A Pacific Heroine

FACED WITH JINGLES’S imminent departure, Daniel already foresaw trouble with running ELEFAN and began frantically searching for a new assistant who had the necessary skills in biology, but mostly in computer science. With the help of his colleague John Munro, he interviewed a few candidates. On April 1, 1982, a slim young woman of twenty with short brown hair cropped shorter on the sides showed up at ICLARM’s welcome desk on the seventeenth floor of the super-chic Metrobank Plaza building. Before going to meet these foreign scientists, she had put on a light-blue satin dress, purchased for her best friend’s wedding, and high heels.

She had never seen an African American in person. Daniel, who was three heads taller than she, with big hair to boot, seemed intimidating, silent and impassive behind his big glasses. John Munro talked like a professor, but his face was a little kinder. The two men weren’t wearing ties, which she found disappointing. They asked her to program a linear regression in BASIC. It was easy for her but, writing on the board, she talked out loud to reassure herself. Without letting her write the last line of code, Daniel interrupted to ask if she could start right away, if possible that afternoon. “What a great April Fool’s joke!” she tells me, laughing. Daniel had just recruited his most loyal partner, a guardian angel who, thirty years later, still watches over him discreetly. Maria Lourdes Palomares, whom everyone calls Deng, is of Filipino, Spanish, and Chinese heritage. Her story is emblematic of the destiny of many of Daniel Pauly’s young colleagues from the tropics, unfairly caught up in the turmoil of postcolonial history, far from the comparatively insulated atmosphere of research laboratories in the Global North.

“In Manila, my grandparents’ house was in the middle of the rice paddies; the closest neighbors were five hundred meters [about 550 yards] away. You could smell the sea, the farms; I still remember the smell of wet leaves, mixed with the scent of Christmas, churros dipped in chocolate.” Deng grew up among frogs and insects in the family garden, in the company of Jacques the parakeet, who was green, yellow, and blue with a very strong beak, and her dog, Toutou. On Sundays, the whole family would take a horse and buggy, a mode of transportation that was still common in the Philippines in the late 1960s, and go down to the beach. Deng learned to swim in Manila Bay. “Today, I wouldn’t even dip my toes in it,” she laments. Her father, the son of a wealthy family ruined by the Second World War, started out as a mechanic, then became the personal assistant of a manager at the Rockefeller Foundation. Her mother owned three Jeepneys, the Filipino version of the bush taxi that would gradually leave the more romantic Spanish carriages behind in a cloud of exhaust fumes.

Deng was a daddy’s girl—her father helped her with her homework and taught her drawing and calligraphy. Her mother, who had a head for figures, took care of her daughter’s economic education, even sending her to exchange dollars sent by relatives in the United States. “I was able to follow the gradual fall of the Philippine peso during my whole childhood,” Deng remembers. This went hand in hand with the political crisis to which the country was succumbing. “It started in 1969 after Marcos’s reelection; there were protests everywhere with deaths. I was protected from all that because I was still a child, but I remember my mother crying and my father talking about troubled times.” In school, Deng tells me soberly that she was left-handed and “precocious.” When she was nine, her math teacher, Madame Ramos, asked her to take some extra tests. “Two days of exams—I was so bored!” Deng sighs. She skipped a few grades and landed at an elite school with a hundred other “precocious” students. But Deng missed her neighborhood school and her friends. To pass the time, she became the editor of the school’s newspaper. “I was number one in the advanced class, and they’d promised me a medal. My parents were so proud, but there was never any ceremony. They told me it was because of martial law—I was furious.”

In high school, which she started at eleven years old, Deng met two people who influenced her greatly. First, there was Ms. Buendia, the science teacher, who had completed a doctorate in the United States. “The first thing she taught us was the reproductive system—she said, ‘Girls, you are the queens of your own bodies. Pregnancy isn’t mysterious, it’s just biology.’” Deng repeated all this to her family—much to the dismay of her very Catholic aunts: “She speaks with the devil’s tongue; someone needs to pray for her, exorcise her!” they would say. In philosophy, Ms. Estrada asked her students to call her Roxy. She had been a journalist in a collective that published radical reports on Marcos in 1969. “Despite the martial law, she spoke very freely. She trusted us, but looking back, I realize she took incredible risks,” says Deng. The class read Plato and other classics, but also studied a series titled “Political Thought” and Mao’s Little Red Book.

In her free time, Deng devoured the works of Isaac Asimov, her favorite being Foundation. She usually went to school on foot, picking up a friend on the way. One day, the friend didn’t show up, and Deng noticed a crowd in front of the neighborhood church. A priest was stirring up the mob, and Deng spotted her friend and the girl’s family. The man of God called for the destruction of the “Reds” and, to emphasize his point, pulled a revolver out of his cassock and held it up like a relic. “That day, I lost my faith. In class, I talked to Roxy about it, and she told me, ‘Don’t worry, you’ve seen the light.’” Deng’s parents loved their daughter, but they worried about her: “Your head isn’t on straight; all those tests have ruined you!” they said. They weren’t sure of what to do about her, either, so they let it go.

On her final exams, Deng finished third in all the Philippines, and she went to university at fifteen. She began in engineering, focusing on math, then transferred to the school of medicine after two years in the biology department. “Asimov inspired me to pick medicine, thinking all these new technologies could save lives.” Studying medicine was expensive though, even with a scholarship. A rich aunt supported Deng at first, but then she passed away. Deng left the Diliman campus at the age of nineteen after several studious and politically active years. “As soon as I got to college, I started going to protests. My political activities didn’t affect my grades, though, because I knew I needed to have a place in society if I wanted to change it.”

About once a month, Deng and some of her classmates would go to a training camp in the mountains, usually for a long weekend. “The professors were the ones who circulated the information, and you had to collect a series of passwords and several contacts to know the place, the date, and the time.” The camps were mostly centers of political discussion: “We wanted to understand how the world worked—we knew Marcos oppressed people, especially the poor, and we wanted to know what we could do to change that. Marcos and his goons still had the old Spanish feudal mentality that we wanted to get rid of. The camps were hosted by the NPA, and of course, I considered taking up arms, but Ms. Estrada’s lessons on pacifism won out. It was the right choice; using violence doesn’t work in the long term. You have to convince everyone, and that’s a question of education.”

Deng stuck to nonviolent protests, but she still ended up on the blacklist—enemies of the Marcos regime who feared for their lives. In 2015, she showed me her photo album from the time, with group photos of her among her classmates. “This one disappeared, this one was arrested and we never saw him again . . . him, too . . . her, too . . . and him.” Deng probably owes her life to a police officer uncle. “I was on the front lines of a protest, and, all of a sudden, I found myself face-to-face with my uncle, armed with a nightstick like all his coworkers. They were ordered to charge, and my uncle stayed where he was, shocked. I managed to escape, but I felt sorry for my uncle; I didn’t want to do that to him.” The uncle in question warned her mother: “It’s dangerous, what your daughter is doing—she could die.” Panic-stricken, Mrs. Palomares went to see her daughter on the Diliman campus. Deng tried to reassure her: “Don’t worry about it, nothing will happen.” In the end, her uncle managed to make his niece’s name disappear from the blacklist—no one knows how—and to protect her during the whole revolution. He died sometime later, under suspicious circumstances during a police raid. Deng can’t help but think that he somehow sacrificed himself for her; his death, and the disappearance of her friends, still haunts her.

During her last year at the university, Deng felt hollow, anemic, like the floor had dropped from under her—she knew she wouldn’t be able to finish her studies in medicine because there was no money. Her family worried about her: “What are we going to do with you, poor girl? We could try to get you a husband, you know, you’re actually very pretty!” One of Deng’s godmothers had just opened a computer science school, the first in the Philippines. “Back then, the computers still looked like big cabinets with magnetic bands. I was interested in all that stuff, and I thought maybe I could program machines to help with medical diagnoses.” Deng learned the basics of computer science and got a job at a telecom company with help from her father, who worked there. “I lasted a week; it was deadly boring—I typed lines of code all day.” In town, Deng ran into John McManus, an American in the Peace Corps and a coral reef specialist who had been her diving instructor during a summer class at the University of the Philippines. It was McManus who told her about the job at ICLARM, and she leapt at the chance.

WHEN DENG FIRST started at ICLARM, she met Jingles, whose shaggy rock-and-roll look she liked right away. But he was supposed to leave for Germany soon; within a week, he taught her the basics of ELEFAN and she became the program’s new administrator. Daniel also showed up with a pile of books. “Here’s what you need to know about fisheries biology—you have two weeks.” Over the years, Deng helped perfect ELEFAN’s routines. In particular, she was in charge of trying to estimate the sizes of fish populations exploited by fisheries. Daniel launched her onto the international stage as an ELEFAN expert and instructor. In fact, the FAO, mostly financed by the Danish government, began a million-dollar project in 1982 to create a network of experts in managing fish stocks in tropical countries. The FAO soon realized that ICLARM already had such a network, and their program relied on partnerships between instructors from Denmark and the Philippines throughout the 1980s, putting on fifteen two-week workshops.

“And that’s how we ended up touring Asia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean,” Deng remembers. “I traveled with ten PCs and thirty calculators in big boxes. I arrived a week before the workshop to get everything ready, then stayed for a week afterward to put the data in order.” The nearly one thousand participants were delighted: all they had to do was show up with raw data on the length of fish and other marine organisms caught in their respective countries. Daniel, Deng, and their colleagues helped them determine the growth parameters using ELEFAN, then calculate the rate of mortality from fishing to better understand how the stocks in question were being exploited. Along the way, everyone wrote a scientific article—“Before the data could get lost, which unfortunately happens a lot,” Daniel notes. He loved these workshops, which allowed him to learn about the practices and policies of fisheries throughout tropical Asia, as well as in East Africa and the Caribbean, but also because he was a fan of quick, commando-style operations during which he could escape any familial or administrative constraints and work for twenty hours a day completing the analyses of each of the participants, often entirely rewriting their articles at night so that they could all be published together in a hefty report at the end of the training session.

Siebren Venema, who led the FAO program, noted in the introduction to one such tome, “After many years of despair. . . a new era began.”1 Deng was a little more wary. “At first it wasn’t easy because Daniel and I were the only ones using ELEFAN, which created some tension between us and the Danes, who had their own methods.” Luckily, Venema’s friendly nature helped smooth things over. He had known Daniel since their respective stays in Indonesia in 1975: “When Daniel got into discussions, he could be quite fanatic. But he’s a very good lecturer and he really got the participants at the training sessions excited. He also got into it with Per Sparre and the other Danes who were capable, high-level researchers, but not as quick in a debate as Daniel.” For Daniel, “Siebren wasn’t trying to compete with me; he saw himself as a project coordinator. We never got into those games of ‘who can piss the farthest’ like with some of my other colleagues, especially from the FAO.”

These colleagues accepted ELEFAN with difficulty, even if its routines were quickly integrated into their own manuals. Venema confirms, “Back in Rome, my FAO colleagues were against Pauly and his methods, but John Gulland agreed to publish it through the FAO, so it was distributed all over the world and it became a big success.” But the conflict ran deep, and, in 1987, Jorge Csirke, John Caddy, and Serge Garcia cosigned a thinly veiled critique of Daniel Pauly’s calculation routines, which they called “quick and dirty.”2 They admitted condescendingly that ELEFAN could be “very useful” in developing countries where the more sophisticated techniques developed in the Global North “will not be available . . . before a few decades.” Their chapter lists a series of problems and questions without offering any solutions, leaving it to Daniel to get his hands dirty.

The Pauly and Palomares Flying Circus ignored these jibes and continued its tour at a breakneck pace that sometimes drove Deng to the brink: “In 1988, we did a training course in Tanzania. It was my first assignment in Africa, and I went to Mwanza on Lake Victoria by myself in a little seven-seater tourism plane. At first, it was wonderful—the pilot flew around Kilimanjaro just for me—but once we were on the ground, I saw poverty like I’d never seen before. I mean, I’m from the Philippines, I know what a shantytown looks like, but I saw the state of the people standing in the street, and I visited the hospital—I didn’t know it could be that bad. I didn’t tell Daniel about this during the training course, but every night, I cried in my hotel room, and when I went home, I had trouble eating; I felt so pathetic.”

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