Seacology’s win-win formula is simple. An island community commits to protect a natural resource, and in return, Seacology funds 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 pledges 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 us 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 industry 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 are 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?
Answer: 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.
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 will 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.
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 tourism. 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. He 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 villagers’ 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.