Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Covenant for Malhiao’s Mangroves


Seacology’s win-win formula is simple. An island community commits to protect a natural resource, and in return, Seacology P7020001funds a tangible need of the community. To finalize the agreement, a Covenant between the community and Seacology is then signed.

The covenant is not complicated. It just stipulates a few important points: that Seacology will provide the funds required to build the tangible; that Seacology will not claim ownership over any land or sea belonging to the community; and that in return the community P7020006pledges to protect the no-take zone agreed on.

From past experience, this process is usually straightforward. The village will sign the covenant, and the construction will commence. That is, until the village of Malhiao raised a few questions that I thought should be answered face to face.

It took a good three hour ride to get to Malhiao from Cebu City, past the noted beaches of Argao and Moalboal. The barangay’s leaders, led by putative Barangay Captain James Taboada, were waiting for P7020010us by the time Delfa Talaid of Tambuyog (Seacology’s project partner) and I got there late morning yesterday. “Putative” because he is all but officially that, the previous Barangay Captain having died from a stroke the week before, I was just informed. Burial is today, July 3.

The object of the covenant is the village’s commitment to protect 73 hectares of mangroves for 15 years, in exchange for Seacology’s funding of the construction of a boardwalk and view deck on the Mangroves. The community hopes to develop its own tourism P7020015industry by showcasing their lush mangroves.

Of the many concerns they raised, I found four to be particularly incisive, which I have listed below along with my response to each:

Question: What exactly does a “no-take zone” mean? The community conducts mangrove planting activities every once in a while, and there is a concern as to whether activities of that sort will constitute a violation of the covenant. In fact, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, in partnership with Malhiao, has a continuing program where parolees go to Malhiao to plant mangrove trees as part of their community service. Incorporating tree planting in future educational tours P7020017are planned as well.

Answer: Tree planting is allowable because this is not extractive in nature.

Question: Enforcing the no-take zone among the villagers of Malhiao is not a problem, but some fisherfolk from neighboring barangays go to the mangroves to collect shellfish for food. Will people still be allowed to gather shellfish within the mangroves if the mangrove trees themselves are left alone?

P7020025Answer: No. Setting aside the mangroves as a no-take zone means that gathering of any sort is prohibited. The benefits of this policy will redound to the five-hectare multi-use zone that the community has also declared. Maintaining an undisturbed mangrove area means more juvenile marine life will have a chance to grow into spawning adults, and the resulting spillover to the multi-use zone will mean more bountiful harvests. It is easy to imagine noticeable results in the quality of harvests in the multi-use zone within six months if the mangroves are fully protected.

Question: What if Malhiao is unable to effectively protect the P7020026mangroves? Will there be a penalty imposed?

Answer: The first casualty, if the integrity of the mangroves is ruinously violated, is the productivity of the five-hectare multi-use zone. That by itself is heavy enough a penalty. Secondarily, the plans of the community to capitalize on tourism and the potential business it can bring will be in jeopardy. It will be hard to look for tourists who are willing to pay to see a mangrove area where people indiscriminately set traps and collect all sizes of crabs, seashells, and whatnot. But as far as Seacology is concerned, no penalty can or will be imposed, though it P7020021will be unlikely that we will enter into another agreement with the community in the future.

Question: Why does Seacology insist on a term on the village’s commitment to protect the mangrove?

Answer: The covenants Seacology enters into generally have a term ranging from 10 to 30 years. This stems from Seacology’s view that the succeeding generation should be free to make commitments of their own. If after 15 years the next generation decides to continue protecting the mangroves, it will be because they appreciate the merits of doing so; not because they have to honor some agreement their fathers entered into long ago.P7020028

We wound up beginning a shared lunch still discussing the covenant, until the conversations drifted onto other matters towards the end. Finally, after lunch, with all questions laid to rest, the covenant was signed.

Then came the many ideas on the mangroves. Educational tours, guided mangrove river canoe rides, and bird watching are some of the possible mangrove activities that could spark the beginnings of P7020033tourism. Already, Tambuyog has had talks with the Regional Department of Education highlighting the Malhiao mangroves. As a result, an April 2011 memorandum was issued holding the Malhiao mangroves as a guide in the implementation of the Coastal Ecosystem Education program of the department. To assist the barangay in enforcing the no-take zone, the Municipality of Badian agreed to train some villagers to become mangrove guards, and to provide enforcement support if needed.

Looking back, if the questions on the project were raised as a consequence of the barangay’s sudden leadership transition, then a lot of credit must be given to incoming Barangay Captain Taboada. P7020040He did not just go along with his predecessor’s project. He took the project, analyzed it, and after being satisfied with it, gave it his approval, thereby putting the responsibility for the project squarely within his watch.

With each question I was asked, my impression on the seriousness of how the villagers of Malhiao are taking the covenant only deepened. There was a tour of the mangroves on a makeshift raft later on with some of the village’s leaders. It was a really nice and refreshing tour along passages between huge clusters of mangrove trees. But my mind was still on the upturn of the P7020029villagers’ regard towards their commitment with Seacology since we arrived. I just witnessed their progression from fawn-like tentativeness, to a doe’s leap of faith, to a stag’s confidence and optimism in the future. All in one day.

It was a good feeling that stayed with me throughout the long bus ride back to Cebu City. And then some.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Protecting the mangroves and reefs of eastern El Nido


How much is a coral reef worth?

On May 25, 2011, the country was jolted by horrific news. A coral reef at the Moro Gulf, off Mindanao Island, five times the size of Manila was deemed destroyed when 21,169 pieces of black coral, 196 kilos of sea whips, 163 dead hawksbill and green turtles, and 7,340 pieces of trumpet and helmet shells, all harvested from the reef were intercepted at the Manila port by Customs officials as they were about to be shipped abroad. Ludivina Labe, a Senior Marine Biologist at the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) described it as the decimation of an entire reef complex, and Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez put the blame squarely on the multibillion-dollar marine ornamental industry for exotic decorative species and coral-accented jewelry. The shipper and consignee have been identified are being hunted by the authorities as of this posting. But this story does not end here.moro gulf

Last June 4, BFAR led a raid on the shipper’s warehouse in Zamboanga City, uncovering an estimated 30 to 40 tons of similar “marine products” roughly five times the volume of the previous discovery. A staggering chunk of marine habitat was taken just like that, leaving a severely impaired ecosystem in its wake.

How much is a coral reef worth? For so-called connoisseurs of exotic jewelry, a tiny chip of black coral with chain on sterling silver would cost about US$90 (internet price). About a hundred such chips can probably be made out of a single meter-long black coral. And then there are the turtle-shell eyeglass frames and decorative seashells. The cargo intercepted at the port of Manila is estimated to be worth about 35 million pesos or over US$800,000. If the stash at the Zamboanga City warehouse is five times that, the entire haul would be roughly 210 million pesos or US$4.8 million.

How much is a coral reef worth? For islanders enticed to gather the corals, turtles and shells, it is worth what they are able to sell to the middlemen. Likely, they make more money doing this than what they normally would make if they were to farm or fish. As reef fishes disappear to dynamite and cyanide fishing, corals, shells and other rarer marine life are the next to fall. Moving further and further out to sea becomes just another fact of life as the gatherers leave behind virtually lifeless reefs, if those can still be called that.

The BFAR’s website reports that “only 4 percent of Philippine reefs [is] in excellent condition (i.e., over 75 percent hard or soft coral cover), 28 percent in good condition (50-75 percent coral cover), 42 percent in fair condition (25-50 percent coral cover), and 27 percent in poor condition (less than 25 percent coral cover).” One can only wonder how much the numbers have changed since those statistics were determined.

Home to a very diverse aquatic species, coral reefs provide not just food but also livelihood, tourism included, for coastal communities. As people living off the sea for generations, they should be aware of the imperative to protect the little that remains of their reefs. And they are. Unfortunately, for the impoverished many, the gravitational pull of earning a quick profit, regardless of consequences, is 4 barangays maptoo strong.

But not for others.

Barangays Sibaltan, New Ibajay, Villa Paz, and Mabini are four remote coastal barangays in the eastern part of the Municipality of El Nido, Palawan Island. Farming and fishing are the main sources of livelihood as tourists seldom venture into the villages. Roads are dusty during the dry season and muddy during the wet season. There are no restaurants and other tourist-related establishments, and the DSC_0022villages are not served by the provincial electric cooperative. Despite their distance from the more affluent, tourism-oriented and more developed town center of El Nido, the villages are displaying a keen appreciation of their place in the ecosystem they are part of. DSC_0149

Seeking to protect their coastal resource – 190 hectares of coral reef fronting the barangays as well as 974.63 hectares of mangrove forest – they asked for guardhouses, patrol bancas, marker buoys and signages, and communication equipment from Seacology. DSC_0183Cashew production equipment was likewise requested to support and strengthen their fledgling cashew industry, which provides a sustainable, ecologically friendly livelihood for the villagers.

On January 22 this year, the Seacology Expedition visited Barangay Sibaltan. Three patrol bancas were turned over in simple Seacology Visit El Nido 6-26-08 (36)ceremonies, along with signages and communication equipment. The marker buoys were already there, just waiting for the anchoring blocks defining the MPAs to be set up. The cashew equipment were already in use, and their cashew products are selling briskly at the resorts of west El DSC_0040 (2)Nido. And, finally, despite a province-wide shortage of gravel and sand since December last year, the guardhouse in Barangay Sibaltan, with its own solar power, was finished and inaugurated last May 27. The only item left is the guardhouse still being built at Barangay New Ibajay, which they hope to finish by August.DSC_0050 (2)

The mangroves surrounding the four villages are thick, but the broad area on which it is located also provides cover for clandestine charcoal kilns. Foot patrols monitor the mangroves continuously, tearing down the illegal kilns whenever they are found. Lloyd Lumbania of the El Nido Foundation (ENF) says that through DSC_0068these efforts charcoal making within the mangroves is becoming more costly for the poachers. Hopefully they will soon reassess the profitability of their business and look for an altogether different source of income.

Poaching is also a problem at the Marine Protected Areas. Mrs. Carmelita Acosta, the feisty Kapitana of Barangay Sibaltan, along with the other barangay captains and the local fisherfolk association, organized the regular patrols of the MPAs. Several poachers from nearby Municipality of Linapacan had been apprehended since the DSC_0061MPAs were established last year, with parish priest Fr. Ed Parreno leading the citizens’ arrests.

The ENF reports that live coral cover in the MPAs range from 31-50%. The seagrass incidence of the area is greater than 50%, and serves as forage area for the endangered dugong. Dugong sightings have often been reported, and dugong feeding trails are frequently seen on the seagrass. Barangay Sibaltan in particular has also been identified as a nesting ground of sea turtles (Green, Hawksbill, and Olive Reedley turtles).

DSC_0050Unless the incidence of intrusion of poachers from neighboring municipalities is substantially reduced, maintaining the level of vigilance needed to effectively protect the mangroves and MPAs can become an costly endeavor for the villagers. Food and fuel expenses are just two considerations. A third and arguably most important is the time spent by those on patrol duty away from their regular DSC_0053sources of income. But these are sacrifices the villagers are willing to undertake to ensure that the their multi-use zones will remain productive. Also, plans are in the works to influence neighboring municipalities to establish their own MPAs and forest reserves as well. More MPAs and forest reserves in this corner of DSC_0061 (2)Palawan would mean more bountiful catches in the multi-use zones, and hopefully less reason for out-of-towners to resort to poaching in the no-take zones.

How much is a coral reef worth? For the villagers of Barangays Sibaltan, New Ibajay, Villa Paz, and Mabini, it is worth spending their time and, often, personal resources to vigilantly protect it. And that goes for their mangroves too.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A New Light at the Edge of Cabilao

Early last year, the five barangays of Cabilao agreed to expand the cabilao_island_mpa_relationship_communities copytwo Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) of the island from a combined total of 21.8 hectares to 41.8 hectares in exchange for Seacology’s assistance in the renovation and conversion of their lighthouse into a Tourist Information Center. Once regarded as an abandoned and decaying ruin, by and large appreciated only as a marker for a nearby dive site, the Cabilao Lighthouse at Baluarte Point, Barangay Pantudlan is now an P3270031impressive structure at a picturesque lookout ready to house the best of products that the island can offer. What a difference a year makes.

Cabilao, apart from scuba diving, is also known for the colorful and intricate mats and bags that its womenfolk produce from the romblon plant. The weeklong process starts from the harvest and removal of the thorny midribs and blades. Leaves are then cut into long strips, hung until dry, softened, dyed, and woven. It is a laborious craft passed P3270032from one generation to the next. The home-based industry complements what their husbands get from farming or fishing. To improve traction on the market, the womenfolk organized themselves and formed the Cabilao Romblon Weavers Network or CROWN, making quality control and collective transaction possible. But despite these strides in the earning capacity of their households, Barangays Talisay, Cambaquiz, Cabacungan, Looc and Pantudlan have longed for a strategically P3270006placed structure where their weavers can showcase their wares. They saw the answer in the lighthouse ruin at the northwestern edge of the island.

The Cabilao Lighthouse is one of 55 lighthouses constructed during the Spanish occupation, this one classified as a faro de los proyectos. Sea vessels depended on lighthouses such as this to serve as stationary points for navigators, guides to port entrances and harbors, and warnings against shallow reefs. These reefs that surround Cabilao are also some of the country’s best DSC00374preserved, attracting hordes of scuba divers annually – a largely untapped market for the island’s products.

Previous attempts to renovate the abandoned lighthouse were unwieldy. A coating of cement with lines drawn to mimic construction blocks not only made it look like a very new sham edifice much like those seen in theme parks, but it also unwittingly covered the mute history of the structure as suggested by the original material used by its builders. Even the Coast Guard, under whose jurisdiction lighthouses fall, DSC00268thought it better to construct a new solar powered lighthouse nearby rather than upgrade the old structure. A proper renovation, one that will accent its Spanish colonial roots and island flavor, was needed. For this, the island’s villagers turned to Architect German Torero of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. With further assistance from Seacology’s partners, Process Bohol and the Local Government of Loon, the makeover that began mid-July last year was completed towards the end of April this year. As with my first visit last year, Emmie Roslinda, Executive Director of Process Bohol, and Rey Monreal of the Loon Municipal Tourism Office were with me when I DSC00270returned to the lighthouse last Wednesday, May 18.

The renovated building that greeted us prominently displayed its meter thick coral stone walls, now with a red tile roofing. Emmie tells me that the most difficult part of the renovation was the careful chipping away of the cement coating so that there would be very minimal damage to the original wall. With windows all around allowing the sea breeze in for DSC00274ventilation, it was pretty cool within despite the high humidity and the 35˚C (95˚F) outside temperature. Beaming with pride borne by a sense of accomplishment, Barangay Pantudlan’s village chief, Kapitan Maximiliano Lapez, showed us around, from the spacious washroom and toilet, to the walls on which sheets of blue paper were taped to indicate the items being prepared to be displayed on it.

Luxuriously thick soft grass covering the promontory on which DSC00327the lighthouse was built, combined with a view of the crystal blue sea so clear one can see the harlequin-patterned reef disappear into the deep, is enough to make anyone wax poetic. Or at least try anyway. Leaving poetry to real poets, the potential of the lighthouse as an income-generating venue for social events, such as weddings, is something the village should probably consider too.

Later some of the officers and members of the Fisherfolk Federation and CROWN joined us inside the lighthouse. In the local dialect, gratitude for Seacology, Process Bohol, and the Loon Municipal DSC00311Government was expressed all around, though any credit should really be to the villagers themselves, for having the vision to preserve their natural resource and adapt to more sustainable modes of livelihood.

Reef guard duties for the two MPAs rotate among the members of the Fisherfolk Federation. Their president, Felix Molina, reports that the boundaries of the MPAs remain respected through their vigilance. However, while their operations are supposed to be supported by a portion of the user fee collected by the Protected Area Management Board from each tourist, they are having difficulties in securing the release of funds. In this, DSC00316Emmie assured them of assistance in making the proper paper work to facilitate the process.

The romblon weavers have an altogether different issue. Orders for bags and mats keep coming, but CROWN president Leonila Mulato laments that one order for 3,500 bags was not met because they overestimated their production capability. Another lesson in DSC00332supply and demand economics from Hardknocks University. But they have learned their lesson well and have begun a survey of output of each member in terms of number of mats and bags per week.

In taking the high road toward sustainable resource management, the villagers of Cabilao are encountering their share of problems, DSC00341but these are neither insurmountable nor enough to weaken their resolve. No enterprise has ever been trouble free, and they are not expecting theirs to be exceptions.

On our way back to the main island of Bohol, we passed by the two MPAs that are the subject of the covenant between Seacology and the island’s five villages. White buoys DSC00360marked the perimeter of the no-take zones. The water was so clear I could see the bluish green hard corals from the boat like fruits in a gelatin dessert despite depths of approximately 40 feet. I got to scuba dive on these MPAs last year, but not this time. Maybe I will again if and when I get to come back. If the villagers will let me, that is.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Palawan On Fire

Often called the Philippines’ last ecological frontier, Palawan’s rich biodiversity is very impressive but also so very fragile. Yet for the DSC_0001month of April this year alone, in northern Palawan alone, the burning of swathes of mountain slopes was a near daily occurrence. Plumes of smoke could be seen from surrounding mountains signaling slash and burn activity. It was as if a concerted effort to destroy the island’s capacity to support life is being waged.

Travelling toward the DSC_0008eastern side of El Nido, we passed quite a few blackened areas, tell-tale signs of swidden farming or kaingin. Meriam Arzaga of the El Nido Foundation provides an interesting observation: that incidences of kaingin increase after a tag-hirap year – a year when crops fall short of what is needed. It is a method farmers seem to resort to, to augment harvests from their regular rice fields.

Swidden farming, or kaingin, is most obvious during the dry months when plots are prepared by burning vegetation therein, awaiting the first DSC_0009rains before planting. It has been in practice for generations in many parts of the world, benignly, even favorably, viewed in such literature as Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) and NVM Gonzales’ Children of the Ash-Covered Loam (1954). It is a method developed over the centuries as a means to reduce pests and facilitate the migration of biological control agents, such as insect parasites and predators, from the surrounding forests.

For the system to be sustainable (myopically ignoring its impact on DSC_0004global warming and ocean siltation, that is), a plot, after being used for a few years, must be allowed to fallow for about 20 years before beginning the cycle again. In this period, the soil is allowed to rest and regain the nutrients that only time left alone can provide. But when the number of people the land has to support becomes so great that the fallow periods are drastically reduced, productivity declines and the system becomes destructive, eventually working its way into new areas in the forest.

When a farmer begins cutting the fringes of public land in mangrove forest from Sibaltan extending to nearby barangayspreparation for burning, Meriam explains, no one else but the farmer who torched it gets to plant on it when the rains come. It is a tradition of respect among kaingin farmers that has been observed for as long as anyone can remember.

But if kaingin activity is that plain to see and the culprits so easily identifiable, why isn’t anyone doing anything to apprehend the offenders? To be sure, unauthorized burning of forest and grazing New  Ibajay mangroveland is illegal under the Revised Forestry Reform Code. Moreover, a 1998 presidential proclamation declared all of El Nido and Taytay, its adjacent municipality, as a Protected Area, putting it under the supervision of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, with its own Protected Area Superintendent. Whether it is for lack of political will or simple bureaucratic laziness, solutions, for now at least, do not seem to be forthcoming from any government enforcement effort.

It isn’t that the farmers are not aware of the illegality of kaingin or its implications; often, they do it because they feel they need Mgt planning Mabini 11-13-08 (15)to. Apparently, if farmers have to choose between putting food on the table and obeying some law, the former will always win hands-down. The answer must lie in providing an alternative to kaingin.

At the eastern villages of Mabini, New Ibajay, Sibaltan and Villa Paz, Seacology provided cashew production equipment, among others, as an alternative livelihood enterprise in exchange for the establishment of a 470-acre marine protected area and 2,408-acre mangrove protected area. In this project, the villagers have DSC_0076committed themselves to actively protect these resources, with the municipal government and DENR relegated to a supporting role. Even the local parish priest, Fr. Ed Parino, has taken an active role in the enforcement of the protected areas, and has been instrumental in the apprehension of poachers from out-of-town. And as alternative livelihoods go, the brisk sales of their cashews at the upscale resorts of El Nido are certainly encouraging.

There is still much to appreciate in northern Palawan in terms of rich packaged cashewnatural resources. But to preserve it, the focus has to shift from what the communities should not do, to what they can do instead.