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Reviewed by:
  • Urban Ecologies on the Edge: Making Manila’s Resource Frontier by Kristian Karlo Saguin
  • Rosalina Palanca-Tan
Urban Ecologies on the Edge: Making Manila’s Resource Frontier
Oakland: University of California Press, 2022. 202 pages.

Laguna Lake, with its vast area equivalent to almost half of the total lake area in the Philippines and with its potential to provide multiple services to the lakeshore communities and the adjacent National Capital Region, is expectedly an extensively researched subject in both the natural and social sciences. However, what makes this book by Kristian Karlo Saguin an indispensable addition to an already huge body of Laguna Lake scholarly literature is the historical accounts of the complex and, in many ways, conflicting interconnectedness between stakeholders and the natural environment that brings them blessings as well as curses. Spanning about a decade, work on this book commenced as Saguin’s dissertation research in 2010. Narratives from field research—participatory observations and interviews—undertaken in the early years of the 2010s and revisited in [End Page 282] the latter years of the decade, together with public policy and program documents dating back to the 1950s, populate the pages of the book to illustrate vividly how a gigantic, multiuse, resource-rich freshwater body is explored, transformed, and utilized to provide for the developmental requirements of the country’s foremost metropolitan area.

Saguin, who earned a doctoral degree in geography from Texas A&M University with his Laguna Lake research, is currently an associate professor at the Department of Geography of the University of the Philippines Diliman. He teaches economic geography, environmental geography, and resource management and conservation, and undertakes research on urban studies, agrarian studies, urban agriculture, resource geographies, and aquaculture and fisheries, among others. Saguin employs ethnographic and historical frameworks and tools in formulating his theses. Having done some research on Laguna Lake myself and with a disciplinal background different from Saguin, I read his book with much enthusiasm and curiosity, expecting to see more than what I had already seen and unraveled about resource challenges in the Manila–Laguna Lake relationship dynamics. Saguin does not disappoint; the book answers many “how did it happen” questions that were left hanging in my Laguna Lake research. More importantly, new questions emerge, and the need to assess options for sustainable resource management amid competing demands for the goods and services the lake offers resurfaces. This review highlights the economic issues tackled in the book, sprinkling economic intuition and fitting economic frames to Saguin’s analysis when warranted.

Reading Urban Ecologies on the Edge is like reading a book compilation of short stories on fisherfolk, fish farms, fish markets, fish meals, floods, water pests, and pollutants. The short stories have a recurring theme, that of competing uses for the massive Laguna Lake resource—a tug-of-war between opposing groups of stakeholders, public policy objectives, and economic sectors—urban versus rural, fish-pen capitalists versus subsistence fishermen, fish production efficiency versus poverty alleviation, fish versus water supply, water supply versus wastewater, farmed fish versus invasive fish, city floods versus rural floods, floods today versus floods tomorrow, and so on.

The tug-of-war between large-scale fish-pen operators and subsistence fishermen is probably the most contentious. On the one hand, the mushrooming of private fish pens on the lake has reduced significantly or “stolen” the area for open fishing activities. On the other hand, there [End Page 283] have been instances of poaching in pens, leading to violent confrontations between fish-pen guards and fishermen. Nonetheless, the narratives in the book also indicate some beneficial impacts of fish-pen operations on small-scale fishing, as I likewise discovered during focus group discussions and key informant interviews in the course of my Laguna Lake research in 2017–2020. Saguin narrates of abundant post-typhoon catch of fish escapees from damaged and overflowing fish pens that make fisherfolk “happy” (83). With or without typhoons, fish pens raise the fish stock in the lake, which improves fish catch generally. Hence, fisherfolk are not totally opposed to the presence of pens on the lake, for so long as there are spaces left for them, something that has...