Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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FISHY BUSINESS

Environmental education covers political ground as Philippine fishing communities learn to manage their mangroves, tackle the corporate fish and reel in the profits.

Before he attended a seminar on environmental awareness last year, fisherman Gerry Latorre looked at mangrove forests as merely an inexhaustible source of wood for fuel and housing material.

"I now know that we should preserve mangroves because these are spawning areas for crabs and shrimps which are the main sources of our livelihood," he says.

This is only one of the many lessons Latorre picked up from the environmental education trainers of the Tambuyog Development Centre, a Manila-based research institution that focuses on fisheries issues. Such lessons have proved crucial for the fisherfolk of the coastal villages of Malampaya Sound in Palawan Province, who’ve watched their poverty increase as their fish catches dwindled.

Their problems stem from the region’s severe environmental degradation. Practices such as dynamite fishing and cyanide poisoning, the conversion of mangroves into fishponds and prawn farms, and silting and pollution caused by domestic and industrial wastes have devastated 80% of the area’s mangroves, while a mere 5% of the coral reefs remain in good condition.

A GAME OF CHANCE

Research has pointed out two primary causes for this: fisheries and marine resources have always been characterized as an "open access" resource, and fisherfolk have seen fishing as a game of chance - a good catch is never guaranteed especially for the villagers who have no access to technology, capital or equipment. The prevailing attitude became one of "if I don’t take the fish now, someone else (probably a big commercial trawler) will".

To turn the situation around, Tambuyog launched the Fisheries Environmental Education Project (FEEP) in 1991. FEEP was based on the idea that fishing communities are the rightful owners of marine resources. However, they could only become effective resource managers if they fully understood how resources are degraded and the long-term impact this would have on their lives. The programme consisted of 36 hours of training designed to provide fisherfolk with a general understanding of the country’s marine resources and basic ecological concepts. It also helped participants to identify the causes and effects of environmental degradation in their locality and to make plans for the conservation of fishery resources. Since most of the fisherfolk had limited schooling, popular teaching methods such as games, posters, songs and audio-visual presentations were used.

The FEEP has been now been extended into a programme known as Sustainable Coastal Area Development (SCAD), which was introduced in Gerry Latorre’s village of New Guinlo and three other sites across the country in 1995, and which includes fishery laws and community-based coastal resource management. The aim is to teach the villagers not only the workings of the social institutions that govern their lives, but to give them the confidence and knowledge to intervene and even take the lead. It is perhaps in this respect that the SCAD programme is reaping its richest harvest.

"One of the most vital things we have learned is the importance of working together to assert our rights," says Latorre. To this end the fisherfolk set up the Malampaya Sound Fishermen’s Association (MSFA), which has given them a voice that authorities can no longer ignore.

Among the threats the fisherfolk face are the presence of commercial boats weighing more than three gross tons (which are supposed to be banned from the area), the destructive use of fine-meshed nets near mangrove forests, and the construction of fishpond dikes along the shoreline.

TAKING CONTROL

To deal with these problems and at the same time increase incomes, the MFSA is establishing a marine sanctuary in the region’s main crab and shrimp spawning area, building a fish cage that allows members to raise and harvest commercially valuable groupers, and launching a marketing scheme to sell the fish and give the villagers some control over prices.

"We are aware that fish cages have posed environmental hazards in other provinces where commercial feeds are used," explains Nestor Bolen, the MFSA vice-president, "so we only use fish meal which can also be eaten by mud crabs on the sea floor. It’s biodegradable and leaves no residues that make the water turbid, or cause sedimentation."

The MFSA has also opened a savings and a credit facility that lends capital to its 250 members. But its boldest undertaking, and the ultimate sign of SCAD’s success, is the association’s foray onto the political stage in a bid to tackle the big (and politically protected) commercial firms on their own ground. A few years ago, their persistant protests effectively blocked a plan to set up a sea ranching project which would have closed off fishing grounds to the Malampaya communities. But the threat remains. The MFSA learned recently that fishpond dikes had been constructed in the same area, blocking mangrove stands and fishing access.

It is widely known that the businessman behind the operation enjoys support from the local mayor. The MFSA’s answer? Nestor Bolen is one of several of the association’s candidates for a seat in the upcoming village council elections. "And this," he says, "is only a practice run before the national polls due next year."

Yasmin ARQUIZA
Malampaya Sound, Palawan

Extract from UNESCO SOURCES Learning for life. No 91 June 1997

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