By Gregg Yan (The Philippine Star) Updated January 15, 2012 12:00 AM
MANILA, Philippines – Three very different creatures are known to converge in the municipality of Donsol in Sorsogon: the most celebrated of course, are the whale sharks– largest of all fish and delightfully crisscrossed with bars and spots.
Next come fleets of tiny fireflies, dancing and drifting like ephemeral clouds of light.
Finally, legions of people trudge each summer to chance upon both the largest and smallest denizens of Donsol.
All three creatures intertwine, seemingly held in perfect balance.
“Whale sharks congregate in Donsol because of all the plankton,” according to WWF-Philippines project manager Raul Burce.
“Plankton consume nutrients discharged by Donsol’s still-healthy rivers, one of the few habitats where fireflies still thrive. Remove mangroves and the fireflies shall be driven off. Without the healthy rivers needed by fireflies, plankton populations cannot bloom – and the whale sharks will migrate elsewhere. If one component crashes, the others follow suit. This can be catastrophic for the people of Donsol,”Burce warned.
Tourism has transformed Donsol into a boomtown.
A total of 24,191 local and foreign visitors swam with the gentle giants from December to June 2011.
Donsol’s Municipal Tourism Office estimated that the 2010 season alone generated over P100 million ($2.3 million) from transportation, food, lodging, registration fees, plus whale shark, mangrove and firefly tours.
Around P20 million ($465,000) was retained by the local government, bolstering incomes and improving lives.
Jasmine Yanson, a 36-year old mother of seven, admitted, “Malaking tulong ang turismo sa mga taga-Donsol. Nakabili kami ng bangka, kagamitan sa bahay at nakatapos rin ng pag-aaral ang mga anak ko.” (Tourism gave us a big boost. We were able to buy an outrigger boat, household appliances, plus my children were able to finish school.)
It is, thus, important to conserve not just whale sharks, but mangroves and other critical ecosystems which ensure the livelihood of Donsolanos.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines) recently spearheaded a vigorous reforestation drive to plant 10,000 mangrove seedlings in Donsol’s Barangay Sibago last December 13, 2011.
Together with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Department of Tourism, Armed Forces of the Philippines and numerous local organizations, 284 people – from battle-hardened soldiers to bright-eyed students and conservationists – took part in the INDRA and Fluor Daniel Philippines-funded initiative.
Known in Tagalog as bakawan, mangroves constitute one of the most productive of marine habitats – able to generate 500 kilograms of seafood per hectare annually.
They absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) – the major culprit for climate change. The thick onshore hedges protect coastal communities from violent gale winds and waves caused by typhoons.
Labyrinthine roots shelter fish and invertebrates while stabilizing sediments and absorbing heavy trace metals to minimize coastal erosion and prevent inland salt-water contamination.
Even fallen leaves are used by some animals for food and shelter.
Former barangay captain Florencio Gorordo of Rawis in Donsol noted, “Balang araw, makatutulong ang mga punong ire na sumalag sa malalaking alon at malalakas na bagyo.” (One day, these trees will help protect our people from giant waves and strong storms.)
Loss of mangrove forests expose coastal communities to increased flooding, faster beach erosion, saline intrusion and severe damage from intensifying storms.
In 2006, over 1000 stilt homes were swept to sea by unusually high waves in Bongao, capital of Tawi-Tawi.
Almost simultaneously, freak waves demolished 200 homes in Talisay, Cebu.
An estimated 450,000 hectares of mangrove forests once circled the shores of the Philippines in 1918. Up to 75 percent of the original cover has been lost as a result of the post-war government’s program to develop seemingly-idle mangrove forests into fish and shrimp ponds for profit.
Mangrove planting drives have been attempting to remedy the loss.
In 2007, the DENR, with the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority, estimated Philippine mangrove cover at 289,890 hectares – a morale-boosting improvement over the 112,000 hectares remaining in 1998.
The WWF and its allies in the public and private sector are now working to restore degraded mangrove habitats to improve the lives and livelihoods of people.
According to WWF-Philippines vice-chair and CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, “The key here is balance. Without it, the productivity of our natural systems will crash. Strike a balance between conservation and development and we can ensure sustainability.”
With 36,289 kilometers of coast and a largely shore-borne population, the Philippines and its thousands of seaside communities are highly vulnerable to the worsening impacts of climate change.
Recent storms in the form of Ondoy, Pepeng and Sendong are but harbingers of the future. There’s no better time to plant mangroves and prepare for climate change than now.
“Donsol has long been a point of convergence. Today, dozens of groups have united to protect its productivity. Just imagine what this place can be in 10 years,” Burce pointed out, adding, “when fireflies return to light up this forest, we’ll know that balance has been restored.
- Govt., private sector step up protection, conservation measures for whalesharks (sorsogoncity.wordpress.com)
- Mangrove Forests: The Key to a Sustainable Coastline (alternativeconsumer.com)