The ‘Forgotten’ History Of Environmental Activism In San Juan, Batangas

A small yellow Jackfish hides inside the deadly tentacles of this jellyfish to seek protection from being eaten by larger predators, as seen in Barako 77. Photo by Penn De Los Santos

In a bid to preserve its heritage, culture, and environmental history, Barako Publishing revisits the story of a peaceful eco-activist movement in San Juan, Batangas.

Felipe Horacio “Zig” Marasigan III has many cherished memories in the small town of San Juan, Batangas. Bringing their merienda to the beach, swimming with the jellyfish, and lining up to wash themselves off at an old-fashioned water pump.

At the time of his youth, San Juan lacked the developments it enjoys today, but what it lacked back then didn’t take away from the true treasure of San Juan—its abundant biodiversity. An abundance that was apparently threatened in 1977 when the Philippine Associated Smelting and Refining (PASAR) Corporation proposed to build a copper smelting plant in their small town. This, according to the book Barako 77 by Barako Publishing.

Guaiabero (Bolbopsittacus lunulatus) is a small species of parrot endemic to the Philippines, as seen in Barako 77. Photo by Neon Rosell II

“Barako,” a word that means “strong” or tough” in Filipino, is a fitting name for the townspeople who opposed PASAR’s proposal. In the book, San Juan was described as “sparsely populated, rural, simple, and challenging,” during the 1970s. Electricity, plumbing, and modern conveniences were a luxury to most of its residents, especially in the barrio.

The copper smelting project promised the people great economic development, a prospect that first excited the town. However, if it had been built, San Juan’s environment, health, and livelihood would have suffered from the plant’s pollution.

Catfish from the housereef of La Luz Beach Resort, as seen in Barako 77. Photo by Marivic Verdadero Maramot

Zig’s grandfather and namesake, Horacio Marasigan Sr., knew that something had to be done. Founding the Concerned Citizens of San Juan (CCSJ) with like-minded people, Horacio spearheaded the information campaign in an effort to create a movement against PASAR’s project.

“It was a communication success story because he was able to use the power of the press during that time to explain what San Juan was going through,” says Ciara Marasigan Serumgard, co-founder of Barako Publishing. The campaign turned the tide for San Juan, with nine out of 10 residents voting against the project. The town, according to Zig, had chosen to turn down the “promise of short-term economic gain for something longer-lasting.”

Mantis shrimp from the housereef of La Luz Beach Resort, as seen in Barako 77. Photo by Marivic Verdadero Maramot

For something that has impacted San Juan greatly, it is a piece of history that has been forgotten by most. “When they hear the word ‘San Juan,’ they would also think, ‘Oh yeah, the place with many beach resorts,” shares Farrah Rodriguez Marasigan, co-founder of Barako Publishing. “You won’t believe it—even the LGU of San Juan has forgotten about this!” 

Yes, indeed, the battle against the copper smelting plant has already been won. But for Ciara and Farrah, forgetting is dangerous, and remembering is a form of action. And so, remembering it, they did, and they did it in different ways. Aside from chronicling the historical event in Barako 77, Ciara and Farrah also lobbied for an ordinance declaring October 22nd as a celebration of “Pagkakaisa Para Sa Kalikasan.”

“Ciara and I felt that the ordinance should be there so that the townspeople, even if they’re not able to read the book, would know that it’s an important part of their history,” Farrah says. They also formed the Barako Alliance, a community of mission-aligned individuals and organizations that support environmental, cultural, and heritage advocacies.

A squid on a night dive at the housereef of La Luz Beach Resort, as seen in Barako 77.Photo by Marivic Verdadero Maramot

The story also took form in jewelry, with Barako Publishing’s collaboration with Atelier 818. At the book launch, they unveiled a reworked jewelry collection inspired by the seas of San Juan. The collection was fashioned from the heirloom pearls, gemstones, vintage medallions, and gold coins of Ciara’s late mother-in-law, Rosita “Itas” Escudero Serumgard. “The story [of the collection] is reflective of San Juan, the seas, and the land then and now,” says Niña Cuenca, head designer of Atelier 818. “It translates to the story of surviving the times, to be the shining gem that it is now.”

For Ciara and Farrah, it may not be the perfect starting point, but it is a beginning. Ciara’s father, Horacio “Zaldy” Marasigan Jr., is optimistic about the future. “We hope that the children and people of San Juan will learn from this experience. There are things we have to fight for, and learning to fight for them will make sure that our children’s future will be alright,” he shares with Vogue Philippines. Through education and information, Zaldy hopes that future generations will learn from San Juan’s history “to continue loving it [San Juan]” as they did.

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