In the Philippines, Fighting Climate Change Impacts with Nature (Part 2)

© Conservation International/photo by Kristin Prukop

This is the second half of a two-part blog about the role that restoring and protecting ecosystems like mangroves, reefs and forests can play in buffering communities from extreme weather events like Typhoon Haiyan. Read part 1. (Note: Although this blog was written prior to the storm, we were relieved to learn that the regions discussed were largely spared from destruction.)
In 2008, CI-Philippines conducted a climate change vulnerability assessment in the Verde Island Passage, a species-rich region that is highly valued as a fishing ground, tourist site and shipping lane between the Philippine islands. The assessment identified the coastal community of Silonay as one of the most vulnerable to storm surges and sea level rise.
When CI recently gave me the opportunity to see this village for myself and learn more about the work that CI is doing there, I jumped at the chance.
We arrive at the village’s main community building, where I meet over 50 community members and join them in a simple lunch of fried fish and vegetables before taking the short walk to the mangrove site.
There is still plenty of dense mangrove forest left, but as we trudge closer to the sea, I start to notice the mangrove vegetation getting less and less dense until I’m standing in an empty, muddy flat. It is here that we need to replant mangrove seedlings to rebuild the forest that once stood. In the company of community members, I plant my very first tree — a mangrove seedling. Something about getting my hands muddied as I carefully place the plant into the ground gives me an unexpected feeling of euphoria.
Mangrove planting activities are a small part of a larger strategy of using ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) to cope with climate change. A relatively new concept, EbA is defined as reducing the impacts of climate change through the conservation and restoration of natural ecosystems. Because natural systems provide additional benefits besides climate adaptation, such as alternative livelihoods, they are often much more cost-effective than hard-engineered solutions.
Growing evidence suggests that mangroves, as well as other natural barriers, are critical components in the overall resilience of coastal areas to natural threats and disasters.
In fact, on the Philippine island of Samar, mangrove replanting is thought to have played a role in the region’s relatively minor damage from Typhoon Haiyan. Yet an estimated 70% of the original 500,000 hectares (more than 1.2 million acres) of mangrove forest in the Philippines has been lost, largely as a result of fish and shrimp aquaculture pond construction in addition to conversion for agriculture, salt beds and human settlements.
Currently, 25 hectares (62 acres) of mangrove land around Silonay has already been reforested, with a final target of 40 hectares (almost 100 acres) by 2014. Thanks to CI’s initial planting activities, in recent months other civic groups and the local government have started planting mangroves in adjacent areas.
This project benefits the community in multiple ways. Alain Maulion, the socioeconomics and income diversification consultant working on the Silonay project, explains: “Firstly, we provide the community with the economic means to rebuild their environment, by giving support and incentives for mangrove reforestation activities. But we also work with them in developing alternative income sources like ecotourism and sale of processed foods … I’m proud to say that the Silonay project addresses the twin issues of environmental degradation and poverty, which are often so closely related.”
Another benefit is that the Silonay people’s organization — a CI community partner called the Sama-samang Nagkakaisang Pamayanan ng Silonay — has transformed itself into an ecotourism and food processing social enterprise, to help sustain the conservation of their mangrove protected areas.
Together with provincial and city partners, CI has helped strengthen the capacity and capabilities of community members through training on business skills such as bookkeeping, auditing, business planning, tour-guiding, packaging and food processing. The more income people have from business ventures like tourism, the less need they have to cut down mangroves to survive.
I ask Alain if it was difficult getting this project started. He says it has been relatively easy to get the community to accept CI and our interventions; the people recognize the benefits of the program and know they need to adopt new practices in order to sustain and improve their lives. Climate change is not the only threat that Silonay has had to battle with. The community has faced increasingly lower incomes from fishing, their main livelihood, due to overfishing and the increasing presence of commercial fishing vessels.
“Back in the day, Silonay used to be a wealthy fishing village, pulling in up to ten tons of fish daily,” a village elder confides in me. As I look at the humble huts and worn-down buildings, it’s plain to see that all that wealth has eroded, along with the environment’s ability to provide.
To date, the community has launched the following alternative income opportunities: a kayak and paddle boat mangrove tour, sale of mangrove seedlings to other towns that want to restore their forests, sale of Silonay souvenirs, and the sale of packaged fruit and vegetable chips that the villagers process themselves.
However, the central attraction is the mangrove boardwalk that traverses the inner sanctum of the mangrove forests, allowing visitors to enjoy the sight and sounds of various wildlife species, including birds, bats, amphibians and reptiles. CI has also documented the wildlife in Silonay to help promote awareness and appreciation for the biodiversity and ecosystem services by both tourists and villagers.
As I leave Silonay, I’m filled with fond memories of mangrove planting and the friendly interactions with the community. At the time of my visit, they had just gotten their new kayaks, but had yet to set up proper infrastructure and marketing that a full ecotourism destination requires. I hope to return in a few years’ time to see a steady stream of tourists — and, of course, to visit the seedling I planted.
Lynn Tang is the senior manager for partnerships and development for CI’s Asia-Pacific Field Division. Thanks to Alain for his invaluable knowledge and contribution to this blog. The Silonay project is part of an EbA pilot project that CI is conducting in three countries: Philippines, South Africa and Brazil.