Friday, June 28, 2013

Sitio Lubo Powers On!

Reliable, available 24/7, quiet, and best of all, clean. For some 80 Sitio Lubo's rich watershed.households in Sitio Lubo, May 9, 2013 marks the first time lights were turned on without having to check the juice in the solar batteries or the fuel in a gas- or diesel-fed generator. After waiting for nearly three years since the idea was first proposed, abundant water cascading from Lubo’s 2,500 hectares of watershed forest cranked the turbine that brought the first sparks of hydroelectricity to the isolated upland community.

Construction of the micro-hydropower generator and its distribution network were both completely finished on March 22, 2013, three months to the day ago. A few problems with IMG_0012the generator’s “exciter” delayed its commissioning, but technical experts from AMORE, another of Seacology’s project partners, finally resolved the issues a couple of months later. The system was at long last turned over to the community on May 29, and the Lubo Renewable Energy and Community Development Association or LURECDA was promptly formed to manage its operations.IMG_0014

Scarcely had Yamog Executive Director Nonoy Cayayan and I got past the arduous 8-hour journey up the mountain last Saturday, June 22, when we overheard TV sets and radios from lit homes at Sitio Lubo’s outskirts. At their hearths, steaming electric rice cookers had replaced rice pots blackened by wood fire, a sharp contrast to my first visit in September 2010, when the few signs of electricity were powered either by a leased solar panel home system or a 2 to 3 kilowatt gas- or diesel-fed generator.

IMG_0021I rode behind Allan Romano, himself a LURECDA board member, on his motorcycle as we worked our way up the mountain. Electric posts at intervals of about 20 meters lined the dirt road leading to Allan’s house where we were met by LURECDA officers. Ali Danyang, nephew of T’boli leader Victor Danyang whom we met at the tribe’s main house two years ago, represents the T’boli and Manobo tribes in LURECDA and was one of those who were on hand to greet us.

Over 80 out of 250 households have initially signed up as beneficiaries of the 35 kilowatt micro-hydropower project, I was IMG_0025told, while those who have adopted a wait-and-see posture are showing considerable interest in getting connected as well. Meters had been installed in each of the electrified household. Electricity is free for the first month, then the monthly rate of P150 (about US$3.60) is charged for the first five kilowatt hours and P20 (US$0.48) for every kilowatt hour thereafter.

IMG_0031Each participating household shouldered the roughly P3,000 (US$71.40) for the meter, connection and household wiring. The LURECDA board members are reading the meters themselves according to their area assignments, and 11 community members successfully finished the training in the operation and maintenance of the micro-hydropower generator. Another board member doubles as the accountant. All in all, it would seem that the management side of the enterprise is off to a good start.

The T’boli and Manobo tribes who reside at the edges of the IMG_0037watershed in the upper reaches of Sitio Lubo are tasked to patrol the forests against poachers and to continue gathering wildlings for the nurseries. For their efforts, 10% of the micro-hydro’s monthly net income will be given to them. A covenant to this effect, drawn in the local dialect, was read and presented to Ali Danyang, to take to his uncle and tribe leader to study.

Nonoy, Ali and me at the powerhouse.Another covenant was previously drawn up and signed, I was again told, since the signing of the first covenant between Seacology and Sitio Lubo’s leaders. This is between the Municipality of Lake Sebu, Barangay Ned, and Sitio Lubo, which essentially recognizes the importance of the watershed with respect to the micro-hydro, and assures that no activity deleterious to the forests therein will be allowed.

Perhaps they sense a certain solemnity and emotion or the reciprocation of IMG_0055honor and respect in the word “covenant.” And they would not be very far off, because the first covenant with Seacology carried those, at least on Seacology’s part, when they agreed to protect  2,500 hectares of watershed forest within the 7,345 hectare ancestral claim of the T’boli and Manobo tribes in exchange for the micro-hydropower generator and fruit tree nursery. In the micro-hydro’s September 16, 2010 groundbreaking ceremonies, the first two covenants were buried in a time capsule capped by a circular cement marker. For anyone going to and from the powerhouse, it is a constant reminder of obligations that need keeping.

Among other points brought up is the complaint lodged by a mining company against the alleged unauthorized placement of an electric post inside its recently bought property. This would be the subject of a long huddle later on with the LURECDA board.

IMG_0069After resting a bit, we hiked down to the powerhouse, some 30 minutes away, where we saw first hand the micro-hydro at work. There we were met by Nga Villanueva, one of the recently trained operators and whose family donated the lot on which the powerhouse was built. A logbook records the town’s electrical consumption at certain times of day. Nga’s job is to regulate the flow of water through the turbine so that the electricity generated is just slightly above the total expected consumption. Ballasts mounted on the walls take up any excess electricity. At that moment, 5:00 pm, the total output was a little less than 5 kilowatts per hour, well below the micro-hydro’s 35 kilowatt per hour IMG_0073rating. From his growing experience, Nga is expecting consumption to rise a bit, maybe 3 or 4 kilowatts more per hour, as soon as it gets dark and more lights and appliances are turned on. There is definitely a lot of room for more consumers.

Nonoy noted that Lubo’s water has a very high calcium carbonate content, and that periodic cleaning of the pipes, headrace canal and turbine, perhaps as often as every 6 months, will be needed to remove the expected encrusting of sediments over time. That aside, adjusting the aperture of the gates and valves depending on the season (wet or dry) and the community’s consumption habits remains the only task the operators have to constantly keep watch for.

IMG_0077Nga went back to his nearby farm, where sacks of peanuts were waiting to be sealed, as we began our return to town before it got too dark. He and his workers have to bring the peanuts inside the shed while daylight still allows it. Sitio Lubo’s many farms produce corn and peanuts in the main, and Nga’s yields several sacks of high grade peanuts per planting cycle.

The micro-hydro is fed by only a tiny fraction of the water from Kabusong and Kalulong streams. It is the start of the dry season in the mountains, and the amount of water from the streams is expected to diminish by just a bit more until the next rainy season comes around. The available water however is so plentiful that the potential for expansion is undeniable. Should LURECDA manage its operations and finances well, they may be in a position to supply electricity to neighboring villages in the near future, particularly if IMG_0040they are able to save enough to finance the construction of another micro-hydro.

Minor management details were knocked around over dinner that night. At what point will they hire a full-time manager, accountant, meter reader and electrician? Would it be practical to ask the T’boli and Manobo to open their own bank account to facilitate the monthly transfer of funds? And so on. Good problems to have, being positive indicators of a business starting to take off. And then there was this IMG_0008letter from the mining company.

One of the burning issues in 2010, when I first came here, was the coal exploration being conducted by big companies in the area in spite of the community’s strong opposition. On balance is the potential damage to the watershed due to open pit mining, which is the usual method of extraction used. It seems that late that year, San Miguel Corporation, one of the nation’s biggest conglomerates, bought the coal mining franchises of several smaller mining companies (Daguma Agro Minerals Inc. and Sultan Energy Philippines Corp., among others) with the intention of diversifying into mining. These mining franchises are not in Sitio Lubo butIMG_0075 elsewhere in the Municipality of Lake Sebu. If reports are to be believed, the Daguma mountain range on which Sitio Lubo is located contains 426 million metric tons of “coal resources.” Big business, harkening to the imagined ka-ching of their cash registers, push on one side of the issue, and indigenous peoples, particularly the T’boli and Manobo tribes of Sitio Lubo, fearing the destruction of the watershed area in their ancestral domain, stand firmly opposed.

In 2011, San Miguel was able to purchase land on which one crucial transmission pole passes through by permission of the previous owner. After the micro-hydropower was commissioned, a series of letters were served on the community demanding that the pole and P6220012transmission line be taken off their property. The last one, dated June 15, gave LURECDA seven days to comply.

Being at the infancy of its operations, LURECDA is hard put to come up with the estimated P18,000 needed to uproot, replant the pole and modify the transmission lines accordingly, and no one as of yet is stepping forward to lend the amount – huge compared to Sitio Lubo’s average per capita income – despite what is looking like a threat of an expensive and drawn-out lawsuit. A board member posited that the unneighborly behavior is a warning, that San Miguel is showing that it can be a major inconvenience for their operations unless a certain arrangement P6220005(mining rights?) can be agreed on.

It was decided that they will meet with San Miguel’s representative and say that they will comply with San Miguel’s demand. But with an eye at San Miguel as a likely LURECDA client in the future, they will negotiate for an advance, P18,000 worth, to be deducted against the company’s electrical consumption when it eventually begins its business operations. Should bargaining fail, LURECDA or the community members themselves will just have to pool their money to remove, replant and rewire the pole. In any case, it was agreed that this problem can be licked one way or another if the board members remain united in their approach.

After breakfast at Allan’s house the next morning, we began our way down the mountain as the five Christian churches in town welcomed everyone for Sunday services.

P6220003In the short time we were here, we witnessed Sitio Lubo townfolk who have managed to be very productive despite the odds in a distant mountain, and who have come up with common sense solutions to startup challenges. Industry, business acumen, and a lot of faith. It would certainly seem that the success of the micro-hydro is assured, and with it the continued preservation of Sitio Lubo’s watershed forest.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Seacology goes to Tubbataha en route to Manamoc Island Project Site Visit

The Manamoc Island project site visit was planned over a year in advance, and included in the itinerary was a visit to the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. However, when news came out that a US Navy minesweeper ran aground at Tubbataha’s south atoll while on its way to Indonesia, we got worried.

It was bad, but not as bad as we expected. As of last report, about uss guardian2,345 square meters of the reef was determined to have been damaged when the USS Guardian was finally removed last March 30. First estimates put the figure at 4,000 square meters. Two dive spots were affected and had to be closed so the area can be allowed to recover.

fishingboat agroundThen a Chinese fishing boat, F/N Min Long Yu, also ran aground a mere two nautical miles from the ranger station at the southwestern end of the north atoll one week before our trip. Initial news reports said that no marine products were found, and that is accurate. But the rangers we visited told us of their bizarre discovery within the wayward boat’s hull that fueled the news while we were at sea.

The fishing boat was still stuck on the reef when we made our visit P4150023to the Tubbataha Ranger Station. On duty at the isolated outpost were Erli Bundal (Philippine Navy) and Norwin Nuevo (Philippine Coast Guard). According to Mr. Bundal, the fishermen on board tried to bribe them with US$2,400 for their quick release. The culprits are now detained in some jail at Puerto Princesa. Their alibi, as far as the bribery charge is concerned, is that they were misunderstood owing to the language barrier, that the money was not a bribe but a proffer in exchange for assistance to extricate their vessel from the reef.

What was not in the news at first is that the rangers, while removing the fishing nets, chanced upon some 500 sacks of dried balintongs, an endangered sub-species of scaly anteaters endemic to Palawan island. These would probably have landed in the shelves of Chinese drugstores alongside rhino horns and dried geckos and scorpions had they not been intercepted. There are laws, such as the Strategic Environment Plan for Palawan Act and the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, that provide for penalties for trading in rare P4150030and endangered species, but it goes on anyway. Traditional Chinese medicine prescribes ground-up anteater scales for cancer, asthma, or to stimulate lactation. One can go on and on with a clinical discourse about poverty-driven poaching and the international pseudo-medicine that drives it, but as with many other issues, nothing wells up frustrations stirred by feckless government efforts to save endangered species higher than an actual incident so close to home.

For now however, the issue that at least has in place some preventive measures, is the protection and conservation of the Tubbataha ecosystem. A UNESCO World Heritage Site covering a little over 130,000 hectares, the Tubbataha reefs include the north and south atolls, as well as the Jessie Beazley Reef. It is a wide expanse that is obviously much too big for the valiant efforts of a tiny ranger station. However, plans are underway for another, more electronically sophisticated ranger station, which should contribute a whole lot more in warding off errant vessels before damage is inflicted.

Scuba diving in Tubbataha is a privilege. Not only is it accessible DSC_1283only by liveaboards, the marine life is unlike any other in the country. Sharks, turtles, stingrays, tunas and other large marine animals are mostly so curious that many of us were able to observe them up-close. While there were a few patches of rubble, most probably remnants of blast fishing before serious protection measures were instituted, the coral gardens are nothing short of magnificent. The long hilly stretch of dense staghorns at the south atoll is certainly very impressive.

A whale shark swam below us during one wall dive, hawksbill and green turtles did not care whether we were virtually nose to nose SS 42with them on other dives, and schools of barracudas and trevally jacks were sighted on several dives. And then there are the reef sharks. Black tips, white tips, and grey reefs are so numerous one could be lulled into thinking that these are ordinary fare on scuba dives anywhere. A wholly visible nurse shark on a ledge that just allowed us to gawk at it for as long as we wanted was a highlight of one of our night dives.

Arguably, the key to Tubbataha’s beauty is its remoteness to human activity. Other reefs are often too close to human settlements that they are extremely vulnerable to over-extraction and degradation. That is unless the island community nearest the reef actively protects and conserves it. And this is precisely what is happening in Manamoc Island.

One of the major problems besetting island communities likeP4210009 Barangay Manamoc is lack of reliable electricity. Its generators depend on fossil fuel, which has to be imported to the island and is very much susceptible to price increases. The relatively high cost of power makes it very difficult for barangay public facilities to provide efficient and effective services to the community. Moreover, the community's generators are usually turned on only at dusk (and turned off at midnight), to provide light for the village. In their high school for instance, students and teachers, before a covenant with Seacology was reached, had to shell out personal money to purchase P4210016gasoline for the sole generator set within the school to power at least 2 of the 6 working computer units in their classroom.
In 2008, in exchange for their commitment to protect a nearby 108-hectare Marine Protected Area (MPA), Seacology funded several solar power supply systems for their community health center, village hall, community training cum multi-purpose center, public high school, public elementary school and the pre-school center. Our partner on the ground, the Andres Soriano Foundation (ASF), has been reporting that the solar power systems have been continuouslyP4210021 serving the community well, and that the MPA is strictly being enforced as a no-take zone.

Last Sunday, April 21, 2013, Seacology Board Member Lucien d'Sa, Executive Director Duane Silverstein, myself and other Seacology guests got to see for ourselves what is actually happening on the ground.

P4210040On our arrival, we were met by dancing children, ASF staff, and barangay officials who briefed us on the status of the MPA. It was reported that the reef suffered a crown of thorns infestation in 2008 but that it has since recovered. The chart we were shown graphed a fish count low of 1,479 in 2008 that dramatically increased to 4,826 in 2012. Also shown was the health of the corals in the MPA, which as of May 6, 2012 was comprised of 50% hard coral, 15% sand, 12% soft coral, 12% rubble, and 11% dead coral with algae. For perspective, there was only 25% mean hard coral cover in 2008.

More importantly, the success of the MPA is being felt by the P4210050community’s fisherfolk who are having better catches just beyond the MPA.

The villagers have organized their own Bantay Dagat or Fish Wardens who continuously patrol the MPA. Poachers, invariably other fisherfolk originating from neighboring islands, are apprehended and fined. Through the fines collected, the villagers were eventually able to purchase a patrol boat exclusively for this purpose.

P4210053After the brief presentation at the beach, we were toured around the village where we saw the solar power systems at work, most notably at the health center where temperature-sensitive medicine such as vaccines are now kept refrigerated, and the national high school where the few functioning units in the computer lab have become usable for at least a few hours during schooldays.

Our visit ended at the ASF Staff House in the island, where the P4210059admirable work of our partner organization in the island was explained in detail. There are many more challenges besetting Barangay Manamoc and the other outlying islands, but in a small way they are certainly fortunate to have NGOs such as the ASF watching out for them.

P4210060This year’s Seacology Expedition to Tubbataha and Manamoc Island offers critical lessons in the management of the earth’s remaining wildlife and resources. A single ship grounding can instantly obliterate wide areas of coral growing for decades, if not centuries. Wanton poaching, for whatever purpose, can drive species to extinction. And a small island community taking responsibility for the protection of its marine resources can cause it to flourish, translating to increased bounty from designated fishing areas.


[Underwater photos courtesy of Randy Wright, Atlantis Azores boat captain who would dive with us occasionally.]