2. Reclaiming the island reefs

Posted: 10 November 2003

Author: Linda Bolido and Alan White

Author Info: Linda Bolido is People & the Planet correspondent in the Philippines. Alan White is Co-ordinator of the Coastal Resources Management Project (CRMP) in Cebu City.

Faced with growing destruction of their coral reefs, more and more communities in the far-flung Philippine islands are joining the battle to manage and conserve their coasts. Linda Bolido and Alan White report.

Luis de la Concepcion III tried to get out of the family "business".

The son of fisher folk, he moved out of his small village in the central Philippines province of Negros Occidental to try his luck in Manila, the country's capital. After finding life just as tough in the big city, De la Concepcion is now back in Caliling where local legend says giants roamed in the past.

He has taken up fishing once again but often still finds himself with very little to show for his efforts. Using simple tools like multiple hooks and lines and nets and sharing his catch with the owner of the boat he uses, the fisherman on a good day gets a little less than $2 and on a bad day less than 50 cents. Unlike the situation 10 years ago, when catches of 15 kgs were common, today's catch is unlikely to exceed 2kgs. Harsh weather means not going out to sea at all.

Things have not always been that bad for the local fishermen. But the unwise exploitation of marine resources over the years has taken its toll. Ham Chua, president of Calaogao Marginal Fishers Association (CAMAFA), said illegal methods - including dynamite, cyanide, natural poisons, electrical current - were used before, causing untold damage to the reefs and marine resources. Fish eggs were collected and mangrove trees were used as Christmas decor.

Chua said when the current conservation efforts in Caliling started sometime in 1994, "Only 32 per cent of coral reefs were left not only due to illegal fishing but also because of soil erosion."

This situation was not unique to the Negros village. By 1991 experts were reporting that about 70 per cent of the Philippines' coral reefs were in poor or, at best, fair condition. Excellent reefs comprised only five per cent of the estimated total of 27,000 square kilometres. That is indeed a terrible state of affairs for a country which, with some 7,100 islands, has a shoreline longer than the continental United States.

With up to 25 per cent of the country's total fish catch associated with coral reefs and with fish providing more than 50 per cent of the Filipinos' animal protein intake, there was compelling reason to act on the problem. Government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have both taken steps to solve the problem. But even more significant is the growing trend among local communities to take the initiative in restoring and conserving their natural resources.

Fishermen, Mindoro Island, Philippines© Julio Etchart/Reportage/Still PicturesWhat is happening in Caliling now is just one of the latest initiatives by a community to manage its resources. The community has already succeeded in getting the Cauayan municipal board to declare some 200 hectares of the Hulao-hulao (the name of another giant) reef a fish sanctuary. CAMAFA, which has some 50 members, is reforesting the uplands, rehabilitating the watershed, replanting mangroves, carefully policing Caliling's coastlines and building a boat to chase illegal fishers away. It has also launched alternative livelihood activities to help raise members' incomes.

Caliling took its cue from a much-admired initiative on the other side of the island of Negros. In the eastern part of the two-province island, Silliman University, which is based in Negros Oriental's capital city of Dumaguete, has succeeded in getting people to recognize and act on the need to protect and preserve their coral reefs and other marine resources.

Protecting resources

Getting people's co-operation was not easy. Dr Angel Alcala, former Silliman president and former secretary of environment and natural resources, said: "The most difficult problem...is to convince the hungry communities (of Caliling) to protect their resources...People have a tendency to cut mangroves or remove corals because of ignorance on the roles of environment in ensuring bountiful harvests."

Alcala, 1992 winner of Asia's prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in Public Service for his pioneering work in the rehabilitation of the Philippines coral reefs, talkedabout such things as how a good coral reef produces 25 tons of fish per square kilometre annually while a destroyed reef yields less than five tons. But lectures could only go so far. As another Silliman faculty member observed, "Inherent in fisher folk is the need to see in order to believe."

What clinched it for Alcala was being able to prove to the Caliling folk that what he was talking about can really come to pass. The marine biologist, who set up the Philippines' first marine sanctuary on Sumilon Island, Cebu, arranged for the fisher folk to visit Apo Island, where Silliman University had persuaded the locals to set up a community-based coastal management programme. Learning from previous experience about the need to involve local people, the Silliman team of professional community organizers, worked hand-in-hand with Apo families from the beginning.

Like Caliling, Apo was in danger of losing its corals due to destructive fishing methods such as explosives and fine mesh nets. Fish catches and, consequently, incomes were declining. As people earned less, the use of destructive fishing methods increased causing even greater damage to the fishing grounds.

The Silliman team initiated in 1985 the community-based Marine Conservation and Development Programme (MDCP), in 1985 to enable local communities to protect and/or enhance their marine resources. The programme included the establishment of marine reserves and sanctuaries. Livelihood projects, environment education activities, community development training, agroforestry and water development schemes, and outreach programmes to get more communities involved were also undertaken.Now completely in the hands of the local stakeholders, the Apo initiative in community-based coastal management has proven effective in preserving the coral reef and fisheries surrounding this small island. It has since become both a showcase and a model of successful community-based management programme for other small islands and mainland communities.

By 1992, Apo fisher folk reported "that the marine reserve and sanctuary on their island had caused no decrease in fish catch or personal income." Most believed the sanctuary had even significantly improved fishing, serving as a breeding place for fish.

CAMAFA member Leodegario Morales, an upland farmer displaced by insurgency in Negros, recalled their visit: "There were a lot of fish in Apo. Corals are protected. We saw that it was possible to protect corals and earn a good living. The people there owned appliances and had good houses. The community was progressive and they have good schools."

The visitors also saw how conservation earned extra income by making Apo's rich coral reefs a major tourist attraction. Chua said, "We think we will earn more money if we can also attract tourists the way Apo has."If Apo's community-based project has served as a model and inspiration to the neighbouring land of the giants, another community-based movement in the northern Philippines has figuratively slain a giant.

Residents of the coastal town of Bolinao in Pangasinan, Philippine President Fidel Ramos's home province, have successfully barred the opening of a huge Taiwanese-financed cement plant in their community. Assurances by the proponents that the cement complex will not only be the biggest (it was estimated to cost P13.5-16 billion or over US$ 500 million) but the cleanest in the world did not weaken opposition spearheaded by the Movement of Bolinao Concerned Citizens, Inc. (MBCCI).

Unified frontHelen T. Yap, Professor at the University of the Philippines's Marine Science Institute, says the controversy might have been the first time the community presented a really unified front. However, she believes years of work by the Institute and others to raise the people's environmental awareness helped. The Institute has been in Bolinao since 1980, setting up a marine laboratory there. Its community-based Coastal Resources Management Project (CRMP) conducted educational campaigns on the recent controversy.

Yap recalled that even when they were just starting, they had more trouble selling their work to politicians than to ordinary people, even fisher folk. "People who live on the coast appreciate their resources," Yap said. Thus, the locals readily accepted the laboratory in Bolinao, whose reefs form part of the Bolinao-Anda chain declared as "environmentally critical habitat" by President Ramos who launched in 1993 the "Save the Lingayen Gulf" campaign for this and neighbouring areas in Pangasinan.

Coral damage caused by boat anchors, Philppines© Ken BuraMembers of the MBCCI consulted with the marine laboratory's scientists, who warned that the cement plant would result in heavy dust fallout and depletion of groundwater. Potential environmental risks, particularly for marine resources, are also posed by increased quarrying, the operation of a coal-fired power plant, and pollution from cargo ships, among others.

MBCCI held rallies and wrote hundreds of letters to government officials, local and foreign NGOs, and the media seeking support for their cause. Virginia Pasalo, chair of the Women in Development Foundation, said, "We had to pray. It was our only chance."

Collaboration between experts and the local communities is also breathing new life into the waters of Guiuan in the central Philippines province of Eastern Samar. With their waters fished almost to extinction, the communities teamed up with the Guiuan Development Foundation, Inc. (GDFI), a social development organization set up by marine biologist Margarita de la Cruz to help fisher folk.

GDFI organized the communities, promoted the use of more environment-friendly fishing methods, and introduced alternative livelihood activities. It asked experts from the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development (PCAMRD) to assess Guiuan's waters and suggest solutions. On PCAMRD's recommendation, the Bagonbanua Marine Resource Replenishment Project (BMRRP) was set up which served as a model for other marine reserves and sanctuaries in the area.

Similar community-based coastal management projects are now being launched in many parts of the Philippines. Like the ones cited, they are based on the belief that local resident resource users and stakeholders are the real coastal resource managers. Every successful project has, one way or another, transformed those closest to the resources into "decision-makers" on how best to protect and maintain the reefs, fish stocks, mangroves, and clean marine waters.

The approach is not simple. It is, in fact, quite difficult with many obstacles to overcome like poverty, growing population and weak formal government institutions. Successes, like those mentioned, are characterized by a combination of factors: strong NGOs, improved local government support, responsive donors, effective professional community-level workers and, an increased willingness to try integrated approaches which link various government sectors with NGO and community groups.

See also: WRI Apo Island feature