Conservation news

A Philippine island employs a rare cockatoo in its fight against mines

  • The Philippine island of Homonhon in best known as the first site in Asia where Ferdinand Magellan set foot on his historic circumnavigation of the globe.
  • Today, the island is home to open-pit mines that have been operating for decades to get valuable deposits of chromite and nickel.
  • Locals opposed to the mines now have a new weapon in their fight: a recent assessment of the island’s flora and fauna, showing that it houses threatened and endemic species, in particular the critically endangered Philippine cockatoo.
  • The regional environment department has recommended that in light of this finding, the entire island be declared a critical habitat, which would protect the identified species from mining and other activities.

GUIUAN, Philippines — The island of Homonhon in the Philippines’ Eastern Samar province cemented its place in history when the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan landed on its warm ochre shores in 1521 and named the island and the archipelago Las islas de San Lázaro. The site where he landed would later be named Lazaro Beach.

Magellan and his fleet spent nearly two weeks there recuperating and gathering food and water after an arduous Pacific crossing that had left dozens of the crew dead. Nearly 500 years since that fateful visit, the island has become a beacon once again, this time for miners drawn by its nickel and chromite deposits. The Philippines is one of the world’s top producers of nickel, and Eastern Samar contains one of the most substantial deposits of this prized mineral.

Since 1983, four mining companies have operated on the island, much to the chagrin of the locals.

Now, though, residents opposed to the open-pit mines have found a new reason to keep up the fight — one that could mean an end to all mining on the island.

The lowland forests still untouched by the mines are home to the Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia), an IUCN-listed critically endangered species endemic to the Philippines. The bird’s population in the wild is estimated at between 650 and 1,120, and commercial trade in wild-caught specimens is prohibited under CITES Appendix I.

In 2017, researchers from the Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc. (PMPI) and Visayas State University assessed Homonhon’s flora and fauna, compiling a list of the island’s threatened species, including the Philippine cockatoo.

Locals call the white birds abukay. They used to keep them as caged pets, valued for their ability to mimic human voices, but also resented the wild birds as pests, for snipping rice stalks.

There’s little of that resentment left these days, as evidenced by the locals’ response to the researchers’ findings. According to the PMPI, when the residents were presented with the results of the survey, those in the three barangays, or villages, of Inapulangan, Bitaugan and Habag started a petition to protect the abukay. They gathered signatures and submitted a petition to the barangay leaders, requesting that the three barangays be declared a critical habitat.

The regional environment agency took it a step further: it recommended that the whole island of Homonhon be designated a critical habitat.

This was after the agency, together with the head of the local government’s environment and natural resources office, conducted their own validation process and spotted six Philippine cockatoos in the barangay of Inapulangan alone.

The process also confirmed the presence of other endemic species on the island that are classified as endangered by the IUCN: the Visayan tarictic hornbill (Penelopides panini) and the giant golden-crowned flying fox (Acerodon jubatus), also known as the golden-capped fruit bat.

Other birds found in the survey were the endemic guaiabero (Bolbopsittacus lunulatus), a parrot species known locally as bubutok; the hooded pitta (Pitta sordida); the bar-bellied cuckooshrike (Coracina striata); and the yellowish bulbul (Hypsipetes everetti), a songbird. There were also reported sightings by travelers of the Philippine tarsier (Tarsius syrichta), one of the world’s smallest primates.

Homonhon, a 26,000-acre island in Eastern Samar, has been a hotspot for nickel and chromite mining. Image by PMPI

“We recommended to declare the island as ‘critical habitat’ as soon as possible to preserve and protect Homonhon’s critically endangered and other vulnerable species, including other fauna which were also recorded in the area,” the regional environment agency said during a dialogue with the PMPI.

“It will take some time before it gets approved,” says Yoly Esguerra, PMPI national coordinator. “But the three barangays already have their respective resolutions and it is already in the municipal level.”

Philippine law defines critical habitats as those areas outside of protected zones that are proven to be home to threatened species. Critical habitats are designated as such through an order issued by the environment secretary and the local government unit.

Such an order would identify the species to be protected, create a management council to serve as the policymaking body, and ensure coordination between the central and local governments to protect the area from “any form of exploitation or destruction which may be detrimental to the survival of the threatened species.”

These areas of protection require population estimates and rapid habitat assessment, species-specific studies and an examination of human-related threats to wildlife. While protected areas require a national law, critical habitats can be declared by the environment department and the local government unit, making it a speedy and more efficient option in protecting vulnerable areas.

The most important aspect of declaring a critical habitat is the management: Protected areas are managed by the national environment department, while critical habitats are managed by local or municipal governments.

In practice, the declaration of critical habitats also take years especially if the local government has yet to create a management body. In Palawan, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) took the initiative to declare critical habitats in Palawan on 2011 but the guidelines were only approved and adopted in 2013.

In 2016, the Philippines declared Cleopatra’s Needle, more than 40,500 hectares (100,000 acres), as critical habitats in a process that lasted for three years. In 2018, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu wanted to declareareas in Boracay as critical habitats after the closure of the popular tourist island but the department has yet to pursue this option.

In Homonhon, locals have celebrated the possibility of their own island being designated a critical habitat. If it happens, it could mean a complete ban on mining activities on the island.

“The effort to declare should be urgent since the island is now under threat from different mining activities,” both operating and applying for permits, said Juderick Calumpiano, the PMPI co-convenor for Visayas and social action director of the Catholic diocese of Borongan.

Banner image of a Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia) perched on a tree in a barangay in Homonhon Island during the DENR-Region 8’s assessment and validation trip. Image by Donato Fernandez / DENR-Region 8

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