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A Philippine town and its leaders show how mangrove restoration can succeed

Victor Emata, a SEAMANCOR-trained tour guide, rowing a boat.

Victor Emata, a SEAMANCOR-trained tour guide who also runs a baklad (fish pen). He claims that after losing everything when a typhoon destroyed their baklad, they will be able to recover within a year. Image by Mavic Conde for Mongabay.

  • In the early 1990s, the coastal town of Prieto Diaz, in the Philippines’ Bicol region, was selected as a pilot area for a community-based resource management program created by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
  • Today, an award-winning community organization helps maintain a mangrove ecosystem that has grown to be the region’s largest and supports the livelihoods of both its members and the broader community.
  • Residents credit the restored mangrove ecosystem with protecting the village from storm surges, and point to committed local leaders as vital to the ongoing success of mangrove restoration and protection.

PRIETO DIAZ, Philippines — Working quietly before a bucket of rabbitfish, known locally as danggit, two women precisely cut open each fish with square knives, gutting and deboning before repeating the process. A third woman scrubs each mirror-image fish fillet, about the size of a cigarette pack.

“Today is a slow work day, but during peak seasons, such as November and December, we have a long table of 30 workers here for a ton of danggit catch,” Racquel Diño told Mongabay during a visit in mid-February. Processing danggit into dried, salted fish has become her main source of income, as it has for the two other women working today.

Danggit graze on seagrass that cover 800 hectares (nearly 2,000 acres) of the seabed off the town of Prieto Diaz in Sorsogon province, 360 miles (580 kilometers) south of Manila. Prieto Diaz’s integrated marine ecosystems of seagrass meadows, coral reefs and mangrove forests are thriving, thanks to more than three decades of community-led coastal reforestation and protection efforts.

With a stable population of diverse trees, its 1,034-hectare (2,555-acre) mangrove ecosystem has grown to be the largest in the Bicol region, the southeastern-most peninsula of the main island of Luzon.

Racquel Diño and Ruth gutting and deboning danggit.
Racquel Diño and Ruth gutting and deboning danggit. Image by Mavic Conde for Mongabay.
Mangrove roots.
Prieto Diaz’s integrated marine ecosystems of seagrass meadows, coral reefs and mangrove forests are thriving, thanks to more than three decades of community-led coastal reforestation and protection efforts. Image by Mavic Conde for Mongabay.

Community-based management

In the 1990s, the national government institutionalized community-based resource management as a response to the critical decline of coastal habitats like mangroves. At the time, the country had already lost around half of its 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of mangroves, much of it cleared to make way for fish farms. In Prieto Diaz, cutting down mangrove trees for charcoal was also rampant.

Both the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Coastal Environment Program (CEP) and the 1991 Local Government Code put much of the responsibility for restoration on local governments.

In 1993, the DENR chose Prieto Diaz as a pilot area for the CEP to restore its nearly depleted mangroves and protect the remaining 112-hectare (277-acre) natural forest.

In keeping with the principles of the CEP, the DENR, together with the local government, focused on training and capacity building, community-based management, and the creation of alternative livelihoods.

The program provided an initial budget for Seagrass, Mangrove, Corals (SEAMANCOR) Eco-Developers, Inc., the people’s organization co-tasked with managing the town’s mangroves. Its membership of “sea wardens,” or bantay-dagat, and sectoral representatives grew from 27 to 105 in two years.

“The area was almost replanted with mangroves under the CEP, while we also realized the destructions we’d done,” SEAMANCOR member and Tabagnon Indigenous council member Levi Destura Sr. said, adding that participants were paid 25 centavos (about half a U.S. cent) for each propagule planted, plus another 25 centavos for the stick used to secure the propagules. This project sought to replant at least 267 hectares (660 acres) of the town’s coastal intertidal area.

Ronnel Dioneda Sr., director of research and development at Bicol University, who was part of a government-sponsored 2019 evaluation of the area’s mangrove ecosystem, said Prieto Diaz’s mangroves are in much better shape than elsewhere in the region due to high regeneration capacity. He called this “a characteristic of a well-managed mangrove forest.”

Dioneda attributed this to the area’s diverse range of healthy mangrove species and natural reef protection. “Sure, there are indications of natural zonation disruption, but they are within tolerable limits, and nature will take its course with the help of the locals,” he said.

Local government support

In Prieto Diaz, people point to the active involvement of local officials as a key part of the program’s success here.

“In many parts of the country, policies exist only on paper and are not enforced,” Rona Joy Loma from the Zoological Society London (ZSL) Philippines, whose conservation projects in the country have helped restore and protect abandoned fish-farm mangroves, said via email.

Antonio Dionela, the town’s mayor in the early 1990s, created a task force to target illegal fishing, particularly the use of fish bombs. One of his successors, Benito Doma, mayor from 2001 to 2009 and again from 2013 to 2021, introduced ordinances barring the cutting of mangroves and the catching of juvenile danggit during the spawning season.

“[Getting here] wasn’t easy, especially because locals thought mangrove trees were meant to be cut down and turned into charcoal,” Doma, who is now a member of the provincial board, said over the phone.

“It pays to have local leaders who enforced the law on the ground, such as prohibiting mangrove tree cutting for charcoal making and going after fish bombers, while also understanding that they did it out of poverty,” said Joselito Domdom Jr., president of SEAMANCOR Eco-Developers, Inc.

The process of changing behavior, however, was long and tedious. Domdom’s own father practiced dynamite fishing, ultimately injuring his hand, while many locals were dismayed to lose their jobs as charcoal makers.

Scrubbed danggit.
Scrubbed danggit. Domdom now pays PHP 5 (USD 0.092) per kilo of thoroughly cleaned danggit. Image by Mavic Conde for Mongabay.

Locals were also hostile to the establishment of the Malipot-Rawis-Lagbak Fish Sanctuary and Marine Reserve, known as MARILAG, during Dionela’s tenure.

However, participants say acceptance increased as alternative livelihoods became available. SEAMANCOR’s sea wardens, who are fisherfolk, also work as tour guides and seasonally gather honey from the mangrove forests. In addition to working as fish processors, women belonging to the organization are also hired as servers and kitchen helpers during events at SEAMANCOR’s event hall. And even people not involved with the organization have had access to skills training and livelihood kits from partner government agencies.

“Now that we’re reaping the benefits of what we’ve started, we’ll make sure to keep guarding it,” said Domdom, adding that locals report violations to sea wardens without hesitation. He cited the example of a couple who were jailed for cutting a handful of mangrove trees, as well as someone jailed for poaching sea turtles. In addition, he said, an enforcement officer was sued for violating a protocol.

Fisherman Renato Lopido Jr. said he’d like to catch more fish than he does — he estimated a daily haul of 40 kilograms (88 pounds) would suffice for his family — but wouldn’t resort to illegal methods to do so. “I only use fish arrows and the allowed size for fish nets, as well as catch lobsters by hand and don’t use [air] compressors.” During lean seasons, his average daily catch is 20 kg (44 lbs), but in good seasons, it can reach 70 kg (154 lbs).

People in boats.
Visitors can see the mangrove areas by taking a boat tour with trained boatmen as tour guides. Image by Mavic Conde for Mongabay.

Recognition, but work still remains

Two decades after the project began, the community’s efforts earned the Para el Mar Best Mangrove Award, a prize granted every two years by the Marine Protected Areas Network, together with the DENR and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). In the same competition, the MARILAG fish sanctuary bagged the award for best enforcement.

Despite these recent accolades, challenges remain.

Typhoons are a major concern, especially as climate change contributes to more frequent and powerful storms.

In 2019, Typhoon Kammuri (known in the Philippines as Tisoy) struck the village, destroying Lopido’s nipa stilt hut and washed away a fisher’s washing machine that they were still paying for.

“It was painful, especially because you worked so hard to build it only to have it destroyed in a day,” Lopido said.

Nonetheless, Lopido said that without the mangroves there to shield them, they would have face significantly more harm.

Sonneratia alba trees
Sonneratia alba trees, called pagatpat by local people who are aware of its resistance to typhoons due to its ability to regrow after being knocked down. Image by Mavic Conde for Mongabay.

According to SEAMANCOR’s Domdom, the town proper no longer floods during typhoons since the forest was replanted. He also credited mangrove restoration with improving protection from extreme weather.

The municipality’s natural defenses would be further strengthened by reforesting abandoned and unproductive fish farms in the village’s intertidal zones, ZSL’s Loma said. “The ideal site for mangrove rehabilitation is the middle to upper intertidal areas where fishponds are located,” she said.

However, due to issues related to land tenure, the local government has been unable to rehabilitate these zones. Romeo Domasian, the current mayor, said the tenants of these areas became indebted to banks through a program known as the Fishpond Lease Agreement, the same program that accelerated the development of fish farms across the country under the administration of Ferdinand Marcos.

Under the program, which took off in the mid-1970s, fish farmers and private entities were able to use publicly owned intertidal land as collateral to obtain loans to develop fish farms from the Development Bank of the Philippines.  According to a ZSL analysis of the program,  many parties defaulted on their loans, leading the bank to foreclose on formerly public land, including many mangrove forests.

Domdom said reclaiming and reforesting these lands would benefit the residents of Prieto Diaz. “Imagine if these areas could be used as additional habitats for juvenile fishes?”

Propellers are not permitted here because they can cause “scarring” in seagrass beds, resulting in gaps that increase the risk of erosion and vulnerability to storms. Image by Mavic Conde for Mongabay.

Looking to the future

Sustainability of the mangroves and the programs that support them is a continuous challenge, former mayor Doma said. Part of the solution has been adaptability, with SEAMANCOR’s livelihood initiatives ranging from catering to visiting school groups to supplying mangrove propagules to a local government in nearby Camarines Sur province, to filling a contract from the local government to provide meals to people quarantined during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Domdom said the organization has demonstrated that it can generate enough revenue to sustain itself, provided it has full backing from the local government, which has been a consistent client. “[SEAMANCOR’s] finances should have shrunk throughout the pandemic, yet the opposite happened.”

He said this leaves him optimistic that the group’s proposal for another 25-year stewardship contract with the DENR will be approved.

Banner image: Victor Emata, a SEAMANCOR-trained tour guide who also runs a baklad (fish farm). He claims that after losing everything when a typhoon destroyed their baklad, they will be able to recover within a year. Image by Mavic Conde for Mongabay.

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