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PHILIPPINES: Mangrove areas lost to fishponds

Source:  Copyright 2005, Philippine Daily Inquirer
Date:  February 16, 2005
Byline:  Bobby Labalan
Original URL: Status DEAD

PRIETO DIAZ, Sorsogon, Philippines -- BICOL'S biggest mangrove forest in Prieto Diaz town in Sorsogon is being threatened by fishpond developers, who have already cut down thousands of mangrove trees, and the alleged indifference of government officials tasked with protecting it.

Nineteen mangrove species grow in 1,006 hectares of wetlands in 11 barangay of Prieto Diaz, 30 km southeast of Sorsogon City, fronting the Pacific Ocean.

The forest serves as the town's natural protection against weather disturbances, ocean surge and soil erosion spawned by big waves, said forester Anabel Barquilla of the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office.

A big portion of the area is covered by a reforestation program initiated by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the late 1980s. According to the DENR, the remaining mangrove forest is now nearly equal in size to the 950 hectares of fishponds in the area.

Eco-Developers, an organization which holds a mangrove stewardship agreement with the DENR.

Some of the fishpond developers have secured permits from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, which approves applications for fishpond lease agreements (FLAs), while others possess authority from the Development Bank of the Philippines.

Many of them come from outside Sorsogon, some even as far as the Visayas, Mayor Benito Doma said as he expressed dismay over the sad state of affairs.

The municipal government has repeatedly invited BFAR regional officials, who are based in Pili, Camarines Sur, to a meeting to discuss the problem, but the agency has ignored it, Doma said.

Doma said the local officials wanted to know from the BFAR how the FLAs were being granted to fishpond developers so that they could act accordingly. The bureau, he said, did not consult them before it granted the permits.

Worse, the officials did not know that some of the fishpond projects were within mangrove plantations, he said. By the time they learned about it, the mangrove trees had already been cut down.

Pete Vela Cruz, a member of the DENR team implementing the reforestation project, said the approval of an FLA normally went through a multi-layered process in order to ensure environmental protection.

First, the land should be classified by the DENR's Forest Management Bureau as a national park, timberland or forest. Once classified as timberland, it must be declared alienable and disposable.

The DENR must then determine whether the land is suitable for fishpond purposes. If it declares the area as such, only then can a prospective developer apply for an FLA.

Vela Cruz said the DENR has not classified the mangrove forest as suitable for fishpond purposes, so the granting of the lease agreements by the BFAR was highly questionable.

DBP authority
Doma said those wielding only an authority from the DBP were operating fishponds that were foreclosed by the bank after the original developers failed to pay their obligations to it.

He doubted the legality of the foreclosure since fishponds acquired through the FLAs cannot be used as loan collateral. Theoretically, the fishponds are government property that are only leased to the operators and thus should have not been accepted by the bank as collateral, he said.

Doma said he had consulted with DENR lawyers about the legality of a local executive order that he plans to issue, which, he added, would pave the way for the demolition of the illegal fishponds.

The mayor said fishpond operators in the area did not show up in the meeting called by the local government.

Doma said his administration had initiated the filing of criminal cases against some of the fishpond developers, but not one case has prospered in court. A lot of the cases were dismissed even before these could even reach the court.

Rene Camacho, community environment and natural resources officer (Cenro), said the officials were aghast at why they lost all the cases. They had hoped that the prosecutor's office would advise them on how to file the cases properly and what evidence to present since they were all working for the government, he said.

Camacho said all their cases were anchored on the provisions of Presidential Decree No. 705.

The Provincial Multi-Sectoral Forest Protection Committee (PMFPC), headed by the Cenro, has created a special sub-committee to look into the problems besetting the mangrove forest and recommend actions to stop the environmental abuse.

According to the DENR, the mangrove forest supports a diverse ecosystem. Data from the department's Coastal Environment Program shows that it is helping the continued existence of at least 836 hectares of sea grass, 800 hectares of coral reefs, and 1,200 hectares of tidal mud flats.

Researchers have identified at least 19 varieties of mangrove trees in the wetlands. These are the pagatpat, nilad, bakawan-bato, bakawan-babae, bakawan-lalaki, malatangal, pototan, langarai, busain, pototan-lalaki, tinduk-tindukan, saging-saging, tabigi, bantigi, buta-buta, taban, bungalow and api-api.

At least eight species of sea grass abound, covering an area of as far as two kilometers from the shoreline. Among the species are the tropical eel grass, dugong grass, round-tipped sea grass, toothed sea grass, fiber strand grass, syringe grass and the spoon grass.

Bird species
Judy Doma, a DENR biologist and the mayor's wife, warned that the destruction of the forest would also adversely affect the habitat of 22 species of birds.

They include the tree sparrow, chestnut manikin, little mangrove heron, glossy swiftlet, pacific swallow, white-collared kingfisher, ashy minivet, amethyst brown fruit dove, white-breasted wood swallow, Richards pipit, Philippine flower pecker, yellow-vented bulbul, barred rail, cattle egret, Kentish plover, whimbrel, terek sandpiper, green shank, Pacific Reef egret-dark face, Pacific Reef egret-white face, and the wandering whistling duck.

The biologist said the ecosystem supported other animal species, such as reptiles, fish, crustaceans and seashells.

Human species
Mayor Doma said the people would be the biggest loser if efforts to save the mangrove forest failed.

Hundreds of families in Prieto Diaz, a fifth-class municipality (annual income: P7 million to P13 million), depend on the mangrove forest for livelihood, he said.

The LGU, in tandem with the DENR, has initiated at least six alternative livelihood projects like seaweed farming, shellcraft, crab fattening, nipa plantation, prawn culture and sale of propagules.

The DENR has declared the mangrove forest the pilot showcase for Bicol and has been attracting hundreds of tourists yearly.

Seamancor Eco-Developers have almost 200 members, most of them with families who derive livelihood from the mangrove forest.

One of its officers, Manuel Domdom, said town residents would earn more by selling food and offering services to visitors, while Seamancor members would serve as guides and lecturers.

For a boat ride for 10 passengers around the forest, a guide is paid P100, which includes boat rental, Domdom said.

Domdom said visitors from as far as Ilocos had been to the place and even bought mangrove seedlings, which were planted in their coastal towns.

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