EXPERT OPINION : Angelique Songco

Posted on October, 06 2015

The manager of the only purely marine UNESCO World Heritage Site in Southeast Asia talks about the challenges and rewards of running a natural national treasure

How did you get started working in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park? Were you always passionate about the marine world? What have been the most significant changes to the area since you started in 2001?

My first visit to Tubbataha in 1981 as an open water diver showed me how wonderful the underwater world could be. Mesmerized by such beauty, I worked as a diving professional on dive boats that visited Tubbataha every year.  I did this for 7 or 8 years, and during that time I observed fishers using dynamite and cyanide, gathering turtles and birds and their eggs.  Some came from as far as Quezon Province, some 600 km away.  It was a sad state of affairs because there was no enforcement to speak of.
Without even understanding the ecological value of the marine environment, I was convinced that such beauty must be protected.  In 2001, my application as manager of the park was accepted by the Tubbataha Management Board.  I was employed by WWF because the board had no funds to establish an office and man it.  
The reefs were less alive in 2001, I thought.  It was still fantastic in many places, mind you, but there appeared to be more coral damage than when I was there recently. My first move then was to meet the law enforcement team and ensure that individuals from various agencies worked as a unit.  I wanted to make sure that the park authorities were visible and performed their tasks with vigilance and professionalism. This has increased compliance and resulted in numerous arrests of illegal users.

Tubbataha is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. How has this designation helped in terms of tourism and conservation?

The Tubbataha Reefs was inscribed in the World Heritage (WH) list in 1993.  It remains the only purely marine WH site in Southeast Asia today.  It was inscribed due to its outstanding universal value in terms of exceptional beauty, representation of significant ongoing ecological and biological processes, and importance for in situ conservation of biodiversity.  WH status grants international significance to the park; iit also bestows responsibility and obligation on the Philippine government to conserve and transfer its value to future generations.

The WH brand has proven to be a strong influence on the number of visitations to the park.  Fifty-seven percent of tourists say Tubbataha’s WH status was an important factor in choosing to visit. 

The WH brand attracted support when the park was imperiled by illegal use in the past. A national and international constituency that supports its conservation joined protests, published articles, and wrote blogs, and contributed funds and technical support in order to protest misuse.

Can tourism and conservation really go hand in hand? What has been the case in Tubbataha? Does it have a sustainable tourism strategy in place?

Tourism first arrived in Tubbataha in the late ’70s.  It was the tourism industry that brought the attention of the government to the plight of Tubbataha and led to its establishment as a marine park in 1988. Without the industry, we probably wouldn’t have known there was a place as beautiful as this—and we would not have known of its degradation in the hands of unscrupulous fishers.

Today, tourism provides almost 50% of the funds to manage the park.  It remains the most stable source of funds so far.  Industry players know that our mutual interests lie in a park that is healthy and well-managed.  This is articulated in our tourism goal: to manage tourism to support conservation.  With a clear basis of unity, our relationship with the industry is marked by collaboration and cooperation. 

There is generally 98% compliance with regulations within the sector.  A major factor could be the participatory rule-making, where the tourism sector is consulted on all rules and regulations and their amendments.  Dive operators support research, enforcement, and conservation awareness, and help build our network of support.

Tubbataha is strictly a no-take zone for fishers, but is open for tourism activities. How did the fishing industry react to this in the beginning? How has this impacted their lives? 

In the late ’80s, in the early days of the park, there was concern among the fishers in Cagayancillo and Puerto Princesa that only divers would be allowed in Tubbataha because they were rich, while the poor would be kept out.  Cagayancillo is the island municipality that has political jurisdiction over Tubbataha.  Many years of consultations, meetings, discussions, and other confidence-building activities were necessary for the local communities and fishers to at least listen to the side of park authorities. 

In a participatory evaluation conducted in 1998, fishers and local community members agreed to forego fishing access to the park in exchange for a share in the revenues, and preferential treatment in hiring personnel for park management. This agreement holds to this day.

The economic incentive provided by the park, in the form of a 10% share in tourism revenues, is used by the local government unit to fund livelihood activities in the locality.  However, there is no study that shows whether those whose livelihood activities were affected by the establishment of the park are the same people who benefit from these agreements. 

In 2013, a US navy ship was grounded on one of Tubbataha’s atolls, damaging more than 2,000 square meters (sqm) of reef. What’s the situation now?

The coral damage was 2,345 sqm.  The area is recovering quite well.  The damaged area is surrounded by healthy reefs which seed the affected area. Today, small corals about 5-8 cm in size have colonized the affected area, and herbivorous fish keep the site from being overgrown with algae.

What role did digital communications (social media) play in highlighting that 2013 ship grounding incident and spurring action?

Social media ensured that there was no hiding the incident; neither was there a chance to delay its announcement.  In the old days, a few days’ cover-up would have been possible. Social media spread the news, quickly leading to the burgeoning of support from many sectors, both national and international. The WH status of the park figured in the discussions and strengthened the position of the park authorities in their demand for compensation.

What role does the private sector play in managing the park’s tourism activities? How important is the private sector in helping bring about sustainable tourism?

As the main players in the tourism industry, the private sector plays a critical role in ensuring sustainability.  In Tubbataha, we provide no room for unsustainable tourism practices, clearly articulating our terms of engagement with the industry and vigilantly following through with established rules and guidelines. Since we share mutual interests with the private sector, they are able to profit from our conservation efforts, and we are able to generate the funds to help protect the park.

What does it cost to manage a marine park? Where do you get your funding—and how do you manage your budget?

It costs around US$356,000 annually to manage Tubbataha.  Part of this is sourced from tourism, some from grants and donations from the private sector and NGOs, and others from national government support. However, aside from tourism revenues, we have no other consistent source of funds. 

How does Tubbataha compare to other world-renowned dive destinations? What sets it apart?

Because we exist in different contexts, it is hard and unfair to compare Tubbataha with other dive destinations.  Some are more accessible than we are, while others are even farther away from land. But I would say that our management regime, if anything, sets us apart from others.  Ours is a very inclusive arrangement, and we have matured in our relationship with the other stakeholders so that management in general is fun.
Angelique Songco, Protected Area Superintendent, Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and World Heritage Site
© Angelique Songco