In Palawan, over a million more hectares of MPAs for the Coral Triangle

Posted on March, 21 2018

A recent Memorandum of Agreement signed by six municipalities in Northern Palawan, Philippines has set the ball rolling for another million-hectare marine protected area (MPA). Fortunately, local communities are ready to go, according to WWF-Philippines’ team on the ground.
A recent Memorandum of Agreement signed by six municipalities in Northern Palawan, Philippines has set the ball rolling for another million-hectare marine protected area (MPA). Fortunately, local communities are ready to go, according to WWF-Philippines’ team on the ground.

IN 2016, it was Cagayancillo in Palawan, southern Philippines—better known as the home municipality of world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park—where 1,013,340 hectares of coastal and offshore waters were proclaimed a marine-protected area (MPA). It was the largest MPA in the country, for what is actually the smallest municipality in Palawan. At almost 1.5 million hectares in land size, Palawan is also the Philippines’ largest province, its most sparsely populated, and easily the richest in terms of natural beauty and resources.

On October 17, 2017, six municipalities in northern Palawan marked another conservation milestone, when their respective mayors signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) to implement another big undertaking—the 1.008 million-hectare Northeastern Palawan Marine Protected Area Network Management Plan.

The municipalities of Araceli, Dumaran, El Nido, Linapacan, Roxas, and Taytay, according to WWF-Philippines, “have rallied together to further conserve Palawan’s coastal and marine areas that are vital sources of livelihood, minerals, and raw materials, as well as recreational, cultural, and other social activities.” The vision, the MoA states, is “an empowered northeastern Palawan MPA network with an abundant, climate-resilient and unified marine management system demonstrating sustainable fishery and conservation practices by 2030.”

Government agencies involved in seeing the plan through are the Provincial Government of Palawan, through the Provincial Agriculture Office; the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development; and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. WWF-Philippines will continue its supporting role with technical assistance, capacity building, and workshops.

Ready for the next level

“At last, it’s taking off,” says Mavic Matillano, Project Manager for Improved Fisheries in Palawan for WWF-Philippines. “For the longest time, it was about advocacy. Now we’re ready for the next level, policy making and institutionalising.”

Thanks to the previous example of Cagayancillo and the continuing work of WWF-Philippines on MPAs in northeastern Palawan, an area known for its biodiversity and natural resources, local communities were already quite sold on the effort, reports Matillano. “We worked on the ground at all levels, from hook-and-line fishermen to barangay (village) officials and mayors. It’s a good thing we’ve already graduated from having to explain why an MPA is a good idea, or why no-take zones are important. People didn’t complain anymore, or ask, ‘What about us?’ They could already see the advantages; otherwise, they wouldn’t have agreed to the move.”

The municipalities have common agendas and common challenges, Matillano notes. There is the lucrative industry of live reef food fish, locally known as sunô, as well as other fisheries, and a continuously growing tourism sector. On the other side of the coin are problems with law enforcement and boundaries. “Like, what happens when a poacher caught in Town 1 hides out in Town 2?” Matillano illustrates. “Or a poacher in Town 2 actually lives in Town 3? Such incidents, in fact, were the trigger points that pushed them to find resolutions.”

The MoA now calls for a technical working group to prepare for the next phase, implementation, by ironing out the details of the agreement, including operationalisation, delineations, financial share, and responsibilities, such as the roles of the mayors, agricultural officers, tourism officers, and the Bantay Dagat or ocean patrols. The target is to implement the law by June of this year, and to launch it at the annual provincial festival, the Baragatan (“to gather” in the local Cuyunon dialect), held two weeks before Palawan’s Foundation Day on June 23. The gatherings could also provide an opportunity for local officials to meet on the MPAs, and for locals to sit and watch videos on marine conservation and MPAs while attending other festival events.

A big deal

Among the municipalities, Araceli is fast developing as a tourism destination, with its beautiful stretches of white beach. “The establishment of an MPA is a big deal, because we want to preserve the environment, and not exploit it,” says Araceli Mayor Noel Beronio, himself originally from a family of fishermen. “We want the ocean to be sustainable, and not ruined for the next generations.”

Beronio affirms that the level of environmental awareness in his community is already high. “It was the community that requested this move towards an MPA, so we are aware of the long-term process. It can’t be hurried. I tell the fishermen, if we don’t do it, they will be the ones to suffer; they will have to go further to fish, they will spend more on fuel, they will be more at risk. We should help each other so that our fishing grounds can just be near our homes.”

Next step, Matillano says, is to localise the MoA. “Each municipality must be aligned in terms of local policies, coastal resource management (CRM) plans, MPA ordinances, fisheries and tourism codes. WWF can offer technical assistance to the local government units.” Matillano also notes how the negative experiences of other places in the country with destructive mass tourism have made communities with growing tourism sectors quite wary. “Sometimes it works when they become afraid of how wrong it could go,” she notes. “But they already have a much bigger understanding of the problem.”

“We now have to establish responsibilities of each municipality so we don’t claim we’re not ready, or we don’t pass on responsibilities to others,” affirms Beronio. “We’re all connected.” He foresees a day when law enforcement officers of the different municipalities, for example, can just send text messages to warn each other of poachers or illegal fishermen. “The ocean is what sustained us, raised us, sent us to school. We really have to do whatever we can to protect it.”

Araceli - Northeastern Palawan
© Russel Climaco