Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hidden Taal


For many tourists the once saltwater Taal Lake can be most conveniently seen from far Tagaytay ridge. But there is also its less seen, less traveled side. DSC_0009

Most famous for its volcano, reportedly one of the “smallest” in the world, the caldera has about 42 known craters, including a huge submerged one and the main crater containing the “lake within a lake”. Until the 1700s, the Pansipit River, which connects the lake to Balayan Bay, was deep enough to enable Chinese trading ships to navigate from one to the other. A series of volcanic eruptions culminating in 1764 severely constricted the breadth and depth of Pansipit River causing the lake to become freshwater.

1404616_10152820792519153_2438168274057253132_oMy wife, daughter and I didn’t consider spending the night at the treehouse near the Taal Lake Conservation Center (TLCC), Barangay Kinalaglagan (literally: where something fell), Municipality of Mataasnakahoy (literally: high branch) as a warning of impending harm until after some thought. But a loose coincidence of names is all they are, thankfully. Despite the ominous descriptions, we found the treehouse private and cozy,  and comfortingly safe. Best of all, it offered a tranquil Taal experience like no other. It is also a perfect jump-off point to the main crater.

In evolutionary terms 300 years is a short time. Even so, over 80 extant endemic and migratory finfish species were able to adapt to the freshwater environment.  Possibly the most known of the endemic species because of its high commercial value is the tawilis (sardinella tawilis), a freshwater sardine found only in Taal Lake that greatly contributes to the economy and food supply of the area. Next in importance are the two migratory species of jacks, the muslo DSC_0014(caranx sexfasciatus) and maliputo (caranx ignobilis), not because they are less preferred but because they are rarer and more difficult to harvest in commercial quantities. These migratory variants of their ocean-going cousins swim to the lake as juveniles to mature into adults and go back to the sea to spawn, traversing the Pansipit River in both instances. The river is the lake’s only connection to the sea.

But there are niggling problems that threaten the fragile ecosystem.

DSC_0034On our boat ride en route to Pansipit River, Pusod Executive Director Ann Hazel Javier pointed out some fishpens near Talisay town. Tilapia (oreochromis niloticus or nile tilapia) fishpens were introduced into the lake in 1971, and in Pansipit River in 1988. Some escaped and the omnivore is now found everywhere in the lake. Efforts to contain the proliferation of fishpens came a little late, but have scored some notable successes. From a high of 14,000 fishpens in 2009, the total was brought down to the current 5,000. Also, as of 2011, all the fishpens in the Pansipit River have been removed.

Leading the efforts to sustainably manage Taal Lake is Pusod, an NGO working with Taal Lake 2014-11-08 12.49.10communities, and the KMMLT (Kilusan ng Maliliit na Mangingisda sa Lawa ng Taal), an association of small-scale fisherfolk coming from the 13 lakeshore municipalities and 3 cities. Both are prominent members of Taal Volcano Protected Landscape Protected Area Management Board (TVPL-PAMB), which is spearheading efforts on the lake’s sustainable use.

Maan, one of the KMMLT members trained to be a tour guide, answered our initial questions about Taal with authority upon our arrival while serving us sumang haba (rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in coconut milk) and kapeng barako (Batangas brewed coffee). Bits of data seemed always at her fingertips, ready to be dished out when appropriate. We were later joined by Ipat Luna, Pusod board member, who took us to the TLCC’s diorama of the lake for a visual presentation of its geography and issues.

There are other invasive species in the lake apart from the Nile tilapia that either compete with endemic species for food or prey on them, or both. There is the Chinese soft-shelled turtle (pelodiscus sinensis), also an omnivore. The presence of “jaguar guapote” (Parachromis 2014-11-18 19.14.33managuensis ), a piscivorous cichlid from Central America found in the aquarium trade, has also been reported.

As luck would have it, our visit coincided with that of the group from the University of Santo Tomas led by Dr. Rey Donne Papa who has just embarked on a two-year study of the lake. While there have been a slew of studies on Taal since 1904, there remains a dearth of materials with respect to the specific aspects of the life cycle of lake’s many species, save perhaps for the tawilis. Hopefully his study will help policy makers formulate strategies particularly in controlling the proliferation of invasive species.

As we trekked towards the main crater, Ann pointed to one of two incongruous elementary schools in the island serving the communities in the area that has been declared a permanent danger zone. If nothing else, it shows the policies some politicians fecklessly advocate only to undermine them through their action or inaction in the name of political accommodation. 10443345_907714062578374_7672660477020099875_n

The view of the highly sulfurous crater lake was imposing. And threatening. Smoke was rising out of several vents, a sign that the volcano is restive. With the activity of some volcanoes in the pacific rim of late, most notably that of Mayon Volcano a month ago, we were worried for the settlers in the island. Evacuation to a safe distance in case of a sudden eruption may take several days.

10502090_907713389245108_5766710908909684072_nPerhaps no other group is more aware of the precarious state of Taal’s fishing industry than the KMMLT. It actively supports the lake’s 1,300 hectare fish sanctuary through regular patrols, in the hope of increasing the tawilis population. With the help of Pusod, the KMMLT has been encouraging its members to explore other sources of livelihood, recognizing that the lake’s fishing industry may have already reached its limit. Tour guiding, beekeeping, and food service are some of the trades the KMMLT members are being trained in, with most of it happening at the TLCC. We’ve been told that the honey they make is being sold almost as fast as the bees can produce it thanks to the patronage of The Farm at San Benito, an upscale resort operating in nearby Lipa City that engages the KMMLT’s services regularly for tours. We wanted to sample some of the honey vinaigrette but 20141109_001310122_iOSthat too was sold out.

Maribel Orense, President of the KMMLT Chapter in Mataasnakahoy, can be seen darting from table to kitchen at the TLCC, which despite the damage wrought by typhoon Glenda on July 15 of this year still managed to host two dining tables, one for us and another for Dr. Papa’s group. And if there is one thing that is really worth going back for, it’s the food — so deliciously unique to Taal that my belly keeps reminding me of it.

20141109_022936160_iOSTyphoon Glenda badly damaged the TLCC. Walls were torn away, roofing flew, and nothing but the base of other structures were left. Originally built with the help of the Municipal Government of Mataasnakahoy, the KMMLT and Pusod are still struggling to rebuild it several months after.

We saw fireflies, said to be bioindicators of a healthy ecosystem, inside the treehouse as we were preparing to sleep. There is hope for Taal yet.


[Some photos courtesy of Pusod, Inc.}

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Seacology in the Philippines and how it works


While meeting a potential partner together with Karen Peterson and Mary Randolph, who flew all the way from Seacology’s Berkeley office to look at some of our project sites, it occurred to me that the way we select our projects may not be all that clear to many people.IMGP7069

The short version is the community’s commitment to protect their natural resource forms the basis of all Seacology projects in the Philippines. Everything else stems from that. To go to the details, we have to begin with how Seacology came to be, and that starts in Samoa.

Education in Samoa conforms to an arrangement where villages provide land and school buildings while the government in turn provides the teachers and curriculum. But when the government told the villagers of Falealupo to either build a better school or it will pull out the teachers, the villagers decided to sell logging rights to 120 square kilometers of rainforest surrounding their community so they can finance the school building and secure the continued education of their children. When Dr. Paul Cox, an American ethnobiologist doing research in the forests heard of the ultimatum, he approached the Falealupo leaders with a proposal. If he can raise the money for the school, would they agree to conserve their forest in perpetuity? After overcoming apprehensions about foreigners with offers that seem too good to be true, they agreed. Dr. Cox approached friends and colleagues, and managed to raise the needed funds. Seacology was born, along with the quid pro quo formula spelling out Seacology’s deal with island communities: a village’s commitment to protect its natural resource in exchange for Seacology’s provision of a tangible need.

IMGP7056Not all Seacology projects present themselves in this fashion. In the Philippines, working towards a covenant with a community is often a case of having to face at least three hurdles. First, because the community often relies on the natural resource for subsistence, the question of food and livelihood has to be addressed. Second, the community must view the tangible as a fulfillment of a real and clear need, otherwise it will be no different from other structures derisively called white elephants some politicians foist on communities to get kickbacks. And third, the community must substantiate their commitment by presenting a viable and sustainable conservation mechanism that they will adhere to.IMGP7067

In some of our projects, the community’s commitment ties up well with the tangible in that the benefit they get is dependent on how they fulfill their end of the bargain. Barangay Bagong Bayan in Roxas, Palawan committed to protect 825 hectares of their watershed in exchange for Seacology’s help in rehabilitating their micro-hydro power generator. Similarly, the Manobos of Sitio Malumpine in Malasila, North Cotabato committed protection of their 300.998 hectares of watershed forest in exchange for a micro-hydro power station and tree nursery. And then again, Barangays Calandog, Sta. Cruz and Buenavista in Murcia, Negros Occidental committed 2,000 hectares of watershed in exchange for ram pumps that will supply water to their houses. In these three cases, as well as a few others, conservation commitments are inseparable from the effectiveness of the tangibles. Simply, if the communities want to continue to have water on their taps and cheap electricity for their rice cookers and lights, they have to make sure their watersheds continue to produce water. The role of Seacology’s partner NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) and POs (People’s Organizations) is to get everyone in the community onboard the idea that deriving a virtually endless benefit from the natural resource is far better than getting short-term marginal profits from, say, charcoal-making that will eventually deplete the watershed and/or the mangroves.

IMGP7166In other projects, the link between the natural resource, the community’s need, and the tangible is not so clear. We are often asked for tangibles that will support or augment local tourism, such as a mangrove boardwalk or a tourist information center. At times however, there is a perception that only those who have direct contact with tourists, tour operators and lodging houses for example, are benefitting from the industry. Unaccounted are those who are not on the frontlines such as food producers and craft makers who will also benefit from the increased demand. The increase in employment incidental to tourism will also be subtle. In making sure that the community fully understands what they are committing to, we rely heavily on our partner NGOs and POs to build a strong consensus among the villagers so that both need and benefits are clear and the collective decision to enter into a covenant with Seacology is freely given.IMGP7170

Last week, we met with the leaders of Barangay Sibaltan in El Nido, Palawan led by Barangay Captain Arvin Gabayan, and representatives of the local PO, KAMIYAN (Kalikasan Alagaan Mahalin Ingatan Yaman Ay Napapakinabangan) led by immediate past Barangay Captain and KAMIYAN Chair Carmelita Acosta and Vice Chair Rowel Bacaltos. In 2011, along with Barangays New Ibajay, Villa Paz and Mabini, they committed to protect 190 hectares of coral reef fronting the barangays as well as 974.63 hectares of mangrove forest in exchange for guardhouses, patrol bancas, marker buoys and signages, communication equipment, and cashew processing implements. The impetus to conserve their reef and mangrove comes from the community’s intention to develop tourism. Several budding resorts are already in operation, offering a quieter and more tranquil alternative to the establishments around Bacuit Bay. Their Bantay Dagat (Reef Wardens) have been vigilant in protecting the reefs and mangroves. A number of poachers, mostly coming from the neighboring municipalities, have been apprehended and the word is out that the area is heavily patrolled.

IMGP7333Many of the environment protection policies in the Philippines emanate from the top, in the form of laws. An example is the NIPAS Act, which designates certain geographic notables in the archipelago as Protected Areas. This and similar laws are important, as these lay down the legal basis for enforcement. Unfortunately this will often remain unobserved on the ground unless the communities situated therein find it relevant to their lives. National policies need to be complemented by grassroots initiatives before any conservation can begin. In most cases, the communities Seacology works with issue their own barangay resolutions and lobby for municipal ordinances in support of and specific to their commitment. In short, in Seacology’s model, conservation emanates from the grassroots upwards.

The heavy lifting in preparing the El Nido communities (the four eastern villages of El Nido, as well as those on the western side with respect to two of our other projects, specifically the installation of mooring buoys in dive and snorkeling sites and the Tres Marias reef restoration) was done and continues to be done by our partner, the El Nido Foundation. Their work with the communities goes ecoreef install2beyond the scope of our projects, addressing issues like sustainable ecotourism management, reproductive health and other community health issues, and livelihood enhancement. Our other partners are similarly active with the communities in their areas. The point is that the success of Seacology’s projects is largely dependent on the level of commitment of our partner NGOs and POs.

We continue to look for ways to improve project selection and implementation in the Philippines. Island by island and village by village, with a lot of help from our project partners, we think we are making a difference.


[All photos courtesy of the El Nido Foundation]

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mooring buoys for El Nido’s Reefs


El Nido’s Bacuit Bay coral reefs used to be pristine, massive, and teeming with life.

In the 1970s, live-aboard dive boats would travel all the way from Manila to El Nido. It was the onlyENF-2(A.Germino) way scuba divers could explore the area in relative comfort, as traveling to and from El Nido then was, to put it mildly, arduous. There was no airport, and the wooden commercial ships that serviced it listed and rocked, and treated passengers braving the 18-hour journey to a variety of smells that either induced or enhanced seasickness in all but the saltiest of seafarers. But it was also a time when the sea was so rich that one could easily catch a good-size Spanish mackerel just 50 feet off El Nido town, if the older folks here are to be believed.

It isn’t so much like that anymore. There is still plenty to see, but protecting what remains has reached a point of urgency. Certainly, the total 447 reef-building coral species plus 44 unconfirmed species identified in a 2009 study are worth saving.

Picture6Coral reefs have been likened to the canary in the coalmine by some marine biologists from the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. Left alone, they should tell us the environmental effects of changes in the ocean acidification, temperature, light, and nutrients. If we are willing to listen, they should tell us if the air in the mine we are in, as it were, is getting toxic.

Critical havens in a Darwinian ecosystem, coral reefs also provide refuge and prey for exotic marine life that follow a reward system as old as the earth itself: survivors will get to spawn the next, slightly better generation of their kind. Yet for all the benefits we have collectively derived from coral reefs, human activity remains one of the most Graph1significant contributors to coral reef degradation.

In the mid-1980s, the first resort was built in the island of Minilog (now re-christened Miniloc), and snorkeling as well as other marine sport activities were offered aside from scuba diving. Soon, the inexorable uptrend in tourism began. More island resorts have been built, along with over 300 hotels and inns in El Nido town. The number of tourists increased fivefold since 1994, when data collection began, to 62,960 as of last year. Picture3

The Municipality of El Nido has some of the most vigilant protectors of its natural resource. But balancing tourism’s benefits to the local economy against the consequential pressure it bears on the community’s resources is tough. One unintended impact is the degradation of the coral reefs.

To be sure, most tourists are appreciative of El Nido’s coral reefs. It is the less careful few who inadvertently step on or kick corals that do damage. Combine that with the indiscriminate dropping of anchors on dive sites and snorkeling areas and you can imagine how years if not decades worth of coral growth can turn to rubble in one season.Picture2

Most establishments, notably the island resorts operated by the Ten Knots Development Corporation, have been continuously engaging their guests in the campaign for responsible tourism. Environment-friendly operations have always been the goal. In fact, as far back as the late 1980s, efforts were made to deploy mooring buoys for the dive boats being used by the resort in Miniloc Island. But the buoys were stolen weeks or months later. With the establishment of its sister resorts in Pangulasian and Langen (now Lagen) Islands in the early 1990s, the company embarked on a renewed and more vigorous effort to set up mooring buoys once more. But one by one, in the course of several months, the buoys were again stolen.

IMG_0389At the forefront of this latest effort to protect El Nido’s corals is the El Nido Foundation, which began a campaign in 2012 to adopt the Green Fins best practices guidelines. Signs pushing admonitions like “Don’t step on the coral” or “Don’t feed the fish” sprouted around shops offering tours. Establishments worked to be accredited with the Green Fins program so tourists will know that they are environmentally responsible.

The El Nido Foundation’s coastal resource management program dovetails with Seacology’s core belief that the community should take responsibility in the management of its resources. With this as backdrop, hands were met for the El Nido Mooring Buoy Project. In setting up the mooring buoys 20140511_014752600_iOSthis time around, the townsfolk of El Nido are active participants. Local divers, the coast guard, and even some tourists have been helping to screw in place the helix-type anchors for the mooring buoys. The dive shops are filling scuba tanks for free. Other establishments offer food, fuel, and free use of their boats.

Community members who gave their time and resources to the Mooring Buoy Project were awarded certificates of recognition during modest ceremonies at the municipal hall’s covered basketball court last May 10, 2014. The following day, the ceremonial installation of the first buoy was conducted at Pinagbuyutan Island.

20140511_015009300_iOSWith everyone invested in the project, there are a lot more eyes watching the buoys with a little pride, and hopefully this will allow the buoys to serve their purpose for a long, long time.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Walking the Walk on the San Vicente Boardwalk



Brutally struck by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake on October 15, 2013 and drenched by incessant torrential rain from super-typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) just three weeks later, the island of Bohol was all but devastated.

20140221_060616816_iOSIt must have seemed cataclysmic in the biblical sense, enough for anyone to question his faith. Concrete houses and buildings, including the centuries-old parish church of the Municipality of Maribojoc, where Barangay San Vicente belongs, crumbled to the ground in a matter of minutes. Yet the first thing the villagers did after extracting a relatively unscathed 400-year-old wooden icon of the Virgin Mary from the church rubble was to hold an impromptu religious procession.

Faith runs deep within many Boholanos. The province has produced 20140221_053953074_iOSmore Catholic priests than any other province in the country. Even the current mayor of Maribojoc is a former man of the cloth who went underground during the years of the Marcos dictatorship. This enduring religiosity is perhaps the quality that gives them the means to overcome the most trying of situations.

20140221_014600513_iOSOver a year before, Barangay San Vicente asked for Seacology’s help in reconstructing their dilapidated 500-meter mangrove boardwalk and extending it to 800 meters. Maribojoc’s mangroves, covering 922.683 hectares, are some of the province’s thickest, and the barangay itself has a diverse mangrove forest with 25 different species of mangrove trees as identified in a 1997 Silliman University study. Some of the dominant families are Palmae, Acanthaceae, Aegicerataceae, Rhizoporaceae, Avecenniaceae, and Sonneratiaceae. The 1997 research, which was spurred by increasing complaints from local fisherfolk of declining catches, was conducted to assess the effectiveness of their mangrove's natural function as a fish nursery.

Upon learning that the increasing number of fish traps and indiscriminate cutting within the mangrove were adversely affecting 20140221_032854126_iOSthe fish stock of nearby traditional fishing grounds, the community decided to take steps to preserve the resource. Using the mangroves as source for firewood, charcoal, building and fencing materials was banned, and fish traps were allowed only within well-defined areas beyond the mangrove forest’s core. The village then formed the San Vicente Mangrove Forest Association (SAVIMA), and applied for and acquired in 1999 from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources a 25-year Community-based Forest Management Agreement covering 56.25 hectares of mangrove forest. Through the assistance of a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer and modest funds from the Department of Labor and Employment, the village was able to DSC00955construct a 500-meter bamboo boardwalk and eco-tourism information center, which has since become their alternative source of income and an impetus for the mangrove's protection and conservation. Their “Mangrove Adventure Tour” achieved some success, initially attracting tourists near and far. However, the number of visitors began to decrease since its peak around 2006 mainly because the boardwalk was becoming dilapidated and less attractive.DSC01009

Seacology’s partner, PROCESS Bohol supervised the boardwalk construction. Technical personnel, as well as cement mixers and other machines, were lent by the Municipality of Maribojoc. By extending the boardwalk a further 300 meters, they were able to connect to nearby Tintinan Island, increasing the boardwalk’s potential many times over. But just when the boardwalk was nearly done, the earthquake struck.

20140221_031906085_iOSAbout two weeks ago, Emmie Roslinda of PROCESS Bohol informed me that the SAVIMA Boardwalk was to be inaugurated on February 21, to coincide with Bohol Governor Edgar Chatto’s birthday. I must confess that my mind was still running on images fueled by post earthquake and typhoon news reports and photos so the thrill I normally feel on learning of a Seacology project’s completion had a mix of apprehension. Totally unjustified, it turned out. At the Tagbilaran Airport, the porters, guards, transportation people, and even the vendors outside were… cheerful! The phrase ‘business as usual’ does not quite capture it.

The following day, en route to San Vicente from the capital, Tagbilaran City, Emmie occasionally pointed out some landslides 20140221_033107780_iOScaused by the earthquake. Our ride was fairly smooth considering that there was a lot of roadwork still going on. It is hard to believe that four months ago huge cracks on the island’s road network and collapsed bridges rendered Maribojoc and many other parts of Bohol inaccessible.

Maribojoc’s affable Vice Mayor, Jun Redulla, met us at the site. His house, like most whose houses were made of concrete or brick, was destroyed by the earthquake, but no trace of his misfortune can be found in his demeanor. Apparently, houses made of indigenous housing materials like lumber, bamboo, sawali, amakan and nipa better withstood the tremblor. There goes our cherished childhood lesson from The Three Little Pigs.

20140221_015331505_iOSThe vice mayor showed us a fissure on the road leading to the boardwalk, and pointed to a distant landslide on the side of a mountain. And in praise of his province-mates, he mentioned a word I have lately been hearing often to describe the earthquake and typhoon survivors: resilient.

There were speeches and a ribbon cutting ceremony, standard fare DSC01014of any inauguration, and there was also the proud singing of the Provincial Hymn after that of the National Anthem. SAVIMA president, Septima Pugio, introduced their association’s officers as well as that of Barangay San Vicente. SAVIMA member and Barangay Captain Pedro Jaminal gave a few words too. But the highlight is going through the length of the boardwalk itself.

DSC01003Walking the first few meters felt good and solid, but then we felt a brief shaking that strangely disappeared as we progressed. I looked back to find that a number of villagers have decided to join us, so I attributed the tremor to the unsynchronized steps trudging over the walkway. I found out from the news later that another aftershock ran through the island at about that time.

A leisurely pace on the wending boardwalk, purposely fashioned to 20140221_012951609_iOSavoid cutting any mangrove tree, can take some time, and one can appreciate the wisdom of having two rest and observation decks along the way. Juvenile fishes, crabs, birds and a few monkeys may be observed up close. Emmie tells me that they will soon be putting signs on some of the mangrove trees to indicate their species.

At the end of the boardwalk is the 1.2-hectare uninhabited island of Tintinan. After the sheltering confines of the mangrove forest, seeing the vast expanse of the sea was refreshing. When Governor Chatto asked of my impression, I remarked that the area has a huge tourism potential. To his credit, he said that the challenge is to ensure that waste management mechanisms are in place before embarking on any further development.

20140221_014023911_iOSAs it is, the SAVIMA Boardwalk is a haven for naturalists and photographers. Just a 45-minute drive from Tagbilaran City, it is an ideal stop on the way to the island’s other tourist destinations. Homestay programs are also available for those who would like to be with the warm, friendly, enterprising, and yes, resilient, Boholanos up close.