Like many others, she read about it in the morning newspaper: Astounding and abundant marine life near the Philippines
' Verde Island is in dire need of protection. Like several others, the scuba diver felt the news hit home. But unlike anyone else in the country, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – the president of the Philippines – had the power to do something about it.
President Arroyo called Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes and asked him to immediately convene a conference on biodiversity. Later that morning, Conservation International-Philippines executive director Romeo Trono received a call from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources asking him to help organize the gathering.
"I was not surprised that the president read the article," Trono said. "I was surprised with her swift, positive response."
"Everybody, of course, was elated," added Kent Carpenter, CI's Global Marine Species Assessment coordinator and biology professor at Old Dominion University.
Less than a month later, the results of that phone call are clear. On November 8 on Verde Island, Arroyo joined Trono, Carpenter, and Roger McManus, senior director for CI's marine program, and signed an executive order pledging government support for biodiversity conservation.
The executive order calls on the Philippines' government to establish guidelines for designating biodiversity areas and critical habitats, and to require a stricter process for assessing the environmental impact of development.
"In accordance with law, it is the policy of the state to protect, conserve, and sustainably use biological diversity to ensure and secure the well-being of present and future generations of Filipinos," the order states.
"It's not everyday that you get a national leader to pick up a biodiversity topic based on CI's involvement," Carpenter said.
The Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape
While CI's agenda seemingly took a swift and direct path to the country's highest office, efforts to protect the Verde Passage Marine Biodiversity Corridor have been underway for some time.
The Verde Passage is part of the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape initiative, launched by CI and its partners in 2005, to conserve a region that is home to threatened species including hawksbill, olive ridley and green sea turtles, giant groupers and giant clams. CI works with First Philippine Conservation Inc., First Gen Corporation, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the local governments of Batangas and Mindoro provinces to protect the marine ecosystems.
The seascape, being developed under the coordination of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, encompasses 900,000 square kilometers of marine life. Within that broad region, the Verde Passage is a vital corridor for marine-based tourism, transportation, and international shipping. According to Carpenter, it is also "the Amazon River Basin of the oceans," because it contains the most concentrated biodiversity on the planet.
"You get more species per unit area in the Philippines than anywhere else on Earth," he said. "Within the Philippines center, there's one area that seems to stand out and that's the Verde Island passage." At the same time, species in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape face constant threats from overexploitation, unsustainable fishing, population pressure, and poverty. "An August 2006 oil spill near the Philippines' Guimaras Island, 300 nautical miles southeast of Verde Island, also reminded people of the need to protect fragile marine life," Trono said.
"Arroyo's actions," McManus added, "demonstrate that CI uses science not only to better manage marine areas, but to help policy makers prioritize marine conservation."
The executive order directs a previously-created commission to convene immediately to implement a conservation plan to protect the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape. It also specifically requires that commission to create a Verde Passage Task Force to strategize about how to best conserve the Verde marine corridor.