Fisher-folk in the Philippines Oppose Bilateral Trade Accord with Japan

Opposition to a bilateral trade accord between Japan and the Philippines is growing increasingly public throughout the Pacific archipelago and this week Pamalakaya, a national fisher-folk alliance, announced a national campaign to oppose the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA).

As negotiations within international trade institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) continue to falter, multiple G8 nations, such as Japan, the U.S. and Canada, are switching their attention to negotiating bilateral or regional trade accords throughout the world. Bilateral trade accords generally articulate a similar economic vision common to the WTO, which views natural resources, public sector institutions and the environment in terms of rapid economic profit.

In the Philippines, Pamalakaya is standing to oppose the bilateral accord with Japan because articles within the agreement will open exclusive economic zones in the Philippines to Japanese fishing corporations. National waters in the Philippines which already are facing problems of over fishing would fall prey to major factory ships from Japan, a stark different to the traditional fishing methods that the majority of fisher-folk in the Philippines utilize until today. Impacts on the environment and over fishing by Japanese corporations are major concerns expressed by fisher-folk across the Philippines many who are already struggling to survive.

This is an interview conducted by Stefan Christoff with Fernando Hicap, the national chair for Pamalakaya, the national fisher-folk alliance set to launch a national campaign against the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA).

Fernando Hicap: Pamalakaya [a national fisher-folk alliance] is strongly opposing the ratification of the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA), as the agreement will allow tuna factory ships from Japan to explore and exploit exclusive economic zones in the Philippines. Under the free trade agreement, Japanese corporate ships will enter the most plentiful fishing grounds in the Philippines. For this reason we are opposing this so-called free trade agreement with Japan.

Fishing grounds in the Philippines aren’t healthy today mainly due to foreign actors or companies working in our waters. Today, waters around the Philippines are over fished. This proposed trade agreement with Japan will mean that national marine resources in the Philippines will be opened completely for foreign companies, leading to more overfishing, a very serious situation. Small fishers in the Philippines will be heavily impacted by this agreement; the livelihood of fisher-folk could be taken away due to overfishing by foreign corporations.

Stefan Christoff: Can you explain how the free-trade agreement with Japan will impact the income and ability to survive of fisher-folk in the Philippines, please outline in detail how this agreement will impact local fishers in the country?

Fernando Hicap: First it’s important to highlight that the fishing industry in the Philippines is basic compared to other countries. In the Philippines fishers don’t often have the equipment to explore the national waters in the same way as foreign fishing corporations. Also, traditional equipment often used in the Philippines means that the local industry is much more labor intensive than in other countries, while the end result equals much less product, much less fish for the market due to traditional fishing methods.

Other countries clearly want access to our waters, countries with corporations that have much more advanced technology which would be used to rapidly fish and eventually deplete our waters. In the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement, particularly articles twenty-eight and twenty-nine in the agreement, outlines that huge fishing fleets from Japan will be allowed to explore our national waters in the Philippines, particularly our exclusive economic zones.

Essentially this agreement will mean the free-wheeling exploitation of our resources in the Philippines by Japanese fishing corporations, who will harvest our tuna. Elements in the agreement that directly allow the exploitation of our national waters in the Philippines are alarming. Stipulations in the trade agreement with Japan, will cause massive depletion of fish from waters in the Philippines and from our exclusive economic zones.

Based on our studies and general industry standards, a one-ton Japanese factory fishing ship will most likely harvest at least fifty-thousand metric tons of tuna each year. Japanese companies generally work with a number of factory ships, so once they are allowed to enter the exclusive economic zones in the Philippines they will potentially collect hundreds-of-thousands of tons of tuna from the Philippines each year. This trade agreement will cause the rapid depletion and over exploitation of fishing waters in the Philippines.

Small fishers in the Philippines can’t compete with foreign products entering our country, these products are often highly subsidized by other governments, while the government in the Philippines, will not subsidize the local fishing industry. Foreign marine products flowing into our local markets in the Philippines will kill our local industry, an industry that equals survival for many small fishers.

Stefan Christoff: Concerning access to resources within waters in the Philippines, could you talk about what the people within your movement, fisher-folk in your organization, are saying concerning the proposed free-trade agreement with Japan?

Fernando Hicap: Fisher-folk in the Philippines are opposing this one-sided economic agreement with Japan, as this agreement isn’t intended to support the survival or independence for fisher-folk in the Philippines, this agreement is intended to support the Japanese commercial fishing industry, particularly the tuna industry. Japanese companies will make hundreds-of-millions of dollars from fishing for tuna in the Philippines. If this agreement goes through, if this agreement is signed, it will equal major profit for Japanese corporations.

Opening our waters in the Philippines to big corporations will ensure the destruction of our marine environment in the Philippines, so as a movement we stand against allowing foreign companies to enter our delicate waters.

Also, this agreement will potentially displace over one hundred thousand fisher-folk and related workers from the coast in the Philippines. If Japanese companies are given access to the exclusive economic zones, local workers will lose their jobs, lose their livelihood and be forced to relocate to urban poor areas. JPEPA clearly aims to support Japan’s commercial fishing industry, not fisher-folk in the Philippines and details within the agreement make it extremely clear.

Stefan Christoff: Today in the Philippines different social movements are strongly opposing the current government headed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and backed by the U.S., protests have been taking place across the country in recent years calling on the President to step-down. In this context wondering you thoughts on why the current administration in the Philippines is supporting this agreement with Japan.

Fernando Hicap: President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is not listening to the people of the Philippines. Basically the current government is aiming for political support from Japan, which is why Arroyo is pushing this one-sided agreement with Japan. President Arroyo is fighting for political survival and one key to maintaining power is getting support from powerful foreign government, such as Japan, which is an extremely powerful country in Asia and internationally.

Present Arroyo is currently facing a political crisis, stemming from credible accusations of election fraud in 2004 and also major corruption scandals within the government. Also the current administration is facing a growing international scandal surrounding hundreds of forced disappearances and political killings targeting activists in the Philippines, which U.N. reports have linked to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and current administration.

Given these conditions President Arroyo is soliciting support from international powers, such as Japan, which pushes forward negotiations on the JPEPA agreement. President Arroyo is seeking outside support, in this case political support from Japan, given the major turmoil in the Philippines and strong popular opposition to the current administration within the Philippines.

Stefan Christoff: Wondering if you could talk about how free-trade agreements or policy has impacted the Philippines until now, now we are discussing the proposed bilateral trade agreement with Japan. Wondering your thoughts on how free-trade agreements have impacted the Philippines in general and specifically fisher-folk in the country?

Fernando Hicap: All free-trade agreements that the Philippines has entered, dating back to the dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos, have not benefited the majority of Filipino people or those working in the fishery sector. Due to such trade agreements we have been reduced to modern day slaves in our own country, forced as fisher-folk to act as workers or product providers for major international corporations and countries like Japan and the U.S.

Trade agreements or membership to the World Trade Organization (WTO) has done nothing to improve the lives of fisher-folk or most workers in the Philippines. Contributed to Bulatlat

Stefan Christoff is a journalist and community organizer who contributes this interview to This interview was originally produced for the Fighting FTAs project, an international project that provides a global picture on free trade agreements (FTAs), and insight into struggles being waged by social movements fighting back.

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