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BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 19 March) — Mayors making presscons from City Hall rarely make for interesting news. But not when a young first-time mayor targets local businessmen in his campaign to bring down the high prices of fish in his marine resource-rich city. 

I was intrigued when Surigao city Mayor Pablo Yves Dumlao III,  in a presscon posted by Radio Station DXRS on its Facebook Meta page on March 14, 2023, claimed that middlemen were manipulating the local prices of fish.  

Mayor Paul, as he is referred to, was pointing his finger at the SUCFIBBA or the Surigao City Federation of Fish Buyers-Brokers Association as the group which over the years had established a monopoly over the sale, distribution and pricing of fishes sold in the city. 

SUCFIBBA, said the mayor,  controls fish supplies coming in at the fish landing, a project initiated by the Diwa Partylist but constructed by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) using public funds, and had built illegal structures when they added private walled partitions in the public infrastructure. 

The fisherfolk meanwhile were kept in debt through financial loans or other money support extended by SUCFIBBA, the mayor said, adding that SUCFIBBA members also controlled up to 70 percent of the estimated 100 fish stalls at the market, with a few members owning up to 20 to 30 stalls.  

Mayor Paul even charged that SUCFIBBA managed to cheat the city government of taxes and revenues by under-declaring their gross revenues and the worth from their fish cars. “A single ten-wheeler fish car can carry up to 20 to 30 tons of fish. Even at just 100 pesos for 30 tons of fish, that is already three million earnings in a year! You declared your business gross revenue at just over one million in a year. Waya kamo mangasipog?” thundered the mayor in his presscon.

But what happens when the fish harvest or season – locally called a “dabos” – comes, and fish prices should lower because of the abundance? But the mayor claimed SUCFIBBA brings out the fishes to other places so that they could profit more. “How can the Surigaonons enjoy our resources that we are close to the sea?”

The executive said City Hall has made a study  on how the system works at the fish landing, and its statements from its sources indicated that the fish buyers-brokers group operated mafia-like by cornering the market and keeping out outsiders;  and that a link diagram or a matrix has even identified the leader – which the mayor tagged as “Mr. Lampornas” or “Mister Dominant” – because he reportedly owns up to 15 fishing boats and many market stalls. 

SUCFIBBA reacted by calling an emergency meeting of its members and the next day held its own presscon led by its president Engr. Ambrosio Lambus Jr., aside from presenting fishermen, a fish supplier and a fishing vessel owner to back their position. 

In an 11-point statement that he read, Lambus denied the mayor’s claims, saying that the association does not control the fish landing or own so many market stalls or fishing boats, adding “our system is open trading or open dispatching.”

The high prices of fish in the city, he said, result from the economics of demand and supply; inflation; and the changing weather conditions.  

SUCFIBBA does not set the prices of fish, he said, it is the fishing boat captains or “kapitans,” or by the fish traders or suppliers bringing in fishes from outside when the supplies in the city are low. 

“Our role as fish brokers in the economic activity in the fish landing is not easy,” said Lambus. “It is a big challenge to ensure that the city has enough fish supply,” adding that fish brokers “only facilitate to dispatch fish supplies arriving in the city.”

Lambus denied that they buy cheap from fishermen and sell higher to the  “liners” or “compradors” or the market vendors. “We only get a commission,” he claimed (a 10% commission if the fisherman advances fuel, rice and food while they are at sea and money support for their families back home; and 7 to 8% “kun way  konsumo”). What is not clear, however, is how many hands the fish stocks pass through in the city before reaching the market buyers or consumers. 

But the battle lines are drawn and the mayor seems set on breaking up the monopoly in the fish landing. 

“We are trying to correct that mistake,” said the mayor, a civil engineer who is now heading the family business in road and bridges construction. “What we are saying is that the brokers are illegally occupying the fish landing. We want free economic enterprise with free access to public. The fish trading area should be open to public, not limited to SUCFIBBA members.”

Mayor Paul cited the situation in the nearby town of Placer which he said practices free enterprise. “They have their own cold storage plant, their own ice plant and the public gets to enjoy those infrastructure.”

As a longtime radio commentator in the city puts the situation in the city: ”An fish landing (in Surigao) taghimo na cuarto-cuarto na dormitoryo; an cold storage nahimo na warehouse na pang-storage.”

Then the mayor in his presscon made a bold move,  presenting a scenario which no local executive had ever made: he urged the fishermen to bring their supplies straight to the market, bypassing the fish brokers; and also told the fishermen to neglect the payment of their “loans” to the brokers, saying that SUCFIBBA has no legal permit or authority to engage in “financing.”

“I am calling on our Suriganoon fishermen”, said mayor Paul. “Pwede kamo mo-landing didto sa pantalan uno, direkta kamo baligya sa tiangge. (You can land at Pier 1 and proceed to the market to sell). Who will arrest you, si Mr. Lampornas? Sanan jaon ijo mga utang kan Mr. Lampornas, kalimti na nijo jaon, waya may jaoy sija lisensiya para magpautang sa ijo” (Whoever owes debts to Mr. Lamporanas, forget them. He has no license as money lender)

At the start of SUCFIBBA’s presscon, as Jun Lambus was speaking, a sudden heavy downpour drowned out his pleadings for the city government to present them the city’s “black and white” formal plans for the fish landing. 

Already, the city engineering group had deployed city trucks and other equipment at the fish landing and market sites supposedly to prevent the association’s vehicles and fish cars from using the road as their personal parking area or “garage.”   

Would the city wait awhile for other solutions to the impasse? And will Mayor Paul find the political will and the public support that he needs to “liberalize the system” in the fish landing area?  

In more direct political terms, a radio commentator asked on air, “Is the mayor not afraid of losing votes?” This is a concrete test for a neophyte politician in Surigao city who won under the Nacionalista Party and broke the stranglehold of the Matugas clan in city politics and is now gaining a reputation as a reformer. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps)

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