he added. “Like a crying child is given candy to make him stop crying. Is that acceptable?”
When asked if the government could give the fishermen the assurance they need, Charles Jose, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila, released this statement: “The dispute in the South China Sea is not the sum total of the Philippines’ bilateral relations with China. The government works to ensure that Filipino fishermen will have unimpeded access to Bajo de Masinloc (or Scarborough Shoal).”
Cuaresma and Artagame’s organizations are planning a protest of some sort to express their disappointment.
Both admit that they might have a problem getting support from the fishermen who have for the moment been pacified, overjoyed at the prospect of being able to fish in Scarborough Shoal again.
At least one Masinloc fisherman doesn’t want to go back to Scarborough Shoal — ever.
Junick Josol is Forones’ brother-in-law. His wife, Melinda, went to the Middle East. He is angry now at Duterte for failing to assert the Philippines’ claim on the disputed territory, even if China is now allowing fishing there.
“It’s like he sided with China,” Josol said. “We cannot forget China’s aggression towards us. They bumped our boats, they fired their water cannons on us.
“Our wives felt sorry for us when we could no longer fish and make money. They wanted to help us. Our income from Scarborough was for our families. When that was gone, it was as if they had killed our families, too.”
Santos is a special correspondent.