It’s been some time since I last blogged for Reef-World, in fact an embarrassingly long time. I could update you on all the activities I have been involved in as Reef-World manager over the past year. I could tell you about the training we did for boat drivers who take tourists to snorkel the fragile coral reefs of Puerto Galera in the Philippines, to teach them how to protect their livelihoods and natural heritage. I could tell you about the workshop we ran for the national Government of the Philippines to teach them about approaches which will strengthen their Sustainable Coral Reef Ecosystem Management Program. I could tell you about the new law we helped a local government to pass in a popular diving destination to ensure all local dive guides are trained in environmental standards for scuba diving. I could tell you about the lobbying we have done within international intergovernmental organisations to put pressure on a certain national government to control tourism activities which are encouraging the feeding of whale sharks for the entertainment of tourists. I could tell you about the scientific paper we have written reporting on the data we collected from our work with Green Fins and dive centres, showing that the project is really making a difference and encouraging people to change their attitudes and way of life for a more sustainable diving industry. I could tell you about how the governance and strategic directions of Reef-World have flourished and diversified since we appointed a new board of trustees.
Instead I’m going to tell you about a little precious and enchanting corner of our world which I had the pleasure of visiting recently. El Nido, northern Palawan in the Philippines. After a 6 hour journey through the almost pristine forests of Palawan along roads so bumpy a Chelsea tractor would complain, I stumbled out of the bus bleary eyed and feeling more than a little travel sick and instantly thought I had travelled back in time. Wooden fronted buildings lope between thick greenery with a backdrop of cascading limestone cliffs falling from clouds so high they rival the likes of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers. A crisscross of roads, almost wide enough to pass as single lanes in Europe, are the thoroughfares for spluttering tricycles driving headlight to taillight with the random and more than a little frequent chirp of the horn to shimmy on the traffic, always complemented by a wave and a big bright smile from the driver. The town is bordered by a soft white sand beach draped by coconut trees reaching out to the colourful Philippine style wooden boats which line the sparkling turquoise ocean shallows. These shallows gently slope down to deeper seagrass beds, home to the magical and desperately endangered dugongs, and eventually give way to buzzing and vibrant coral reefs.
I had been told that the people of Palawan possess a certain sense of understanding regarding their environment. While I truly believe that respect for the Philippine oceans is deep within the hearts of all Filipinos, the general understanding of the consequences of people’s actions is lacking. The Philippines, similarly to any other island nation of the world, is defined by the legacy remaining from many generations; that the oceans will remain an endless supply of life and wealth no matter what we throw at or deny it. As a marine biologist and environmental educator, the whispering promises that Palawan’s communities behold this understanding has always been of great curiosity to me.
Working in marine conservation carries its emotional baggage. Our oceans are in trouble and as a global nation we seem to point blank refuse to accept that change is essential. This is woven into each day of my work, each decision I make, each hurdle I jump. It can become quite disheartening. This is why I have learned to grasp each positive encounter I have with both hands, bundle it up and store it for less happy times. During the two weeks I spent in El Nido I’m thrilled to say that such moments worth savouring happened on a damn near daily basis. Seriously, that’s no exaggeration.
During the process of introducing a marine conservation project in any location (which is what I was doing for two weeks, you didn’t think we’ve just been on a jolly did you?!) one inevitably encounters some resistance, some scepticism and sometimes a little hostility. All of which is quite warranted given the somewhat questionable intentions of some conservation programmes of the past and, unfortunately, also the present. I’m not saying that we didn’t meet any of this in El Nido, but once our intentions and action plan were clearly defined through an open process involving all the people who will have a stake in the project, this quickly melted away. After which our challenge was not to build momentum for the project, but to dilute the momentum for a more realistic strategy, something which was really quite unfamiliar to the Reef-World team.
While the attitude of the people we encountered certainly matched the promises I had heard regarding the environmental appreciation of the people of Palawan, there seems to be some small cracks appearing. These cracks spread from the reverberations of modern day’s society; a shrinking and more accessible planet and misguided regulations. As ever, these cracks are appearing in the form of blemishes on the ecosystems of El Nido. Anchor damage and careless snorkelling practices have left large sections of shallow reef completely destroyed, nutrient loading is acting as fertiliser for algae which now suffocates great swathes of coral colonies, and reef fish communities are completely devoid of critical species such as large groupers and sharks because of fishing pressures.
The foundations of regulations for controlling those activities which are threatening the natural environment are in place in El Nido and for that we commend the Local Government. Throughout the nineties and early noughties, a number of international conservation organisations and international funders ploughed great resources into developing the bones upon which to build the environmental laws and enforcement mechanisms of El Nido. However, international energy seems to have dried up and consequent environmental regulatory developments have become a little waylaid. An example of this lies within the Eco-Tourism Development Fee (ETDF), a small fee paid by tourists to raise funds to support environmental activities within the local area. This is not a new concept in environmental protection and is an excellent way to supplement otherwise struggling resources, but it is a concept which has been brutally abused across the world in the past. Unfortunately it seems that due to various internal financial system changes and other hurdles, only a small portion of this income is currently being assigned to local environmental protection projects, certainly not as it was intended when the original ordinance was passed for the ETDF in El Nido. The income from the ETDF is no small sum of money, already in 2012 $150,000 has been collected and it’s expected to reach $200,000 by the end of the year, a testament to the booming number of tourists currently visiting this paradise.
While signs of the environment suffering are disturbing, what is more alarming is the growing sense of resentment felt within the community who work in the tourism sector regarding this matter. Everyone we spoke to complained about the fact that ETDF funds are not being used for environmental projects. This anger is raw and fresh and completely contradicts the essence of the peaceful and sympathetic attitude people had when discussing all other environmental matters. Even the individuals within the local Government who are responsible for assigning this budget seem to have no feasible solution to the problems they are up against when trying to release funds for worthy projects.
As time went by, it dawned on me that the biggest threat to the local environment of El Nido may not be the anchors, the careless fins or the nutrient loading, but may be in a possible shift within the hearts and minds of the people of El Nido. Local authorities across the world need to lead people towards a more sustainable and prosperous future. By with-holding the funds which are collected from the pockets of the consumers who drive the tourism industry, we are removing any incentive or bargaining chips with which to empower the people of El Nido to continue to protect their environment. These people feel cheated, and I am terrified that the next cracks to appear will be within that magical sense of understanding I spoke about earlier.
Reef-World and their magnificent partners at the El Nido Foundation will work hard to encourage the Municipal Government of El Nido to pave a way to make these funds available for environmental projects which are so desperately needed right now and into the future. There are people who have the power within their grasp to turn this all around, to better the futures of all those who live in and have the pleasure of visiting El Nido. Over the coming weeks a local management team has been assigned to investigate how these funds might be best spent and make recommendations based upon this to the local government. Meanwhile, I kindly and respectfully request that the Mayor of El Nido, Hon. Edna Gacot–Lim, considers a new system to make these funds more easily accessible to the dedicated and good-hearted members of the local society who have been entrusted to local environmental protection within the Coastal Resource Management Office, the Tourism Office and the El Nido Foundation.
This story is an example of how the silent works of Reef-World sow the seeds through education, and nurtures the foundations of regulations through advocacy for a more sustainable future. This is the very essence of the flavours that tie our “Reef-World” together and will continue to create moments worth savouring for many generations to come.