Saturday, May 3, 2008

Land From The Sea

A first time visitor to Lianga, who strolls through the town and pauses to check out the public market, the restaurants, retail stores and the bus terminal just in front of the Catholic church and the municipal park, will hardly notice that much of the land he is standing on used to be part of the coastal sea and where the relentless, pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean once met the shallow waters and sandy beaches of the town.

Only in the northern and southern ends of the town can the visitor seen for himself the traces of the town's original shoreline. Much of the town center from the business district to the public market and beyond have been reclaimed from the sea over the decades since the later part of the last century.

When I was a small kid, motorized boats and canoes with outriggers would be tied up and anchored in the back of the family house which was constructed just on the town shoreline within a stone throw from the church. During the stormy season from December until February of every year, much of the rear of the house particularly the kitchen would be exposed to the fury of the waves and the salty lash of stinging surf.

When the town started reclaiming land from the sea in the late 1960's, some residents including my father who had a lot of foresight, followed suit and started expanding their home lots by taking land from the sea. The procedure was labor intensive, costly and time consuming.

First, one built a sea wall or dike to mark the boundaries of the area to reclaim. Then you hire laborers to fill the empty space in between with rocks and small boulders taken from the tidal marshland which had plenty of them. Above this rock layer you eventually had to pour tons of dirt taken from dirt and gravel quarries until you get your needed elevation from the sea.

My father eventually more than doubled the original land area of his lot but it was a long, gradual and tedious process. The labor was manual and much of the shoreline beyond his house was tidal marshland, littered with rusting metal plates and debris dating back to the Second World War when American warships and planes blasted and sank Japanese ships and transports during the American reconquest of the Philippines in 1944. There was even a still fully formed hulk of a small Japanese ship that used to sit in the shallow waters beyond the backyard of our house that had to be dismantled using acetylene torches before the reclamation project could proceed.

The municipal government used the same process but on a grander scale and with the use of large earthmoving equipment. The initial phase completed in the late 1960's created the land that was later used for the public market, the old municipal gymnasium, commercial buildings and the bus terminal. The next phase completed only recently reclaimed more land from beyond the market, an expanse of land largely unoccupied today except for a couple of seafood and fastfood restaurants and the makeshift building housing the municipal fire station.

Some of the local folk have expressed criticism of the reclamation projects particularly the more recent phase which according to them have greatly damaged the old tidal flats and marshlands that used to stretch the whole length of the town along its shoreline. Those marshlands, according to them, which would be fully exposed only during periods of low tide form part of an extended marine ecosystem that used to be teeming with both animal and plant marine life.

The extensive quarrying of the rocks and boulders that used to abound in plenty throughout the tidal flatlands have, in their view, have destroyed a large part of what used to be a sanctuary for small fishes, shellfish, marine invertebrates, sea grasses and other forms of exotic sea life. And the tragedy of it all, as they see it, is that the land gained by the town from the reclamation projects have not really be utilized to their full advantage and nor they form a part of a comprehensive development plan for Lianga.

Personally, I do have more than a bit of sympathy for their arguments. An environmentally destructive or damaging project such as land reclamation from the sea must be justified in terms of the absolute need for new land or form a part of a viable, achievable and ongoing land development program. This is even more important for a town like Lianga which depends so much upon the sea for its economic livelihood.

In my father's case, the land he has reclaimed from the sea is now a far cry from the mess of rocks and dirt it once used to be. It is now a lush garden covered in green grass and planted with ornamental plants, vegetables and fruit trees. The papaya trees bear especially luscious fruits much sought after by many who have seen and tasted them. And the rear of the family house is now safe from the stormy moods and occasional fickle anger of the sea.

If that is not putting land from the sea to good use than I don't know what is.

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