Power company rescues Philippine mangroves

Posted: 11 May 2004

Author: Linda Bolido

Environmentalists were not happy when a Philippine company decided to construct a big coal-fired power station on the coast at Pagbilao, a poor town some 93 miles south of the capital, Manila. But, by setting out to restore the most diverse mangrove forest in the country, the company has earned their respect and the support of the local community.

Among them is Edgardo Gutierrez who, when no construction jobs are available, paddles his brother's boat to collect germinated mangrove propagules or "seedlings" which are helping to restore the mangrove forest.

Workers at Mirant's mangrove nursery earn important extra wages.© Linda B. Bolido
Workers at Mirant's mangrove nursery earn important extra wages.© Linda B. Bolido
Workers at Mirant's mangrove nursery earn important extra wages.© Linda B. Bolido
No one knows how many propagule collectors there are among the 56,000 residents of Pagbilao. But Gutierrez earned 1,000 pesos (US$18) that week, after selling the propagules to a nursery ran by the largest private electricity producer in the country.

However, nursery employee Manuel Enoveges said some collectors earn as much as 2,500 pesos (US$45) a week -- in a region where the monthly minimum wage is only 4,740 pesos (US$86).

Gutierrez and other propagule collectors are at the forefront of efforts by Mirant Philippines and its partners to restore 150 hectares (370 acres) of mangrove forests. With Mirant's 735 megawatt coal-fired plant, Pagbilao has gained a reputation as a power centre. This and another Mirant-owned plant provides electricity for about 40 million Filipinos or nearly half the country's population.

Low-sulphur

Environmentalists were not as welcoming as Gutierrez when the Pagbilao plant was started. Although the Pagbilao plant uses low-sulfur coal from Indonesia, coal-powered plants account for about one-third of the world's green house gas emissions.

Last year, the company launched the Carbon Sink Initiative, in cooperation with local governments and the Philippines' Department of Energy and Natural Resources. Mirant pledged an initial 30 million pesos ($545,000). This donation, the largest corporate donation to an environmental project in the country, cemented Mirant's reputation as a socially responsible company.

The company and its partners hope that the effort to restore the mangrove forest, an additional 150 hectares (370 acres) of upland forests, and the establishment of a marine sanctuary in Pagbilao Bay, will serve a number of environmental and social benefits.

"While this project is not intended to fully offset the [greenhouse gas] emissions from our plant in Pagbilao, we hope to help reforest the area and build closer bonds with the community," said Mary Beth Parker, Mirant's manager of environmental policy and corporate citizenship.

Although they named the project the Carbon Sink Initiative to illustrate the role that forests play in storing carbon dioxide, the heart of the project is the restoration of Pagbilao's mangrove forests. Lauretta Burke, a researcher at the World Resources Institute, said that her studies indicate that by the late 1980s the Philippines had already lost two-thirds of its original mangrove cover.

Aquarium fish

Quezon Province, where Pagbilao is located, used to have 14,940 hectares (36,918 acres) in 1969, it dropped to only 923 hectares (2,280 acres) by 1991. Pagbilao has 693 hectares (1,712 acres) of the remaining mangroves. Nearly all of its mangroves are second-growth forests. Despite this, Pagbilao's mangroves are considered the most diverse in the country and scientists have found 56 percent (19 species) of all true mangrove species growing along the town's coasts.

Burke said that as with the rest of the Philippines, much of the destruction of its mangrove forests is caused by conversion into shrimp and fish farms, and illegal logging.

In 1993, the latest data available, 261,402 hectares (646,000 acres) of mangroves were being used for aquaculture. In Pagbilao, fishponds cover 1,146 hectares (2,831 acres).

"Mangroves function as the goalkeepers of nutrients and sediments from the land," Burke said. "They stabilise sediments facilitating coral reef development in areas that might otherwise have too much silt for coral growth."

This is especially important since Pagbilao Bay is considered one of the richest marine areas in Luzon island. There is a thriving trade in tropical aquarium fishes and some 2,048 fishermen depend on the bounty of the bay.

Complementing the mangrove restoration project is the establishment of a 10 hectare marine sanctuary in Pagbilao Bay and pilot projects to replant sea grasses. Although some still complain about a shipment of sub-standard coal that was dumped into the bay by Mirant's suppliers, fishermen are generally happy with the progress of the projects.

"The fish are coming back; including high-value species like samaral, talakitok, and tanguigue," said fisherman Fred Rendon, who is president of the Association for Nature and the Environment.

Linda Bolido is an environmental reporter for the Philippines Daily Inquirer and is People & the Planet correspondent in that country. She contributed this article to WRI Features.