The greatness of spirit, selfless service, and Integrity – these are the values reflected by the people awarded with the Ramon Magsaysay Award. This was established in year 1957 where the award aims to preserve the former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay’s idealism and integrity in government service in a democratic society.
It is considered Asia’s premier prize and the highest honor is given regardless of race, gender, nationality, or creed, who have achieved distinction in generously helping others without seeking public recognition. Aside from a certificate and medallion, the awardee is also given a hefty amount of 50,000 US dollars.
In 2021, a Filipino fisherman, Roberto Magbanua Ballon, locally known as “Ka Dodoy”, was one of the recipients of the prestigious award. He was awarded for his efforts and leadership in the rehabilitation of the then-denuded mangrove forests along Sibugay Bay, Zamboanga, reviving the sea, and putting forward and addressing the needs of the fisherfolk through education and skills training.
Growing up in a fishing community, and being the eldest sibling amongst nine brothers and sisters, Ka Dodoy together with his father would take fishing trips just to feed the family and earn a living to finance their day-to-day needs. In their trip, they would catch two to three kilos of fish in about five to eight hours being at sea. They would not even need to venture far too off as the sea offered them such an abundance of fish.
In his youth, Ka Dodoy once dreamt of becoming a mechanical engineer as he took inspiration in the skills of his father as a mechanic. Yet, due to financial constraints, he was not able to pursue this dream.
After a few years, Ka Dodoy and his family relocated and settled in Kabasalan, a town in Zamboanga Sibugay to search for better opportunities. What they saw there were large areas of once lush mangrove forests being cleared to make way for aquaculture farms because, at the time, there was a rage in raising shrimp for export. The number of cut mangrove trees was massive and hauled by boatloads to be used as firewood. From 3,000 hectares, only a third was left in the wake of the short-lived aquaculture farming craze.
With the disappearance of the mangrove forests, Ka Dodoy and the other fishermen saw the impact on the number of fish they catch. Less and less were caught. This made some of the fisherfolk resort to the use of cyanide poisoning and dynamite fishing just to put food on their table. As a result, these methods further destroyed the sea and eventually pushed fishers to leave.
Fishing out of Poverty
Later on, Ka Dodoy started educating himself through reading books about aquaculture and attending seminars. From what he learned, mangroves could help him and his community has a consistent supply of oysters. So, he started oyster farming. This was exceptionally hard for him because people would laughingly tell him that oysters will not grow there. Yet, he persisted.
Along the way, Ka Dodoy took it upon himself to take care of the remaining mangroves because he believed that by saving the mangrove forest, he can also save the livelihood of their community. From there, more fisherfolk helped in his cause. Even the people who once practiced illegal activities such as those who cut mangrove trees and engage in “akyat-fish pond” or those who steal fish in fish ponds also started helping. He believes that the reason behind this is through the revival of the community’s waters, it is now allowing these people to have the means and resources to live without having to do something illegal just to put something on their plate.
Protector of Sibugay Mangroves
Ka Dodoy is not just an ordinary fisherman, he was once a secretary of Kapunungan sa Gagmay’ng Mangingisda sa Concepcion
Through his leadership, they were able to help improve the fish catch among fishers and eventually restore 500 hectares of once-abandoned fish ponds into flourishing mangrove forests.
In September 2021, Ka Dodoy was recognized as an Ocean Hero and was given the Ocean Hero Award which is given to dauntless protectors of the Tañon Strait Protected Seascape who have consistently worked for ocean conservation and pushed for sustainable fisheries policies.
A few months after, because of Ka Dodoy’s transformative actions for the communities along Sibuguey Bay, he became a recipient of the esteemed Ramon Magsaysay Award where the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) cited Ballon for “his inspiring determination in leading his fellow fisherfolk to revive a dying fishing industry by creating a sustainable marine environment for this generation and generations to come, and his shining example of how everyday acts of heroism can truly be extraordinary and transformative.”
With the awards and recognition, he received, ka Dodoy wishes that the voices and pleas of him and his fellow fisherfolk will be heard by the Philippine government in conserving the ocean.
Now, in a recent video released by the Vice President of the Philippines, Leni Robredo, Ka Dodoy shared that through the collective efforts of the people and help from the government, those who once flocked out of Sibugay decades ago are now coming back. Families are more comfortable than ever and are not experiencing the rough winds and waves from typhoons because of the protection from the mangrove forest. The community event plans to start an eco-tourism industry to add value to the economy of the community, while advocating for the ocean conversation education as they continue to protect and improve the sea for future generations to come.