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No tourism income, but this Philippine community still guards its environment

  • Communities in the biodiversity haven of Palawan in the Philippines earn millions in tourism-related services annually, but the industry has been paralyzed due to a lockdown aimed at suppressing the spread of COVID-19.
  • The lockdown, in effect since March 17, has forced close tourist sites in the province, which has affected thousands of families dependent on tourism.
  • Despite this, these communities continue to look after their protected areas, making sure that illegal logging and fishing activities do not proliferate during the lockdown period.
  • Owing to proper handling of finances, these community organizations can sustain themselves and the areas they look after for a year, but interventions and support are necessary to keep these areas protected in the long run.

PALAWAN, Philippines — On a sweltering morning in April, park manager Jose Mazo mans a motorized patrol boat that glides through the turquoise waters of Siete Pecados, a 52-hectare (128-acre) marine protected area (MPA) off the town of Coron in northern Palawan province.

A world-famous tourist destination in the Philippines, Palawan receives more than a million tourists annually; Siete Pecados’ vibrant coral reefs, part of the country’s total coral reef area spanning 26,000 km2 (10,038.6 mi2), welcomed 51,000 visitors in 2019 alone.

The months of March up to May are Siete Pecados’ busiest of the year, and the daily monitoring routine isn’t new to Mazo, who has been at the MPA’s helm for more than 15 years. Except that this time around, not a single tourist has come to snorkel in the park’s 52 hectares (128.5 acres) municipal waters.

Since March 17, Siete Pecados has been temporarily closed to visitors after the national government imposed a lockdown to stem the surge of positive coronavirus cases in the country, which have reached 8,488 with 568 deaths as of April 30.

The closure hurts the province’s economy, which is largely dependent on tourism; tourism receipts amounted to 83 billion pesos ($1.6 billion) in 2018 alone. “Supposedly, now’s the best time for us to earn more,” Mazo tells Mongabay. “But we’re forced to close the park, following the government’s community quarantine directive.”

The site earned 5.1 million pesos ($100,000) from entrance and environmental fees last year. This year, Mazo says they expect to lose 1.5 million pesos ($30,000) for the months of March to May. But beyond the earnings, the closure has also impacted the 92 members of their association and their families.

“Each of them earns at least 8,000 to 15,000 pesos [$160 to $300] monthly for their outrigger boats that bring tourists to the marine park,” Mazo says. “Now, that sure income is gone.”

Thousands of families who depend on community-based sustainable tourism has been affected by the pandemic and lockdown policy in the province.

On prime tourist months, the Puerto Princesa Underground River easily fills in its 1,200 daily carry-in capacity. Image by Haya Benitez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the provincial capital Puerto Princesa, some 420 kilometers (260 miles) from Siete Pecados, 400 families who work in the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park (PPSRNP), a 22,202-hectare (54,862-acre) UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its 8.2-km (5.1-mi) underground river, have lost their livelihood.

During the prime tourist months, the site hits its daily maximum of 1,200 visitors. In 2019, it earned 108 million pesos ($2.1 million) in entrance fees from its 331,356 visitors. “For this peak season, our collective income loss is 6 million pesos,” about $119,000, boat owners’ association representative Teresita Austria tells Mongabay.

Like in Siete Pecados’ case, it’s the boat operators who have suffered the most: 314 of them have been left in limbo as their boats lay idle due to the lockdown. They used to earn 10,000 to 15,000 pesos ($200 to $300) monthly.

While the government is expected to ease the lockdown by May 1, the halt to tourism activities will linger for the duration of the pandemic and cut off the main income source for thousands of tourism-dependent families here, Mazo says. Palawan is considered a low-risk area for COVID-19 infections, with only two positive cases as of April 26.

But as the pandemic paralyzes Palawan’s tourism industry, resilient ecotourism communities embedded in biodiversity hotspots like Siete Pecados and PPSRNP have found sustainable ways to survive through the crisis, all while not having to abandon their environmental conservation initiatives.

Monitoring work continues

One morning in April, Mazo and his rangers check coral reefs for signs of bleaching and crown of thorns infestation in their MPA. Despite the drastic cut in daily income from tourism, the group continues to regularly patrol the park to ensure that it’s free from illegal fishing activities.

“Locals lost their tourism jobs due to the lockdown,” Mazo says. “There’s a possibility that some may turn to illegal fishing.” Even the body that manages the MPA isn’t immune; it’s had to let go of five of its 15 employees, retaining mostly rangers and garbage pickers.

In Siete Pecados, marine species such as the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) thrive alongside 74 species of reef fish, including the endangered humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus). Other species of high conservation value previously seen here are the dugong (Dugong dugon), spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari), and whale shark (Rhincodon typus).

Before its designation as an MPA in 2005, Siete Pecados suffered from rampant illegal fishing activities, particularly the heavy use of cyanide, dynamite and trawling, from the 1980s up to the late 1990s. This led to widespread coral reef destruction and fish stock depletion.

But ecotourism and massive information campaigns halted this, Mazo says.

Coron, part of the Calamianes group of islands, is famous for its well-preserved underwater shipwrecks surrounded with coral reefs in good condition. Image by Ray via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

“Since opening this area to tourists in 2004, those damaging activities were stopped and the impending fisheries collapse was averted,” says Mazo, who has been at the forefront of mobilizing the community to combat illegal fishing in the area since the early 2000s. “The majority of fishers have migrated to tourism.”

It’s the same in the PPSRNP, where boat operators, organized since 1991, are taking their part in safeguarding their seas. PPSRNP’s 7,000-hectare (17,300-acre) marine zone also suffered from the impact of illegal fishing in the 1990s, despite having been declared a protected area since 1971.

“Our task remains the same: report illegal fishers to enforcement authorities,” Austria says. “Within our association, as most go back to their fishing job, we discourage them from using banned fishing methods.”

A model for balancing conservation and sustainable tourism, the national park is home to at least 1,024 terrestrial and marine wildlife species, some of which are endangered, rare or endemic. But they’re more at risk of vanishing if the plunder of habitats driven by food scarcity caused by the pandemic is left unchecked, says PPSRNP protected area superintendent Elizabeth Maclang.

Park rangers also continue to monitor the forested areas in the park during the lockdown, Maclang says. “The same monitoring is being done in marine zones because we’ve assumed some may also engage in destructive fishing,” she says. “We’re addressing locals’ needs by distributing relief goods and vegetable seedlings so they can plant and sell for their subsistence.”

Back to basics

For coastal ecotourism associations in Palawan, the coronavirus pandemic has hit the reset button, pushing them to return to fishing and farming — their bread-and-butter livelihoods prior to the province’s tourism boom. “It’s kind of going back to basics,” Mazo says.

Locals near Siete Pecados haul in an average daily fish catch of 10 kilograms (22 pounds) each, almost triple the national average of 3.5 kg (8 lb) for small-scale fishers. Mazo attributes the robust fish catch to the declaration of the area as a marine protected area, which helps them ride through the lockdown.

“Imagine if there are no tourism activities during the pandemic and the fish populations are depleted, we won’t survive,” he says.

“MPAs are there for the long gain,” Rene Abesamis, a marine biology expert, tells Mongabay. Well-managed MPAs serve as safe areas for fish where they spawn and grow and eventually move out, Abesamis says. Combined with sustainable fishing methods outside the MPA, fish biomass improves and marine food security stabilizes.

“The biomass that took many years to accrue” inside MPAs, Abesamis warns, can be substantially reduced by illegal fishing and poaching activities. That’s why “it’s really important to continue protecting the protected areas even in trying circumstances like the current pandemic,” he says. “If the communities stop being vigilant, the effect will be very big in the long run.”

Siete Pecados is one of the most well-managed marine protected areas in the Philippines. Underwater image by Gerald R. Mondala via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Decades of conserving PPSRNP’s vast marine zone has also paid off, yielding bountiful fish harvests for locals in these trying times.

“Fishing boats here are brimming that you can buy high-valued fish species like lapu-lapu [grouper] for as low as 100 pesos [$2] per kilo,” Austria says, adding they’ve asked commercial markets in the city to buy their catch so it won’t spoil and members will have an alternative cash source.

Austria has also rekindled her subsistence organic farm during the lockdown, planting fast-growing vegetables in her 1-hectare (2.5-acre) property located at the foot of the park’s iconic karst mountains. “The adjustment is difficult because we’re now used to earning more from tourism than farming and fishing combined,” she says.

Tourism’s “easy money” drove numerous locals away from farming and fishing, Austria adds. “The pandemic has forced many to realize how equally important those forgotten and underappreciated sectors are, especially now that the tourism industry has slumped.”

Community-based tourism has improved the once economically deprived villages in the province, but many believe that regaining the economic momentum remains a challenge in the age of COVID-19.

Locals, nonetheless, are hoping against hope that the tourism industry will rebound soon, or at least in time for the next peak season, which begins in the fourth quarter of the year. If not, they look forward to the same period next year. “Once the situation improves, we expect tourism here to bounce back by 2021,” Mazo says.

While the restrictions continue, Mazo says the management of Siete Pecados has 2 million pesos ($40,000) in reserves to support its 10 employees until next year, and another 4 million pesos ($80,000) for coastal resources management. But despite this, the situation remains uncertain.

The provincial tourism office is preparing a recovery plan to help tourism-dependent workers, but no concrete details have been released as of the time this article was published.

“Will tourists come back after the Philippine lockdown lifts? That’s our concern,” Mazo says, adding that the majority of the site’s foreign visitors come from European countries like Spain and France, which are still grappling with the pandemic.

Austria, meanwhile, is pinning her hopes on the discovery of a vaccine for the virus. The provincial office has earlier said that without a vaccine, inbound and outbound travel is banned in the province. “If we find a cure to coronavirus,” Austria says, “then there’s a fighting chance we can revive the dying tourism industry that gives life to everyone here.”

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Banner image of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park’s underground river, a UNESCO heritage site. Image by Haya Benitez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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