Reeling off the excitement of Manggahan Festival, June has started strong with an eventful first two weeks. June has also brought daily afternoon rains, providing much welcomed relief from the oppressive heat of the dry season. With three months of service left it is officially crunch time.
The two largest American groups in the Philippines are Peace Corps Volunteers and missionaries from the Mormon church, we often exist in the same spaces, yet tend to each keep to our own mission. A sister and elder of the church visited my environmental booth during the Manggahan Festival and invited me to join them at their church, not to learn about the Mormon religion but to teach the missionaries who live on Guimaras. That next week I visited the church and taught all 14 missionaries about the coastal and marine ecosystems, also showing them how to facilitate some environmental games with kids. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the missionaries, forming an unlikely friendship for the sake of mother earth.
My office led a mangrove planting in Avila Marine Sanctuary to celebrate the 2015 Earth Day (over a month late, we were on ‘filipino time’), and with the assistance of other government agencies and the local community we planted over 3,000 seedlings! The following day my coworkers and I surveyed the mature mangrove trees in barangay Avila, and I conducted the second round of coral surveys for my thesis project.
Finishing the coral surveys ahead of schedule I begged my coworkers to let me use the remaining tank to dive Guisi point (see pictures below). Guisi is home to an 18 century Spanish lighthouse and some of the best corals I have ever seen! Unfortunately I had to dive the site alone due to rumors (island folk lore) of the area being ‘shark infested’. While I did not see any sharks my coworkers did insist that I take a knife along in case I had to stab my way out. After declaring to my office that Guisi is a ‘world class reef’ (I tend to over-exaggerate), I will now be leading a group of Koreans divers (from the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology) to Guisi point on the 25th of June.
Following the amazing dive at Guisi point I was invited to assist a fellow volunteer in conducting coral surveys at her site- Dao, Antique. For the moment, waters around Dao are unbelievably clear making for two excellent dives. However, as the dry season comes to an end the winds are beginning to shift (now blowing from the south west), what Filipinos refer to as ‘Habagat’, a season of humid air and unpredictable monsoon rains.
During Manggahan Festival I met an American business professor who teaches at The University of Hong Kong. He recently brought his class of 14 students to Guimaras for a month of experiential education. The students are using their entrepreneurial minds to help revive several small businesses on the island, and fortunately they have also offered to lend me a hand. Together we are developing a plan for instating an environmental tourism fee on Guimaras, a practice that is being employed at ecotourism destinations throughout the Philippines. The goal is to reinvest profits from the fee back into the maintenance and conservation of our natural resources. Currently we are formulating a plan to pilot the fee in Alubihod (the top tourism destination on the island) with funds being reinvested into the Jordan Marine Turtle Sanctuary- where tourism is directly responsible for a 40% decline in coral cover over the past decade. Phase two (to take place some time in the future) involves expanding the fee to cover the entire island and linking with government certified ecotourism destinations.
The photos below are a telling example of the state of Guimaras fisheries. Everyday on my walk home I pass by several fish vendors, and without fail they are chopping up / selling some type of sea create which should not have left the ocean. Sometimes vendors are selling exotic things like this moray eel, stingray, or the occasional shark, but more commonly it is a species of juvenile reef fish (more fit for an aquarium then dinner plate). Admittedly, the marine biologist in me is sad for the eel, but what makes me more sad is what that eel represents. Over half of the population of the Philippines relies on fish as their primary source of protein; the combined effects of over-fishing, population growth, habitat destruction, and pollution have pushed fisheries to the brink of collapse. And while I wish this eel had stayed on the reef I am not about to complain to this vendor- maybe he actually was the one to pluck it from the coral, but even if he did, it was just to feed his family. People often accuse someone of being ‘ignorant’ or ‘needing to be educated’, and while I do believe that education is the answer, it is important to look at the bigger issues behind people’s decisions. Of course fishermen understand that catching juvenile fish hurts the next generation and they understand that healthy coral reefs are vital fish habitats, the fishermen are simply victims of larger circumstances, most of which are out of their control. Put yourself in this man’s shoes and tell me you wouldn’t be chopping up that eel too.