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.
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.
Not 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.
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.
In 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.
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.
Many 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 beyond 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]