The day the national flag flew over Philippine Rise

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While the underwater mission was being carried out, a flag raising ceremony was observed to celebrate Independence Day aboard ship. Photo by TAKESHI SHINOHARA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It was a Sunday, the 11th of June. The town of Casiguran was busy. Several small huts behind the town hall were lined up in time for an event celebration.

“Kaarawan ng Mangingisda at Magsasaka ngayon,” says 66-year-old farmer Alejandro Pastor Mora, the president of the farmers association of Brgy. Culat, Casiguran, Aurora. It was the weeklong Foundation Day festivity of Casiguran, which was celebrated and concluded on June 13.

Alone, Mora mans the booth with crops, but there was no fish in sight.

Left: Esperjon Subang, 55, has been a fisherman all his life and is now the president of the Culat Fisherfolk Association. Right: Roberto Kukuan, 40, is one of the two chieftains aboard BRP Davao del Sur. Photos by TAKESHI SHINOHARA

Fifteen minutes from the town hall lives Esperjon Subang, president of the Culat Fisherfolk Association. He lives by the coast, where he waits for his fishermen to return with their freshest catch.

“Have you been to Philippine Rise?” I ask. Apparently, he and his fishermen have never been. “Our boats are not made to travel that far,” Subang answers. “We just hear of it from the news.”

We go to another coastal barangay, one of the major suppliers of fish in Casiguran, Dilasag. The answers were the same.

Once they hear about Philippine Rise, the fishermen think of the need for more places to fish. As their catch gets smaller near the coast, they need to go farther.

Chieftain Joel Guera of Dimaguepo, Casiguran, claims they almost reached the ridge. A group of six indigenous fishermen, with spears, bows, arrows, and a long fishing line traveled five hours off the coast of Casiguran to the open sea.

Muntik na namin maabot pero hinarangan kami ng malaking barko. ‘Yun pala sa China ‘yung bangka. Umatras nalang po kami at bumalik sa area,” he says.

Barangay Culat lies on the cove of Casapsapan Bay. Their usual catch is tanigue and tuna, which costs 160 pesos per kilo. Photos by TAKESHI SHINOHARA

What we know

Located off the coast of Aurora, Philippine Rise, then known as Benham Rise, first came to be of interest in 2001. Through a joint effort by multiple agencies and individuals across the country, the United Nations recognized and adopted the Philippines’ claim to the 13-million-hectare underwater plateau in 2012.

The volcanic plateau, potentially rich in natural gas deposits and heavy metals, is now part of the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Within its EEZ, the Philippines has sovereign rights to exploit maritime resources and conduct scientific research. The EEZ, however, is not part of Philippine territory.

“We came to Casiguran and the Philippine Rise to answer the question ‘Why?’” says Col. Bim Quemado. On the weekend leading to the Independence Day, a joint mission of military and civilians was mobilized to raise awareness and create a connection between the people of Casiguran and Philippine Rise. Photo by TAKESHI SHINOHARA

In December 2016, Philippine Rise met the criteria of an Ecologically and Biologically Significant Marine Area (EBSA), joining the ranks of the world famous Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and the Rajah Ampat Park in Indonesia.

“Bahagi rin kami ng Benham Rise. Hindi lamang ang gobyerno ang nangangalaga dito, bahagi rin kaming mga katutubo.”

The Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (where the Philippines is a State-party, and which assigns EBSA sites) described Philippine Rise as of “critical ecological importance, including for offshore mesophotic coral reef biodiversity and for the sustainability of fisheries.”

The area also forms part of the only known spawning area of the Pacific bluefin tuna, and is a potential site for enhanced biological productivity.

However, it didn't make the headlines until a controversial Chinese vessel was seen on the ridge. The Chinese government stated these Chinese vessels are “purely carrying out normal freedom of navigation and right of innocent passage.”

The BRP (Barko ng Republika ng Pilipinas) Davao del Sur is one of the two custom-built naval ships made in Indonesia. Photo by TAKESHI SHINOHARA

Lesson learned

Approximately 217 kilometers off the coast of Casiguran, Aurora, on June 12, 2017, an underwater flag was mounted on Philippine Rise, 200 feet deep.

“We learned from the Scarborough Shoal issue,” says Col. Bim Quemado, chief of staff of the Armed Forces of Philippines’ Northern Luzon Command (AFP-NOLCOM). The then-brewing maritime issue not only affected fishermen from the coastal towns of Zambales, but also 12,000 fishermen from nearby provinces.

A total of 52 divers volunteered for the mission, 18 of which are technical divers, who are tasked to carry out the actual mounting, while the rest are support divers at different levels. Photo by TAKESHI SHINOHARA

“While most of our countrymen have been hearing about the ridge, they don’t know where it is. We aim to increase the level of awareness of the Filipino people on this Philippine Rise,” says Major. Gen. Romeo Tanalgo of AFP-NOLCOM.

The mission to raise the flag on Philippine Rise is similar to the goals of the flag-raising on Mavulis Island, Batanes, the northernmost island of the Philippines, on April 2016.

“There, we would like to put a communication facility so we can support the fishermen in Batanes,” Tanalgo says.

The fiberglass Philippine flag was hoisted 200 feet deep, the shallowest part of the Philippine Rise. Photo by TAKESHI SHINOHARA

Bayanihan mission

The plans for the Philippine Rise are still in its early stages. More intense support from multiple agencies is needed to further explore the region. The first step is to raise awareness.

Prior to the underwater flag hoisting, an inland all-in-one bayanihan mission was conducted in Casiguran, Aurora. “Relationships are first built inland,” says Quemado.

“[With] Aurora being the nearest landfall to Philippine Rise, the stakeholders or the locals must have shared objectives and a strong sense of relations with the local government and other government units, to protect and uphold [the] sovereignty of the rise,” he adds.

Commander Kiram Sadava led the team of civilian and military divers tasked to hoist the flag under water. He shares that this was a difficult mission, where two of his technical divers were at risk due to technical challenges. Photo by TAKESHI SHINOHARA

Non-profit organizations and volunteers kicked off the Independence Day weekend with a 10-hour trip to Casiguran. With school supplies, slippers, food, clothes, and art materials in tow, they went straight to Dibet Elementary School.

“We let the military run and lead the mission to establish ties with the people,” says Black Pencil Project founder Mon Corpuz.

Corpuz also coordinated with the local government to get the full context of the place. “According to our local sources, Casiguran is the nearest municipality to the Philippine Rise. But due to high seas, their small boats could never go there,” he adds.

Muntik na namin maabot pero hinarangan kami ng malaking barko. ‘Yun pala sa China ‘yung bangka. Umatras nalang po kami at bumalik sa area.”

With this in mind, Corpuz asked artists to create a mural painting, depicting the importance of protecting and conserving these waters. On June 13, the local government unveiled the mural to its constituents. “We use art as a way to communicate especially to the young ones. This is our gift and our postcard to the people of Casiguran,” says Corpuz.

Some volunteers, together with representatives from the local government, community leaders, maritime experts, the AFP, and the indigenous people of Casiguran, set sail to Philippine Rise to witness the underwater flag hoisting event.

Joel Guera was one of the two indigenous people aboard ship. He says, “Bahagi rin kami ng Benham Rise. Hindi lamang ang gobyerno ang nangangalaga dito, bahagi rin kaming mga katutubo.”

“Malaking pasasalamat ko at narating ko ito para malaman ko kung ano talaga ang amin. At para makilala rin po kami ng gobyerno na kami rin pala ay kailangan ng suporta,” says chieftain Roberto Kukuan. Photo by TAKESHI SHINOHARA

Getting to the ridge was one bold step to reassert these people’s rights over the waters. “We have barely scratched the surface of knowledge over this region,” says Tanalgo.

“The next step is knowing what is here to protect, and with the same bayanihan spirit ensure that every Filipino benefits from the biggest maritime treasure of our nation.”