By JOHNNY R. LEE, PhD.
SITANGKAI, Tawi-Tawi: With barely 1.5 hectares of sandy patches of land, Sitangkai main island is literally a ‘waterworld’ where most of its residential houses, including government offices and commercial business establishments, are erected atop a piled-up coral stones and residential houses built on stilts. According to the 2015 National Census the whole municipality has a population of 33,334 and is a first class municipality.
A very unique community, Sitangkai Island is made up of 5 barangays adjacent to each other and connected by footbridges. The other four island barangays are detached from the main island. During high tides the residents in the area utilized small mechanized boats and bancas as mode of transportation to reach the market area and commercial centers from their homes.
According to old residents of the place, Sitangkai during the 50’s were inhabited by purely Sama Dilaut or Badjaos and a dozen families of pure Chinese immigrants from Sabah, Malaysia and neighboring provinces of Sulu & Zamboanga Peninsula. The latter find the then small community a good place for doing business selling basic commodities like foodstuffs, grocery goods and clothings.
Fishing paraphernalias like fishing lines, nets, hooks and sinkers were in demand. In turn, due to the long and vast territorial tidal flats of the island, make it a rich fishing ground for the Badjao fishermen; and as a consequence a lucrative source of income for the entrepreneurial Chinese traders who buy and sell it to companies in Zamboanga City and Cebu City.
Water is scarce, as they depend on rainfall for their domestic use. In the absence of rainwater, they buy their supply from a ‘sea ambulant vendor’ fetched from the neighboring island of Sibutu municipality. Business-owners and well-off family households build their own huge concrete tank to store rainwater. However the emergence of bottled mineral water has somehow ease their dire needs on drinking water especially so it is relatively cheaper to order supplies from Sabah, Malaysia.
Due to its proximity to Sabah (an hour ride by fast seacrafts), the place is flooded with goods and food items from Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysian ringgit is even accepted as a medium of exchange. Local dialect is Sinama. Tausog tribe is increasing in population and are mostly traders and buyers of marine products. There are Christians of different denominations either professionals and workers in construction projects.
The introduction of seaweed culture, starting in the 80’s, makes it a more busling hub of business and trading in the southernmost part of the province.
Today, the municipality of Sitangkai produces the biggest bulk of raw dried seaweed in the province of Tawi-Tawi supplying around 75% of the marine products with Zamboanga City and Cebu City as main markets. The province, by the way, is the biggest supplier of commercial seaweeds in the country, almost equal with Palawan.
Sitangkai has a single port located three kilometers away from the poblacion and can be reached only by sea transport. Twice a week, a couple of commercial cargo and passenger vessels ply the route coming from Zamboanga via the port of Bongao. Travellers coming in and going out from the center had to be ferried to and from the port.
The main sea ‘thoroughfare’ or a canal leading towards the poblacion will end up at the heart of the commercial center which serves as a mooring area for small boats that carries travellers from the port. Everyday, small boats laden with a variety of fresh fish, shellfishes, fruits and agricultural products are moored along the side of the main footbridge peddling their goods.
The sight of daily activities of buying and selling from their boats are likened to a ‘floating market’ found in countries like Thailand and Vietnam. Likewise, the movements of boats traversing the canal (with series of elevated footbridges linking the opposite sides), is a sight to behold, earning its moniker as the ‘Venice of the Southern Philippines’. Its strong resemblance to Venice in Italy could be attributed to its unique geographical settings as a hub of trade and commerce with only the canal serving as the means of transporting goods and services.