Thursday, May 04, 2006

Dagerous Ground: The spratly's name on the maps so apt

No other small chain of Islands in the South China sea is so rightly named on international nautical charts. The charts call the area off of the Palawan Passage "Dangerous Ground" and not only for the reefs hidden shoals and sandbars that suddenly pop up out of the area.

Fishermen from as far away as Japan, Cambodia, and, Thailand make the run to this far off group of islets and reefs so teeming with fish and resources that at some places the fish jump into boats on their own! That's not a fish tale! I once was out in the eastern portion of this area and saw a small school of fish; perhaps being chased by another set of fish jump into our boat in the area.

For the Philippines it is the KCI; The Kalayaan chain of islands. It is the Western portion of the Province of Palawan; Yes, province of Palawan. there is town there with a mayor, a post office, about fifty small buildings, a small runway a tiny port, even a semi school building, and a runway that can accommodate a C130 cargo plane. There is cell site now being planned I hear and a Bayantel RCPI calling station and a loyal group of fans for Dream Cable Satellite TV!

It is part of the first Congressional district, it is a huge maritime resource for the people of that province. It is also where around 25% of the Philippines ocean based food supply is from and needs a active presence for the protection of the area.

Beyond stories of Oil and Natural gas beneath the sands and rocks on the bottom, it is a vital area of Food Security in a dwindling ocean of supply and demand. Growing populations in the regions fishermen know it is a major area that needs protection and development.

I have been there, many times, I have heard the stories, I have seen the busted vessels and on occasion seen the evidence of the portions of it that are lawless and the presence of troops and marines from rival nations in the area are actually a welcome site for the victims of pirates and others who make their living in the rough seas and shoals.

In 1992, after tension rose in the area, over the sudden presence of Chinese prefabricated buildings on Mischief reef, And a incident that many people learned about when a group of fishermen from Padre Burgos, Quezon led by Daniel Alipustahin, were rounded up, detained and allegedly beaten up by chinese PLA Navy Seabee's who were screaming about something, a few had bloody ears. It seems some had been blast fishing and Alipustahin group was detained to check if they had been rap-tap-taping on the reef while the Chinese underwater team was in the water constructing footings for the small "fisheries" shelters on the reef.

Aliputahin, had made the report to a small coast guard detachment in the town of Quezon Palawan, what worried the local coast guard was where the incident had occurred, less than 90 nautical miles off -shore. The Chinese had built a set of shelters right near a reef the towns fishermen regularly made their living off of. I like many other reporters there went down the coast from Puerto Princesa and rented a boat to see for ourselves after about ten hours you could see a few ships near the reef. The ships were huge, compared to us and clearly Navy Hazy Grey. We went back to the port, went up to Puerto Princesa and filed our news reports.

I sent in a report to the people I watched the news for in Manila; Chari Villa, who was then ABS-CBN's assignments desk manager; immediately dispatched a team on the company king air plane to Palawan. And so for about two weeks the place and story became my first major coverage with ABS-CBN's special reports group correspondent Henry Omaga Diaz.

Henry's landing was perfect timing, as he flew in so did the first elements of the PAF Fifth fighter wing out of Basa Airbase, a few F-5A fighters and some other aircraft were landing.
The images were sent out to Manila, a few interviews were done, the headlines showed the Philippines had deployed it's only offensive strike aircraft to the Antonio Bautista airbase.

Poof! crisis Spratly was born and people were waiting for anything. Although no one liked our reporting at the Western Command least of all the then WESCOM commander whose high blood pressure curdling screams were a major headache for his staff.

He had been given the Command assignment so he could move up the ladder to a higher post at GHQ; but no General in the post WW2 history of the Armed Forces of the Philippines assigned to the Western Command had ever lost a portion to Philippine territory before needless to say after the incident; he didn't really have a high spot on the promotions lists and retired.

The shelters have grown, the reports say lot more ships visit the area now and fishermen from Quezon Town do on occasion go near the area and are pretty much left alone so long as they do not approach or try to enter the reef; whose shoal provides protection against foul seas. But not for fishermen from the closest town to the shelters and the place where Chinese on the structures could escape the boredom in nearby Palawan is both unlikely and unseen. Even with the “Joint Agreement” of the regional forum of claimant nations and China.

One view I found on the islands importance is summed up below other than "vast fishing grounds:"

Another is the trade flow there.

"The Spratly islands takes in the shipping traffic, that passes the Streets of Malacca, Sunda and Lambok on and represents a very important interface between the Indian Sea and The Pacific Ocean. It is a maritime highway for the raw material and product traffic from the Asia, the Near East, Europe and Africa. The area of Spratlys is passed by:

more than a quarter of the entire shipping traffic of the world (approx. 300 big ships per day)

30 % of the world trade

48 % of the Japanese commerce as well as a high part of the merchandise of and to South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia

70 % of the Japanese crude oil imports

Next: Pirates, Smugglers, Sharks, &, Thieves:

No comments: