In the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS), “Ports to Nowhere” are ports that have no ships or have no meaningful traffic. In the whole country, there might be 200 or so such ports if useless municipal ports are included. Mar Roxas, by his department’s reckoning counted over a hundred. He counted ports whose meager revenues was not even enough to cover the operational costs. This was what the author of this article meant when he first used the term “ports to nowhere” many years ago even before the creation of PSSS. He equated “ports to nowhere” to ports whose incomes cannot cover the salaries of the personnel, the transportation and communication costs, security costs, electricity and let alone the maintenance of the ports. Usually, these are the ports that have no regular calls. Fishing bancas are not counted as usually they are not charged any docking fees and are just accommodated as a matter of courtesy.
In the past our towns had municipal ports and it was mainly fishing bancas which used them. In the coastal towns that have no roads then, these ports also hosted passenger-cargo motor boats. Whatever, many municipal ports then were no more than fish landing areas and were not suitable for steel-hulled ships. Most are of pile-type and many have piles made of timber and even the wharf floor is made of wood. Slowly as the ports were modernized concrete piles and wharf were used. Concrete was more durable as they did not rot unlike timber and wood.
Gradually, over time, some ports were extended and usually those ports that have connections to major cities were given priority. Some of these were considered district ports and these were usually deeper and some were sheltered. During the end of the 1960’s, regional ports were declared and they were improved and expanded so they can handle foreign and bigger ships.
Ironically, after the build-up of ports, the downward slide of our shipping started. This started with the fall of abaca fiber to nylon fiber. Suddenly one of our major export crops fell and once upon a time this was the most major crop being traded from the 1880s up to the 1950’s. This was followed by the downturn in the ‘70s of the export of metallic ores due to the emergence of the plastic industry. In the same decade the trade and exploitation of our forests declined because the precipitous fall of our forest cover already showed its effects. Then in the early 1980’s, the trade and export of copra and coconut oil began to decline. Substitute edible oils appeared in the world market and coconut oil mills sprouted in the regions and ironically it was the government which pushed for this. So, one after another, the major crops being shipped declined.
The final nail came in the 1980’s with the policy that any shortfall in cereals (as in rice and corn) will simply be imported and in sufficient quantities so that the price can be depressed or brought down. This policy was even extended to the manufacture of animal feeds and so manufacturers can just import corn, soybeans and green peas. Suddenly, crops being traded between the regions were supplanted by imports being brought by foreign ships direct to regional and private ports ports and bypassing Manila entirely.
When the instant snack sector boomed in the 1980s local shipping did not benefit. This is so because the ingredients for the instant snack were coming direct from abroad to the regional ports. The snacks ingredients were actually imported animal feeds like yellow corn, powdered potato and greens peas. They can import those for “chicheria” use here since the animal food grade of the US for these commodities is even higher than our local grade, ironically. All of these factors depressed shipping and this sector never fully recovered after the ravages of the great financial crisis of the 1980’s.
With the decline of our commodities, the so-many foreign shipping companies that have ships calling in our country slowly pulled out from the 1980’s. The log ships and ore ships also stopped calling in the same decade. What replaced that in effect was our export of workers and domestic helpers but they ride the planes and not the cargo ships.
The final nail in the coffin for shipping was the emerging dominance of the intermodal transport system especially with the arrival of the surplus and wing van trucks in the 1990’s. This was coupled with incentives which made it easy for bus operators to acquire new units. This was amplified by the great drive of industrialist Pepito Alvarez who pushed new buses with financing to the operators. Meanwhile, incentives were also laid out for shipping and many used this to acquire short-distance ROROs. And so suddenly there were enough ROROs to connect the near islands. By this time vehicles were already rolling as the major roads were already concreted including in Mindanao.
When our national fleet was getting smaller both in ferries and in cargo ships the government through the Philippine Ports Authority held on to the completely wrong mantra that “if ports are built then ships will come”. They and their booster Aquilino Pimentel compared this to roads that when built even ahead of time will slowly have traffic. This is so because people will migrate along the route, people will try to take advantage of the land and forest and also, many roads are actually shortcuts.
It is a completely different thing in ports and shipping because the correct mantra is “ships come when there is something to load”. In the eastern seaboard of Mindanao, Samar and Luzon there were a lot of ports before and many were privately-built. Those ports existed because they were trying to exploit the forests and the mines then. When the forest was gone and when metallic ore trade fell those many ports suddenly became disused and became “ports to nowhere” and slowly they dilapidated. Ports dilapidate faster than roads because of the weathering action of the winds and waves and of the sun. Add to that our many typhoons that damage ports especially since we don’t construct breakwaters.
An example of wrong advanced preparations was the 12 fish ports that Luis Villafuerte was able to wangle for Bicol from Ferdinand Marcos in 1983-84. Those were supposed to be dual-use ports as in other ships can also use them. When the ROROs came 25 years later the ports were already damaged and dilapidated. If only bureaucrats and politicians open their closed eyes they should easily see that empirically and historically their mantra is completely wrong.
One of the reasons for the rise of “ports to nowhere” is building or improving of ports is used as political patronage to show a local politician “was able to wangle a project”. Of course, in the corrupt Philippines almost all public works have percentages for the pockets of powers-to-be which are euphemistically called as “S.O.P” and that is a very great incentive. National powers meanwhile give that in exchange for political support. The worst excesses of this syndrome were in the previous administration which needed all the support it can buy to stave off impeachment. And the gall of it all was the contract with a French company using soft loan to acquire pre-fabricated ports to be built especially in our eastern seaboard which no longer has shipping! This is a very classic example of a “ports to nowhere” mentality. That lady responsible for that was also wont to transfer national ports to LGUs in exchange for political support and votes. As rightly observed by the next administration those ports deteriorated fast because there was no maintenance and were just being used as milking cows.
The good development is the current dispensation reversed the policy of “ports to nowhere” creation and even took back some ports “donated” to LGUs and it also canceled the contract with the French company even under threat of a court case. The current administration is actually judicious with building new ports reasoning we have more than enough. And that is true because the truth is there are even more private port and this mushroomed after the incentive given by Marcos in the early ‘80s. These port can also handle ship commercially, a policy upheld by the Supreme Court when it was challenged by the PPA.
There is also another set of factors that speed up the creation of “ports to nowhere”. When the ships grew in size, both the ferries and the cargo ships, suddenly many old district ports can no longer accommodate the bigger ships for lack of depth. Also when containerization came the old wooden wharves were no longer able to handle the higher weight. Express ferries and container ships also came and so many intermediate ports were left behind. And finally, highways sprouted throughout the country. Towns that were reachable only by ships before now have roads. Because of that many routes both for passenger and cargo ships disappeared. That is part of the reason why so many shipping companies of the past are gone now.
To summarize, it was the retreat of shipping which first created the “ports to nowhere”. Subsequently this was exacerbated by a wrong and corrupt push from Malacanang for selfish motives full not only of political motives but also to build private fleets. With no more largesse to touch these recent times, these fleets fast growths suddenly slowed in the current dispensation when before they were buying ships as if there is no tomorrow.
Ports to nowhere are just a big waste of taxpayer’s money. It is just like throwing billions of money to the wind. And the madness has not even completely stopped. They still completed ports like the Pulupandan port which cost P700 million and it has almost no traffic since 30 years ago. 24 kilometers north of that, they want to build a port in Bacolod for the same price because of just some politician’s pique at the successful private port operator BREDCO. To get one congressman to support that, another congressman offered that congressman to build a port in her district some two dozen kilometers to the north of Bacolod. When further down the road in Sagay, another port was just recently completed.
In Bislig, the port of PICOP was still operational and yet the government still built a new port. And soon after, another port was built which they promptly closed down because there was no traffic. In Samal, they also completed a port which is not even worth as a palay or corn drying area now. We must really be a country of mad people. And I marvel at the gall of politicians and bureaucrats and at the stupidity of “goalkeeper” NEDA. Recently, I read that improvement in the port in Tandoc, Camarines Sur was finished. Amazingly, there is no actual road to the place and access to that is via a motor banca. It seems the “goalkeeper” was just looking at some imaginary roads in the map and doesn’t even know how to pay for a satellite images to check if there really is a road. It can only be one of two things for NEDA – outright dumbness or corruption too. With such a distant and remote place with few inhabitants, who would dare ships through there when the port of Pasacao is nearer to the main commercial and population center?
Wastage and corruption are big banes to our country. In shipping that primarily manifests in the “ports to nowhere”.