24 Nov 2021 Forests, fish, and the future: Living with mangroves in Zamboanga Sibugay
By Lora Batino
In the Southern Philippines, a small town by Sibugey bay is home to both a community and the mangrove forests that they look after. The town of Kabasalan in the province of Zamboanga Sibugay shelters hectares of mangrove forests that have been present since the 1970s, which have provided food, shelter, and livelihood to the residents of barangay1 Concepcion.
Over the years, the coastal community has continued to reap the benefits of mangroves, which function as shelter for fish and crustaceans that they catch for food, serve as structure for their houses and as charcoal for their cooking, and act as natural buffers from storms and strong waves.
Despite the benefits endowed by mangroves, the town eventually saw a decline in marine resources in the mid to late 1980s. Massive mangrove cutting for charcoal and construction use, conversion to fishponds, and coastal pollution became widespread. In the mid-1990s, fisheries declined and fishing communities struggled. Eventually, catch and income derived from fishing were not enough to support fishermen and their families, and some resorted to illegal activities like cyanide and dynamite fishing just to increase their catch. Others abandoned fishing and migrated to urban areas to look for work. Environmental degradation was evident.
Apart from these observations is the noted change in their immediate surroundings. Climate change, a major threat to the mangrove ecosystem and its livelihoods, manifested itself in the frequent occurrence of typhoons and rains. Zamboanga Sibugay is not located in the typhoon belt in the Philippines, so strong typhoons and storm surges are unexpected. Coastal erosion brought about by these weather conditions changed the natural landscape of the municipalities near the bay. Coastal flooding forced families to retreat farther from the coast and harsher weather conditions necessitate the building and maintenance of higher and sturdier houses.
Global heating has also caused increases in water temperatures and the death of mangrove propagules in the replanting area. Zamboanga Sibugay is also a flood-prone province. Rivers that traverse populated areas flow to the sea, and upstream cause damage to crops and flooding in coastal towns during the rainy season from July to October.
The seemingly irreversible and depleted state of the coastal areas, especially the mangroves, triggered the need for conservation. Residents of barangay Concepcion revisited their experiences and practices that may have led to these effects.
Regrowth and hope
The history of Zamboanga Sibugay’s mangrove rehabilitation efforts is closely intertwined with that of the establishment of a proactive people’s organization (PO) dedicated to the protection and conservation of mangroves in Sibuguey bay. Then a youth leader, Roberto Ballon or “Ta Dodoy” and his friends and family were deeply involved in local activities, which included a Basic Ecology Seminar and a series of training and seminars that followed which deepened their understanding of the importance of protecting, conserving, and managing natural resources, especially the different ecosystems that support life.
Through raising their awareness and developing their critical thinking, they found out the need to group themselves into an organization to address the problems of their community. This motivated the fisherfolk in barangay Concepcion to form the Kapunongan sa Gagmay’ng Mangingisda sa Concepcion2 (KGMC) in 1986. At that time, mangrove forests were almost denuded, the income of the families was already low, and illegal activities were prevalent. They had witnessed and experienced the effects of the activities around them and realized that as a group, they could do something to improve their situation.
KGMC spearheaded various environmental protection and management activities that were known to other POs in the entire province. One of its first activities was planting 50 hectares of mangrove trees. Members initially used their own money and resources for food and gasoline during these planting activities. KGMC started with 36 members, which decreased over the years due to the lack of financial support, the time and energy the activity demanded, and the uncertainty of the replanting effort’s future.
Better days came for the remaining members when financial and technical support from the government and the academe came. Membership once again rose and mangrove rehabilitation activities continued. While ongoing, the PO’s partners assisted in providing options for diversified livelihood to fisherfolk to augment income lost from destructive fishing activities.
To date, around 12,000 hectares are under the conservation and protection of the federation, and efforts continue to reach a target of 16,000 hectares – the original expanse of the mangrove forests before mangrove clearing and conversion to fishponds became rampant in the area.
Despite the apparent destruction of the mangrove area in the past and the challenges the community faced, rehabilitation efforts by family farmers and organizations proved successful and are now considered one of the best practices in the conservation of natural resources in the Philippines. The establishment of a community-based organization, consultation and support with various stakeholders in the government and the academe, use of their local knowledge about mangroves, and communication within the organization and with their partners resulted in a successful and recognized conservation effort.
A shared vision
The first PO established to support their cause, KGMC, was looked upon as a model organization due to its strong advocacy for environmental protection and management. To streamline efforts of various POs from adjacent towns, meetings and consultations became a venue where leaders and members shared their problems and concerns on rampant illegal fishing and degraded coastal habitats. KGMC eventually initiated the consolidation of different people’s organizations in the barangays and municipalities into one federation.
Thus, the Coalition of Municipal Fisherfolk Associations of Sibugay (COMFAS) was created, comprising of small fisherfolk associations from the coastal municipalities of Zamboanga Sibugay, sharing one vision of “family food forever”. The establishment of a formal federation was drawn from the successes of KGMC’s initiatives, which paved the way for accessing support from LGUs, government agencies, and donor institutions. COMFAS is composed of 56 barangay-based organizations, with indigenous people (IP) member organizations from the Subanen and Samal people.
COMFAS employs a collective approach in addressing environmental concerns. Leaders and members are fisher-farmers themselves, and therefore understand one another and share the same values and aspirations for the sector. It has practised democratic, consultative, and participatory decision-making management, where members, both individuals, and families, can share their knowledge and observations on their surroundings. Having lived along the same coast, their experiences of the effects of climate change are no different, nor their goals in mitigating it.
COMFAS believes that they are successful in rehabilitating the mangrove areas within their municipalities and in the entire province because previously denuded forests are now thriving again. Previously abandoned fishponds and vacant mangrove areas are now abundant with mangrove trees.
The seas as schools
COMFAS also developed their own techniques in planting mangroves. Their current practices are informed by their observations and experiences in mangrove planting over the years. Capacity-building activities provided by academic institutions and government agencies complemented and improved their practices. COMFAS planted mangroves along the dikes of fishponds, riverbanks, and coastal areas to prevent eroded soil from further reaching other mangrove areas. Sharing and exchange of knowledge, both local and gained from training, have been present within COMFAS since its establishment.
Their understanding of the value of mangroves also comes from direct experiences and knowledge-sharing with partners. Mangroves protect the communities against strong winds, storms, typhoons, waves, and floods. They minimize soil erosion, filter sediments, and maintain water quality and clarity. They also help maintain the biodiversity of the coastal ecosystems, thereby increasing food supply and income for families.
After participating in training activities and IEC campaigns, COMFAS members were able to enhance techniques in planting mangroves and identify mangrove species and other plants and animals in the coastal area. Further, their relationship with the environment and with other stakeholders has deepened their knowledge and skills on how to protect, rehabilitate and manage it, and how local knowledge and scientific information can be harmonized for this purpose.
Communication within the community
In the past, low environmental knowledge, and awareness of environment and fishery laws partly contributed to the proliferation of environmental problems.
COMFAS has initiated various efforts in environmental education to strengthen its mangrove conservation and rehabilitation. Constant information dissemination and training to previous violators transformed them and they have now become deputized fish wardens who assist the LGU in law enforcement. Information, education, and communication activities were also conducted for fisherfolk and upland communities. Issues that were identified to be caused by eroded soil from upland farms were addressed through environmental education for farmers and upland residents. This included assistance in accessing information on livelihood options, knowledge on organic farming, and use of organic pesticides and fertilizers as an alternative to environmentally detrimental chemical fertilizers.
The federation and its partners recognize the role and importance of modern technology and the Internet in communicating their efforts and best practices for the protection and conservation of mangroves. This is especially true for younger COMFAS members, who are receptive to new information found in digital and social media sites and online news channels. For government offices and senior members of POs, personal interaction, discussions, mentoring, and seminars still serve as excellent venues for the exchange of information and ideas. Traditional communication forms like print media, TV, and radio still also serve as sources of information for the residents.
Still, full rehabilitation of deforested areas and abandoned fishponds is not possible unless COMFAS is legally recognized as having rights over the area concerned. To have full rights and control over the mangrove conservation area, COMFAS has applied for a Community-based Forest Management (CBFM) tenurial agreement3 with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.4
To COMFAS members, the environment is part of their lives. It is where they eat, live, and survive. Keeping it healthy is akin to keeping their own families healthy. Planting is equivalent to saving, and what you get from the sea is the result of years of hard work and commitment. Mangroves are also compared to natural treasures that members can bequeath to their children. It is a give and take relationship: maintaining its abundance and biodiversity so that the next generation will inherit a healthy coastal environment and live a prosperous life.
While scientific knowledge has contributed to the understanding of the value of mangroves, local knowledge and moral values have all played a role in the success of mangrove rehabilitation. Protecting the environment is not only a responsibility of being a COMFAS member and a resident of Zamboanga Sibugay but a moral obligation. Members strive for a healthy and economically stable family life in a healthy and abundant coastal environment. They envision a future where coastal and marine resources can support the needs of their families, where poverty is reduced among fisherfolk families, and where there is food security. This translates to their vision of “family food forever”.
Leadership, partnership and communication
Effective leadership and a common vision have propelled the federation to continue and improve its efforts. Continued partnerships are necessary to strengthen the attitudes of the younger and future generations towards the environment, and to adapt to the changing times. Partnership with government agencies, NGOs, LGUs, academic institutions, private/professional groups, and other POs is a contributing factor to the success of the initiative and has opened doors for knowledge sharing within and outside the federation, opportunities for training and seminars, and financial and policy support.
Communication is a key strategy in sharing knowledge within the federation, between family members, and among partner organizations. In addressing the impacts of climate change, individuals and communities must be aware of their role as stewards of the environment. For fisherfolk in Zamboanga Sibugay, organizing themselves and communicating their observations and experiences with each other allows them to conserve forests and fish for their future.
This article is adapted from a research paper produced by the National Federation of Peasant Organisations or Pambansang Kilusan Ng Mga Samahang Magsasaka (PAKISAMA), under the project “Building Capacities of Fisherfolk Families to Use Local & Traditional Knowledge in Promoting Climate-Resilient Fisheries Resources Management” funded by the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC).
1. Barangay is the smallest political unit in the Philippines. It is a native term used to describe a village or a ward.
2. Kapunongan sa Gagmay’ng Mangingisda sa Concepcion is the name of the first PO in barangay Concepcion, Kabasalan. It is a Cebuano (Visayan) name which roughly translates to Organization of Small Fisher folk of Concepcion
3. A Community Based Forest Management Agreement (CBFMA) is a shared agreement between the DENR and people’s organizations that grants the latter tenurial security to develop and use a forest area and its resources for 25 years.
4. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is the primary agency in the Philippines responsible for “the conservation, management, development, and proper use of the country’s environment and natural resources”.
Lora Batino is a writer-researcher with a focus on human-environment relations. A graduate student of Geography in the University of the Philippines Diliman, her research outlines the role of coastal communities in the conservation and management of natural resources in the Philippines. She briefly joined PAKISAMA as a project researcher focusing on traditional ecological knowledge and climate change communication. She was also a research assistant in the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, where she worked on projects related to capacity building of coastal managers, marine protected area management, fisheries, and science communication.
Mangrove forest in the tropical forest of Palawan Island, Philippines. Photo: Natolii Sushko