Manila, Dec 19 (EFE) – Ricardo Dumaran, a boat captain working from the northwestern Philippines coast, longs for the days when he could fish peacefully at Scarborough Shoal, an idyllic atoll of turquoise waters and abundant fish that was appropriated by Chinese paramilitary militias a decade ago.
“They shoot pressurized water at us with cannons and block our way,” Dumaran told Efe in Cato, an impoverished fishing settlement on the border of Zambales and Pangasinan provinces, north of Manila.
“There is always a Chinese boat at the entrance.”
China and the Philippines are embroiled in a territorial dispute over the sovereignty of several islands and atolls in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims as its own for “historical reasons” despite them being less than 322 kilometers (200 miles) from the western Philippines coast, a limit established by the United Nations as a sovereign maritime boundary between states.
Scarborough Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc in Spanish and Panatag Shoal in Filipino, lies less than 100 nautical miles from Dumaran’s village, which has become a victim of a territorial dispute that extends to the southern Philippines, where Beijing also claims the Spratly Islands.
The situation for Dumaran and his fellow villagers took a turn for the worse in 2012 when China, whose shores are more than 804 kilometers away, invaded Scarborough Shoal with its militias.
Since then, the opening of the atoll has been guarded by Chinese boats.
“Sometimes we have entered at night without being seen, but we haven’t done it for a long time for fear of the Chinese,” said Dumaran.
VICTIMS OF GEOPOLITICS
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague (PCA) ruled in favor of the Philippines in its territorial dispute with Beijing over the Spratlys, but China considers the decision invalid.
Filipino officials have since looked the other way so as not to test their biggest trading partner.
China’s expansionist ambitions encompass almost the entire South China Sea, through which 30% of global trade flows and which is home to 12% of the world’s fishing grounds, as well as oil and gas fields.
Dumaran and his neighbors are therefore caught in a power struggle that is being directed from offices far from their shores.
Due to intimidation by Chinese vessels, these fishermen have to fish several miles away from the atoll, so their catch is diminished.
A RISKY JOB GETS RISKIER
Almost every day, at least one of the traditional Filipino boats, called bangkas in Tagalog, sets sail for Scarborough Shoal, where a rock formation juts out of the ocean and provides a natural fishing ground and a unique storm shelter for fishermen.
The voyage from the coast to the atoll can take 18 hours, but its rich fishing grounds can also double the profits of the local fishers.
Once a natural shelter from storms, Chinese vessels now prevent the fishers from tying their boats up to the rocks during the heavy storms that frequently batter the region.
“I’ve already seen two of our boats sink because they couldn’t tie up where they wanted to,” said Efren Forones, another 61-year-old fisherman from the coastal village of Masinloc, also in Zambales province.
Laughing, Forones recounted how members of Chinese militias boarded his bangka and took his catch “to eat it themselves.”