It would have been just like any other morning commute-to-work routine: weaving in and out of traffic and listening to the radio. But, unlike any other morning, the morning of November 29, 2000, changed the course of Semirara’s history. For Ed Rodillon, that morning’s radio broadcast jolted his senses. Semirara Island as a dumpsite for Metro Manila’s garbage? That’s in Antique and close to Pandan, his hometown. Ed made some inquiries, and Semirara was indeed the Metro Manila Development Authority’s (MMDA) targeted dumpsite for Manila’s 2,000 tons of daily garbage after December 31, 2000. That was only a month away!
And so the story of the Pandananons’ (natives of the town of Pandan in the province of Antique) fight against the Semirara dumpsite began. That very same day, Dr. Robert Alojipan, president of Pagtatap Philippines (an organization from Pandan), adamantly stated that under no circumstances would we allow Semirara to become Metro Manila’s dumpsite. Responding to the urgency of the situation, the Pagtatap USA, Pagtatap Philippines, and Pandan Antique Foundation, Inc., with the leadership of Dr. Cesar D. Candari in San Diego, Dr. Lolly Alojipan-Burgos, in New Jersey, both in the U.S., and Dr. Robert Alojipan in Manila, Philippines, mobilized the Pandananon members all over the world into action through the Pagtatap e-groups e-mail network. Dr. Burgos appealed that we rally in protest. Aurora Isidoro Toldoya and Dr. Candari suggested courses of action to take to oppose the plan.
On December 4, Dr. Candari saw an article by Neal Cruz of the Philippine Daily Inquirer stating that Semirara was being considered as MMDA’s dumpsite, with Robert Aventajado (Estrada’s Presidential adviser for Flagship Projects) and Jejomar Binay (chairman of MMDA) at the forefront of the move. Dr. Candari sent an open letter opposing the dumpsite to the newspapers. Dr. Burgos had the letter published in the Headline Philippines at the U.S. Dr. Robert Alojipan also wrote a letter to Aventajado and Binay requesting for a meeting, but it was ignored. Ed Rodillon’s friend at the Manila Times did a write-up on the Semirara dumpsite plan. Sofie Estolloso-Hofmann and Nina Kristie P. Quimsing provided research findings on landfills, pollutants, and incinerators. Dr. Alojipan monitored MMDA’s plans regarding the dumpsite. Inundating the Philippine officials with e-mails set up a vigorous lobby system. We wrote letters to Antique’s government officials and Philippine senators and Jiji Bautista Ezequiel hand-delivered our faxed letters to some of them. We also encouraged newspapers to continue their coverage on Semirara in the face of their more pressing topic – President Estrada’s pending impeachment.
On December 7, we found out that MMDA was going to have a public hearing on the proposed Semirara dumpsite in San Jose, Antique, on December 15. We relayed this information to Semirara, Caluya, Boracay, Pandan, Culasi, and the neighboring towns. It was their first time to hear about the dumpsite proposal and the public hearing. Dr. Burgos called her friends in Pandan and Culasi, begging them to go to San Jose on the 15th for a protest rally. She called her brother, Sonny Alojipan, in Pandan, to get as many signatures for the opposition. Dr. Candari urged the mayor of Pandan to do the same. Lolly Burgos and Daughlet Bautista Ordinario offered to pay for the buses that would take the Pandananons to San Jose. Candari advised us to wire our relatives and friends in Antique to attend the public hearing. Burgos also called her cousin, Nena Dioso Ong, in Capiz, who in turn called Norman Dioso Holer in San Jose. Norman notified Gideon Javier (son of the late governor Evelio Javier) and Jay Pefianco. With Atty. Silvestre (JunJun) Untaran III, they met at Board Member Silvestre Untaran II’s house to plan their strategy for the December 15th hearing. They hired a truck and a sound system, then drove around San Jose to announce the arrival of Aventajado and Binay, urging the people to participate in the rally. Atty. Ben Candari, of Bacolod City, attended the hearing on our behalf. What Aventajado and Binay had perceived to be a smooth and quiet “public consultation” hearing for social acceptance turned out to be a massive protest rally by the AntiqueÃ±os.
The day after the rally in San Jose, Antique, our members in Manila had their Pagtatap Christmas Party with distinguished guests like Antique’s Governor Exequiel Javier, Senator Loren Legarda, Sally Zaldivar-Perez, and Philippine Ambassador to Brunei, Enrique Zaldivar. Dr. Alojipan took the opportunity to give a speech denouncing the Semirara dumpsite plan and asked the guests to help support our opposition. In response, Senator Legarda and Governor Javier spoke with conviction that they would oppose the Semirara dumpsite.
After the December 15th rally and the Pagtatap Christmas party, our supporters grew in number. The United AntiqueÃ±os, headed by Gideon Javier, emerged as our strong ally. The Boracay groups coordinated by Bebing Estoperez Bondoc became our dominant strongholds. Bishop Raul Martirez circulated a pastoral letter to all the parishes of Antique supporting our opposition. For the first time, we no longer felt alone in our crusade to save Semirara. The bonding that was generated at the rally made us feel stronger, better armed, and more determined. We were keenly aware that our fight was far from over; nevertheless, Aventajado and Binay looked less intimidating.
The Pandananons abroad kept track of the Semirara events through its e-mail network. Dr. Candari suggested that we set up an Oppose Semirara Basura (OSB) fund to defray the expenses for Semirara. At the Christmas party of Kasimanwa in the NewYork – New Jersey area, Basilio (Titoy) Ambubuyog passed around a collection basket. In Austria, Leon Alcantara Nocker spearheaded the fundraising and in Germany, Felix and Nory Antonio went to Filipino parties to ask their friends for donations.
Our biggest scare was MMDA’s secret plan to send barges of Manila’s garbage to Semirara on December 29. Atty. Silvestre (JunJun) Untaran enslaved himself to research and file for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO). Mimi Ortega, side by side with Atty.Untaran, raced against time from San Jose, Antique, to Manila, to deliver the TRO to the culprits. Through sheer grit and determination, she was able to halt the hundreds of garbage trucks that were already heading for Pier 18. She flew back and forth from Manila to San Jose to be there for the hearings, for the rallies, and to push the case for our TRO’s and injunction. Above all, she was there to serve the TRO in the nick of time that fatal day of December 29.
In Manila, Dr. Alojipan and Ed Rodillon burned their midnight candles poring over researches sent by Sofie and Nina. They scheduled radio interviews and TV appearances to gain more support for our cause and to refute Aventajado and Binay’s lies that the people of Antique and Semirara had no objections to the dumpsite. In the Western Visayas region, Atty. Ben Candari also had his share of radio interviews in Bacolod City, Negros Occidental, and was later joined by Monsignor Eduardo Gumboc from Pandan for more radio commentaries.
Through Sally Zaldivar-Perez’ invitation, Dr. Alojipan spoke at the special Senate Committee hearing called by Senator Loren Legarda as one of the representatives of the Semirara dumpsite opposition. He showed aerial pictures of Semirara to prove that Aventajado and Binay were lying about the existence of their so-called “sanitary” landfill. He presented pictures of the two barges on the Semirara waters with garbage a foot above their rims without nets for cover. This hearing was considered to be the turning point of the demise of the Semirara proposal. The Philippine senators finally rallied behind the opposition group of Dr. Alojipan and Gideon Javier.
The two garbage-laden barges that Dr. Alojipan referred to at the special Senate Committee hearing left Manila for Semirara on January 2, 2001, the day our first TRO expired. Another TRO stopped their dumping on the island, but the barges stayed around, reeking the air with their rotting cargo. Gideon Javier led the protesters on the island. Joined by Fr. Mark Matillano, the local priest, they tirelessly guarded Semirara’s shores day and night, enduring the foul smell of the garbage and standing firm against threats and intimidation from the dumpsite proponents. The Boracay Foundation, Inc., had a beach rally featuring ‘white faces’ to dramatize the awareness among their fold. Ed Rodillon coordinated with our Boracay contacts the assistance and reception of the TV crews’ arrival and ferry transport to Semirara.
With the barges still in Semirara, a threat loomed that President Estrada was going to issue a special proclamation to use Semirara as a dumpsite to accommodate the worsening garbage crisis in Manila. The dreaded presidential mandate almost became a certainty that we thought we had lost the fight and were doomed. However, we mustered up our strength to yet rise up again and salvage the remnants of our resolve to fight till our last breath. And we prayed. Then, Philippines’ little President Angara came to our side. And finally, Presidential Legislative Liaison to the Senate, Sally Zaldivar-Perez, a native of Pandan, told the Manila press that the President released the order for the barges to return to Manila.
Reflecting upon our crusade to save Semirara, we knew right from the start that embarking upon a mission of this magnitude was an uphill battle. As we relied on each other for spirit and stamina, we came to develop a special level of affection for each other and a greater appreciation for what life is all about. We clung to each other for our constant source of sustenance and perseverance as we tackled the tumultuous urgency and demands of our plight.
Thus, the Semirara saga had its moments of glory, and moments of despair and anger. It was a test of our faith in God and in each other. It’s amazing how a mere handful of our stalwart members in the Philippines (Bob Alojipan, Ed Rodillon, Ben Candari, Mimi Ortega, Jiji Bautista Ezequiel, and Ursula Bautista Kung) – armed by the logistical support of three Pandananon organizations in the U.S. and reinforced by equally dedicated allied groups of AntiqueÃ±os in Antique and Boracay – could wage and win the war. What started out as an open letter opposing the dumpsite from three organizations of Pandan, Antique, based in Manila and in the U.S., mushroomed into a campaign that caught like wild fire. The support from the provinces of Aklan, Capiz, Iloilo, Negros, Cebu, Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, and Palawan, and our incessant lobbying with the Philippine senators had an effective impact.
Coming out as victors, we realize that we have built a treasury of power, talents, goodwill, and respect towards each other over the weeks that we “fought as one” to outmaneuver and topple our formidable enemy. This is one of the proudest moments of our lives, knowing that we have turned the tides to free Semirara and return this peaceful, beautiful island to its people.
From this moment of rare significance, we have become aware in our hearts and minds that we have within us this very potent, albeit latent, impetus to rise and respond to calls to defend the land of our birth whenever we sense it as being threatened. We know now, more than ever, that with this awakening, Antique will never be left alone and defenseless against aggression and invasion of tyranny and plunder. For this, history will remember the sweet victory of our Semirara crusade.
(Last verse of “Antique” song)
“Land of our fathers for ages,
Home of the peaceful and free;
Dear to our hearts are thy stories,
Here shall our home ever be.”
About the writer: Thelma Mantac Ramos was born and raised in Pandan, Antique, Philippines. She taught English at Pandan Bay Institute, the local high school, from 1962-1965. Now retired from teaching at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington, USA, she resides with her husband, Patrick, in Port Orchard, Washington.