Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
colbartn.gif (4535 octets)

The points man in the Philippines' last frontier

Extract from UNESCO Sources (131) published on February, 2001, page 14 

Fishers, tourism managers and entrepreneurs, local inhabitants, conservationists and the navy do not always make the best bedfellows, at least not where the coast is concerned. And few people know this better than Miguel Fortes, Professor of Marine Science at the University of the Philippines and Chair of UNESCO’s National Committee on Marine Sciences in the Philippines. “There is an urgent need for dialogue and information to ventilate the issues between these conflicting interests”, he says. And UNESCO’s internet Forum on coastal wise practices (username: csi; password: wise), he explains, “is the most practical and inexpensive means that is currently available to provide both local and international information – as well as access to this information.”

— Pristine Ulugan Bay is at the centre of conflicting stakeholder interests - including a new naval base © UNESCO/D.Troost

The Island Province of Palawan, often called the Philippines’ last frontier, has a unique concentration of UNESCO coastal and small island initiatives. In 1992 UNESCO classified the entire province as a Man and Biosphere Reserve. The island’s Tubbataha Reef Marine National Park is a World Heritage Site, as is the Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park, with the world’s longest underground river (8 kilometers). The “jewel” in all of this, though, is Ulugan Bay, with its secluded beaches, hidden coves, pristine mangrove forest, 102 species of corals, 7 species of seagrasses, water birds and a dazzling variety of tropical fish. Ulugan Bay is a UNESCO Coastal and Small Islands (CSI) pilot project and the focus of a joint UNESCO-UNDP project on coastal resources management and sustainable tourism.

The challenge, explains Fortes, is to balance the various conflicting interests in the province and, notably, in Ulugan Bay. “To the fishing communities the Bay is an unparalleled fish landing site and a nursery for the fish,” he says. But in their search for a quick profit, some are tempted to use unsustainable techniques such as dynamite blasting and cyanide, that will ultimately destroy the Bay’s ecology – and their livelihood. Ulugan Bay is also just a short flight from Palawan’s prime tourist attraction, the Puerto-Princesa underground river. Again, uncontrolled tourism would quickly wreak havoc, as it has elsewhere.

Over the past 20 years, another stakeholder has been laying claim to Ulugan Bay – the Philippine Navy. “It is the only major bay on Palawan’s South China Sea coastline,” explains Fortes, “and is just 120 nautical miles from Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, at the centre of a territorial dispute with China.” Now the Navy wants to build a base in the Bay, to reinforce its national security interests.

The various conservation initiatives are a major step towards protecting the area. “But,” explains Fortes, “a poor country like the Philippines does not have the resources to simultaneously manage a number of protected sites. And the concerns of these projects overlap. So the most pragmatic approach is to integrate and share the resources available.” Fortes has found that his unique situation as a Filipino resident, professor and researcher at the university and a representative of several UNESCO initiatives enables him to act as a “points man”, for this job of integration.

In 1998 he was awarded a UNESCO Chair in Integrated Management and Sustainable Development in Coastal Regions and Small Islands at the university. And he decided to use this post as the “missing link” to bring the various UNESCO initiatives, including the CSI Wise Practices electronic Forum (username: csi; password: wise), into a dialogue with “the main stakeholder - the 6000 people who live in the 5 barangays (communities) around the Bay.” For them, says Fortes, “Ulugan Bay is home.” The Forum case studies and comments give examples of what works – or has failed – elsewhere. At the same time it is an opportunity to get international feedback on local initiatives. And this eventually filters back to grassroots level through university classes and community workshops.

Power to the people

 —  Aquaculture is a part of a
joint UNESCO-UNDP project 
on sustainable management 
of coastal resources 
© UNESCO/D.Troost

This is why Fortes chose to share his UNESCO Chair appointment, for a term or semester at a time, with colleagues who are experts in social issues: Luzviminda Valencia (environmental sociology), Esteban Magennon a Filipino social anthropologist at the Sorbonne University in Paris and Rebecca Rivera-Guieb, an expert in social issues and trends in coastal management. Fortes has also hooked up the UNESCO projects with the work of Gerthie Mayo-Anda, a lawyer who runs the Environmental Legal Assistance Centre, a non-governmental organisation that is helping to train local indigenous people in the paralegal issues of conservation.

All these initiatives are beginning to bear fruit. “Local people are no longer passive. They have a sense of owning what they have achieved,” says Fortes. A dramatic recent demonstration of this was when one community made a citizen’s arrest of the crew of a fishing boat that illegally entered Ulugan Bay. And Fortes is also finding he has a role to play as mediator between the community, the UNESCO biosphere reserve and the navy over their plans to build a base in Ulugan Bay.

“I am also a Fellow at the National Defense College of the Philippines in charge of environmental security,” he explains – another of his many hats. Drawing on his work in the various UNESCO CSI initiatives, he developed a database on what would be destroyed if the navy went ahead with its plans. They would need to build a refinery, install mooring buoys, as well as barracks and training facilities. In a series of “very positive” meetings with naval officers, Fortes was able to get across the conservation message. And when students from the local school of architecture approached him with a project to design a conservation resource centre for Ulugan Bay, he also put them in touch with the navy, who needed a design for their base. “Now, if the navy do construct their base, at least it will be environmentally friendly,” he says. “But it still has to be presented to the people. They do not want the base.” Meanwhile, the five barangays have put forward their own plans for the area - as a centre for ecotourism. Rather like a soap opera, the Forum will doubtless tell this story as it unfolds. Keep tuned.

Peter Coles

Forum
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