When the tides ebb, small clams called gakka are left on the sand. Gakka can be found only in a few coastal towns of Cagayan. To gather gakka, fishers wade into the waist-deep seawater and scoop the gakka out of the sand, using a basket with bamboo handle called tako (scoop).
To cook the gakka, boiling water is poured over it to open the shells. After about five minutes, the water is drained and the gakka is sprinkled with salt.
Pouring boiling water over the gakka is called kinigtot (surprised), and it is meant to loosen the shells. Joe Collado of Houston, Texas, further explains, “Sprinkling salt, which is to add taste to the gakka, is really optional. Also, to preserve the gakka, boiling water is not even poured. Salt is merely spread all over the gakka, which can last for about a week.”
Eating the gakka is an art by itself. The ideal way of eating the gakka is called kutim, that is, to open the shells with the teeth instead of the hands. Nereisa Academia Carrera of Los Angeles, California, is a kutim expert. “I can do it effortlessly!” she exclaimed. “Of course, it took a lot of practice when I was a child. The secret is quickly getting to the middle of the gakka with the teeth.”
Eating the gakka is a kind of sport, too. When I was a child, my friends and I would watch men pop a few pieces of gakka into their mouths, separate the meat with their teeth, then quickly spIt out the shells, like spitballs.
Are we the only ones in the few coastal towns Cagayan that have the gakka? To determine the answer, I sent photos to Jochen Gerber, Ph.D., of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. He is the collections manager in the Division of Invertebrates. He wrote: “The gakka clams belong to the genus Donax in the family Donacidae. They are Donax ticaonicus Hanley, 1845 (Hanley was the author of the species in the year 1845). The family and genus have a worldwide distribution in temperate and tropical seas. According to Huber (2010), Donax ticaonicus is distributed from the Philippines to Taiwan... I hope this helps. Bon appetit!” He added his reference:
Huber, M. (2010). Compendium of bivalves: A full guide to 3,300 of the world’s marine bivalves. A status on Bivalvia after 240 years of research. Hackenheim: Conch Books. 901 pp.
The gakka might be physically tiny, but it has recently become a symbol of a political and an environmental firestorm that has rocked the northern coastal towns of Cagayan, including Ballesteros, for several years. The beach in Ballesteros has black sand, which is rich in magnetite, the most magnetic of all naturally occurring minerals. Magnetite is in demand because it is used in the construction industry as an additive to steel.
From 2009 to 2014, the provincial government of Cagayan issued small-scale mining and quarry permits to Chinese mining companies. Also, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau gave them industrial sand and gravel permits
I have interviewed several Ballesteros residents for this article. They consistently pointed to a prominent citizen trained in forestry who blatantly spearheaded and profited from black-sand mining in the town. Because of the eventual pressure of condemnation, he has now kept a low profile. He continues to hire laborers to shovel, excavate and load black sand on the quiet though.
Clarence Viloria of Quezon City, who frequently visits Ballesteros, told me that he dies every time he sees the devastating effects of inland-extraction activities, especially the obliteration of the coastline. Certainly not a work of nature, the elevation of the Ballesteros beach has abruptly dropped to about 50 or 60 inches. “The sand on the beach,” he describes, “is no longer firm because the binder is gone. If you try to drive a motorcycle on the beach, it will immediately sink. In addition, the seawater has the tendency to go inland, which can cause flooding.” He has heard from reliable sources that in other towns, flooding has ruined farms close to their shores. Even the drinking water drawn from wells has become salty. How about the venerable gakka? “The fisheries are being exhausted. I would not be surprised if the gakka and other sea creatures would eventually become extinct.”
Arthur Urata Sr. is a Ballesteros native and a resident of Tuguegarao City, the capital of Cagayan. A man of many talents, he is the current president of GUMIL, Filipinas (Gunglo dagiti Mannurat nga Ilokano iti Filipinas) or the Ilokano Writers Association of the Philippines. The black-sand mining in Cagayan has been on his mind. He has been vocal about it in his writings and radio appearances. “Greed and corruption have allowed these despicable mining activities,” he commented. “ There are many people in the government and the private sector who have enriched themselves of blood money because of black-sand mining. I can’t emphasize enough the massive destruction that is being made to the environment and the economy of the affected towns. The people have no doubt that they’re being targeted and abused by opportunists, if not plunderers!”
In a small town like Ballesteros, people are related to one another. This has been the bane of the town, making the people subscribe to a code of silence. To voice an opinion is tantamount to criticizing and offending local government officials, who can be their relatives. Blood is indeed thicker than water. However, some people complained about black-sand mining, especially when a mining equipment was briefly parked somewhere in the town. Public hearings were held.
What is the municipality of Ballesteros doing? “According to a local-government code, the local citizenry should be consulted on mining projects, says Pete Lazo, a lawyer in Ballesteros. “Mayor Valen Vidad Unite has been tough in fighting black-sand mining. As such, ordinances and resolutions were passed against mining of any kind within the territory of Ballesteros.” But the laws of Ballesteros can only go so far without enforcement.
What the black sand in Cagayan desperately needs is national legislative protection, but right now the possibility of that happening is remote. In a Philippine Daily Inquirer (June 23, 2015) article, Melvin Gascon reported that the magnetite-mining operations in Northern Cagayan have become large scale and shifted offshore, involving at least four mining companies. The business venture with the Philippine government is a mineral production sharing agreement (MPSA). It is granted under the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 (Republic Act. No. 7942).
Black-sand mining, whether inland or offshore, is destructive. Offshore mining might appear less invasive, but it can be deceitful. Technologically equipped mining ships can further exploit the already depleted inland sand, especially at night. Clarence Viloria, who is a civil engineer by profession, notes, “Those mining ships are capable of suctioning black sand on the shores two miles from their location in the sea.”
In researching on the gakka, I learned more about my hometown, Ballesteros and my townmates. We may live in town or different parts of the world, but we still share the same dreams, concerns and memories about our hometown. We all love the gakka, the jewel in the crown of Ballesteros. But we need to move quickly to save it by helping in the fight against black-sand mining. We would like the gakka to live forever—to be enjoyed and appreciated for many generations to come!
The author wishes to thank Roberto A. Balarbar of the National Museum of the Philippines for his assistance in researching on the gakka.
Rey E. de la Cruz, Ed.D., writes from Chicagoland when he is not loving the arts and traveling. He is the author of the children’s book, Ballesteros on My Mind: My Hometown in the Philippines, which also has Ilocano, Spanish, and Tagalog versions.
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