Monday, July 10, 2017

SaltPhil Remembered

These are visible remains of the Salt Industry of the Philippines or SaltPhil.- the nearly immortal logs gallantly standing there defying the stormy sea through the ages. Greek thinker Pythagoras (born at around 570 BC) said, “Salt is born of the purest of parents: the sun and the sea.”

I was nurtured by a salt maker just like all the children whose parents were pillars of early industrial salt-making in this part of Occidental Mindoro.  We are gypsum, a salt by-product, figuratively speaking.

Pillars for salt-making

SaltPhil was the biggest manufacturer of industrial salt in Southeast Asia and established on April 27, 1955 and was under the Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas or Tabacalera. The company then rented an 800-hectare (some accounts says it is 1,200 has.) of coastal land from the Philippine Milling Company when Sugar Central closed down in the early 50s due to poor management. The vast land covered parts of Bubog and San Agustin, two seaside barrios of San Jose-Pandurucan. The method of salt production used by SaltPhil is the evaporation of salt brine by steam heat in large commercial evaporators called vacuum pans. This method, according to my current readings, yields a very high purity salt, fine in texture, and principally used in those applications requiring the highest quality grains.

But in the early-80s, the factory stopped its operation and many of its labourers, my father included, were laid off from work. I was told by my mother that the factory went bankrupt. The whole property was later purchased by Filipinas Aquaculture or AquaFil and turned it into big prawn hatchery. Only the main factory and parcels of land nearby were utilized by the new company while the other facilities or features elsewhere are now already abandoned including the well-founded poles shown in the picture above. The poles I used to stare from our window during an inclement weather while the angry Buslugan River is roaring from afar. We transferred from our former house near the seashore when it was nearly devastated by a storm surge way back in 1970.

What is the purpose of those poles, actually? Their main use is to hold cables where a machine-operated bucket is attached. The bucket, about two meters in width, is operated by a machinist at the elevated engine room in a place they call “Water Intake”. Its primary duty is to make sure that the opening of the saltwater to the pool is sustained. The Water Intake’s bucket pushes the volume of sands seaward thus keeping the mouth of the pool open. A bulldozer below the Water Intake operated by Antonio “Lagang” Aguilar complements the function of the bucket. The heavy volume of seawater is continuously pumped to dozens of giant salt ponds to the factory itself in Sitio Curanta, southern part of Barrio San Agustin.

The post- SaltPhil violence

By the time the new government of Corazon C. Aquino was installed by the EDSA People Power, the vast land owned by the AquaFil, the precursor of SaltPhil, was placed under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program or CARP by the new administration and the AquaFil years before it ended its operation.  The property was occupied later by the farmers from all over the place who joined the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) rallying for genuine agrarian reform. Group of former SaltPhil and AquaFil labourers also petitioned for land occupation but its individual members later joined the KMP. During the initial years of the Aquino presidency both insurgency-related and politically-motivated acts of violence in our province have increased. High profile cases of human rights violations have escalated especially in San Jose and Sablayan where militant farmer leaders were executed. CARP has polarized social groups in Occidental Mindoro costing many lives and limbs. Significant cases happened during massive military deployment at the AquaFil Estate where many of the farmer members of the KMP were detained and arrested. Law enforcers and security officers of the property were not spared and even targeted by Communist hit squads. Some of the farmer-leaders even joined the New Peoples’ Army (NPA) after being hunted by the police and Philippine Constabulary (PC) soldiers while the others struggled through peaceful means and critically engaged with the program implemented by the Department of Agrarian Reform or DAR. This was an offshoot of the infightings among the national democratic forces then.

Fishponds and saltbeds like those of SaltPhil and Aquafil are by law exempted from land reform but that time they are idle and should be covered by CARP. Without the vigilance and collaborative spirit of the people around AquaFil, the fishpond estate would have to be out of the program’s coverage.  Today, majority of the landholdings were agriculturally productive after being legally acquired by the petitioners. The days of violence, like the SaltPhil and the AquaFil, are now gone.

Glory days

It is very fascinating to watch the tug boats towing around 6 barges coming from Sitio Curanta crossing the calm South China Sea. Tons of salts are being transported from the company’s private seaport to other part of the country. In 1958, SaltPhil had produced and exported to Manila 19,000 metric tons of refined salt.

It is near the main factory where the tenement houses of the top executives and employees of the factory and their families reside. The office of the labour union and the cooperative store shared the same building. The store at one time was managed by Mr. Perfecto Paguia supplying basic commodities needed by the employees and labourers both on cash and credit basis. Spirits and cigarettes are also available.

The tributary canals going to the salt ponds and beds are abundant of shrimps, crabs, prawns and all other edible crustaceans aside from milkfish, tilapia, paetan and the rest of the fishes effortlessly caught in saline marshes within the property. Finding such a free or affordable viand is easy way back then. The present day “food of the rich” can definitely be devoured upon by the working class those days.

The Divine Word College of San Jose, San Jose Pilot Elementary School and the Saint Joseph School catered the educational needs of the children of the officials of the firm. The resident employees lived inside the compound of the company together with their families.

A family Christmas Party is annually sponsored by the management. Dressed as Santa Claus, the resident manager distributes gifts, mostly toys, for their employees’ children. There were parlour games for the kids and songs and dances for their parents. The ladies are wearing their floral designed Momo dress and the gentlemen in their Macomber and Bestman pants. It was the only time of the year when we, the children of the labourers, could taste chocolates, apples and ice cream.

In the 60s, there was still no electricity in Barrio Bubog and Barrio San Agustin and only the facilities of the SaltPhil have electricity such as Check Point Number 1 (which is actually a guard house), the entry point to the factory. It was located just a few steps away from our new place in the barrio proper.

Since the Check Point is the only electrically-lighted area in the barrio, children of my age used to play near it at night especially during weekends. Once a month, the SaltPhil management offered a free movie for the residents from a portable projector and makeshift screen nailed into the electric post. I remember that the last movie I saw there was Anthony Mann’s 1964 film “The Fall of the Roman Empire”. After less than a decade, the SaltPhil, due to the prevailing political and economic changes that time, fell like the Roman Empire. Like the so-called “Last of the Romans”, the SaltPhil employees and labourers scattered like grains of salt in the crockpot of changing social realities of the era. Some of them even worked abroad.

Salts of the earth

My old man worked as a pump tender alternating with a fellow named Johnny Orozco in Pump House Number 1. The Pump House cloisters the six-cylinder Buda Engine made by the Buda Engine Company. It was founded in 1881 by George Chalender in Buda, Illinois, to make equipment for railways. The main bulk of my father’s job is to make sure that the engine is properly maintained adjusting the volume of the seawater to be conveyed to the ponds. Since his work does not require much mobility especially during graveyard shift, he has a lot of time to read pocketbooks. He is fond of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series. When the officials of the company moved out, my father brought home volumes of Reader’s Digest’s compilation of short stories and other pocket books handed to him as mementos from one of his bosses, the company accountant Mr. Pedro Nillo, a voracious reader like my old man.

My father’s eldest brother, Pantaleon S. Novio, Jr., was one of the company’s trusted mechanics. From their ancestral home in 132 Capt. Cooper St. in the town proper, my father Manuel and my Papa Addie brought their families in Barrio Bubog where my uncle served as barangay captain for more than 20 years. My father was one of the officers of the company’s labour union. Aside from the poles, the long cemented water canal from the former site of Pump House Number 1 stayed even to this day. Just like the lessons left behind to their children by the two Novio siblings of SaltPhil.

The overall boss was Engr. Alfredo Yleaña, the company’s resident manager, former mechanical engineer of the Central Azucarera de Bais in Dumaguete but was born in Jaro, Iloilo.  Yleaña first arrived at SaltPhil in 1958 and initially became its plant supervisor where his superiors are all pure Spaniards. He later promoted as SalPhil’s resident manager and took the helm from the foreigners. Engr. Yleaña was a heavily-built man, around 6’ 2” feet in height and wearing thick eyeglasses. With his Ilonggo accent in a baritone voice, the resident manager expresses authoritative but kind instructions and orders. He was a generous and caring and always accommodating to those in need. He was an active official of the Knights of Columbus in San Jose. Engr. Alfredo Yleaña at 59 died on January 17, 1980 leaving his wife Mafalda and their children behind. One of his children, Grizelda, is a long-time friend of my aunt, Helen.

I was in high school when chess great Bobby Fischer is at the height of his popularity and fame. I and my classmates, Danilo Solomon, Winifredo Oracion, Roberto Paulmanal and the late Joel Boongaling were into chess. I never did win a game against any of them. Knowing about my inept skill in the board game, my father told me once that he’s going to introduce me to the expert wood pusher of SaltPhil, Engr. Leto E. Nicanor. But that meeting did not happen for reasons I do not know. My friends continued to butcher me over a chess game until I gave up playing.

Leto E. Nicanor is an electrical engineer and an alumnus of Mapua Institute of Technology. He, as a young bachelor, first set foot on the shores of SaltPhil on February 1965 and served as its shift engineer. He first stayed in the compound but later rented a boarding house in the town proper which is more or less ten kilometres away from the factory. Engr. Nicanor tied knots with Milagros Espinas, a teacher at Pilot Elementary School, in November 1965. After 14 years in SaltPhil, Engr. Nicanor resigned and worked as power plant superintendent of Occidental Mindoro Electric Cooperative (OMECO) for a time. I don’t have a chance to introduce myself to him each time I watch him play chess in a barber shop of downtown San Jose or under the Talisay tree near the San Jose Water District Office. I have already lost my enthusiasm in playing chess, anyway.

Prospects of salt-making in Occidental Mindoro Today

Our province is bounded by saltwater making it one of the biggest salt-producing provinces in the country even today that the SaltPhil is long gone. At the height of the province’s production in 1990, Occidental Mindoro boasted of producing and supplying about 60,000MT of the 338,000MT or 18% of the country’s annual salt requirement. Today, while our province still provides salt in neighbouring provinces in Southern Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, only 12% national salt requirement or almost 75, 000 MT of 590,000 MT comes from Occidental Mindoro.

But today, Occidental Mindoro salt industry is already dwindling due to climatic factors and insufficient technology. The provincial government and the industry stakeholders should exert extra effort to keep it more vibrant and competitive by providing additional salt production technologies various programs that the local government failed to seriously look into. The industry needs to be revitalized though researches and innovations to re-boost the industry. Without it, the province’s salt industry will in the end drop its taste.  

A chemical practice

It is said that salt production is one of the oldest chemical practices performed by man and equally true, memoirs are brought about by chemical reaction processed by his aging brain.

(Photo: Pipay Novio)
 “Stories of 100 Families”, Rodolfo Meim Acebes

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