by Agatha Maxine
Studying nature in France for quite a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that the nature of a temperate country like France, can nearly be compared to the beautiful and yet boring shade of gray in a color spectrum.
The seemingly low biodiversity of France is well protected by numerous and overlapping laws. Heck, even a dull looking toad is untouchable. Touch it and get caught by an official, you will have to pay a fine which can amount to thousands of euros.
Aside from having layers of judicial protection, the wildlife is not as colorful nor radiant as the species that I’ve once taken for granted back home in the Philippines.
In class, we were busy admiring and drooling over videos of different kinds of species found in tropical habitats -almost the same vibrant species that I remember once playing with or collecting as a young girl. Since then, I’ve been yearning to go back to rediscover the amazing but alarmingly depleting tropical fauna and flora that our country offers.
Immersion in the mangrove forest
This summer, I’ve opted to do my 3-month internship with an NGO called the Zoological Society of London-Philippines and under the tutorship of international mangrove scientist, Dr. Primavera. My mission was to study the very mysterious and understudied alien-looking mud lobsters residing in one of the most species-diverse and richest mangrove eco-parks located in Ibajay, Aklan in Panay Island, central Philippines.
And so, from conducting plant inventories in France, more or less the same way Julie Andrews sang the Hills are Alive in the prairies, I was immediately confronted with the reality of working in a tropical environment, particularly in a mangrove habitat.
I was walking knee-deep in mud, continuously slapping off crustaceans and biting insects crawling on my body, beating the rise of high tide, and endlessly wiping the gallons of sweat gushing on to my face. I’ve also mastered the art of quickly putting everything on freeze whenever a snake or a monitor lizard occasionally cruises near the working place.
Apprehension and the constant reminder of the ‘presence’ of mythical creatures, potential harmful outsiders, and animals thought to be lurking in the area came and went.
In short, conducting biological surveys in a tropical country turned out to be very different from doing field work in a temperate country. A moment of silence for tropical field researchers. You put field researchers in temperate climates to shame!
Mangrove forest: source of life
Mangrove forests can be uncomfortable for humans and yet a beaming paradise for wildlife. The seemingly hostile environment is a testimony to the fact that its’ wild residents have not succumbed to human activities. The preserved mangrove forest where I worked was wild, pristine, and busy ticking in its own natural rhythm unlike other habitats today that are barely adapting to human encroachment. They are the beating heart that pumps life into the seas. Teeming with colorful creatures from the sky to meters deep into the mangrove soil, they all work together non-stop providing much needed but undervalued critical ecosystem services to the coastal communities.
According to Dr. Primavera, Philippine mangroves are among the most diverse and also the most exploited mangrove habitats in the world. Our country is home to 35-40 mangrove species out of 68 mangroves species around the world. It serves as nursery habitat for juvenile fish, it protects and stabilizes coastlines, enriches coastal waters, yields commercial forest products and supports coastal fisheries. Coastal mangrove forests store more carbon than almost any other forest on Earth, according to a study conducted by a team of the U.S. Forest Service.
Unfortunately, the Philippines has lost 70% of its original forests, mostly due to fish pond development. During my internship, I’ve observed that the remaining mangrove forests are looked down on or feared upon by some local residents due to its association with mystical creatures, accumulation of garbage tangled in the roots during high tide, poverty, and use as public toilets.
Typhoon Haiyan and mangrove reforestation
Mangrove forests must be protected and promoted for their intrinsic value, meaning their existence as is, and their instrumental value, meaning their priceless services to mankind. In the face of climate change, mangroves play a critical role. The mangrove ecosystem along with the corals, act as buffers against typhoons by absorbing the energy and breaking the waves during storm surges.
Global Climate Risk index 2015 listed the Philippines as the number one most affected country by climate change. Our country faces an average of 20 typhoons a year. Typhoon Haiyan was one of strongest typhoons ever recorded that had battered several islands in the Philippines, killing at least 6,000 people and affecting over 41 million people across 46 provinces. The typhoon caused a storm surge, a wall of water, that was 25 ft. high in some areas.
In response, the government has invested billions of pesos to replant mangroves in the coastal areas for coastal protection. Even though the national reforestation program led by DENR turned out to be a national flop and waste of money (read http://www.rappler.com/science-nature/environment/89163-unscientific-mangrove-rehabilitation-yolanda) due to their “budget based/pogi-points approach” of reforestation as quoted by a scientist, the Philippines is slowly becoming aware of the value of mangroves as a shield to climate change.
Environmental education as empowerment
During my internship, I’ve learned that mud lobster mounds found in mangrove swamps have a very important ecological function in the mangrove ecosystem. Locals take their presence for granted, much less the pristine mangrove eco-park next door. Mud lobsters are keystone species that increase the species diversity of an area and stimulate the growth of mangroves.
International and national scientists regularly frequent the park, and yet the local government and locals seem not to fully comprehend the value of one the most productive ecosystems in the planet. Mangroves seem to not have an important place in the academic curriculum considering their presence and importance in the archipelago.
They are being depleted at an alarming rate, rendering our country even more vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. There is a need to inform and disseminate the value of these ecosystems, and it starts in the class rooms. Public awareness, community involvement, and education for mangrove conservation and sustainable restoration for livelihood activities are needed at the government and community levels.
Anticipating the consequences of climate change
There is no telling when the next deadly tropical cyclone or tsunami generating earth quake will hit. Are we going to start valuing the mangroves once they’ve been wiped out and replaced by fish ponds or buildings? When the mangroves are gone, are we equipped enough to start building cemented barriers, fit for a 36,300 km coastline for coastal protection? What about the livelihood of thousands of coastal communities that depend on the mangroves?
Atty. Oposa said “Environmental security is the highest form of national security.” There is a lack of political will to protect the mangroves. The sense of responsibility to care for mangroves should be instilled in the earliest stages, and what better way to do that than to integrate a subject on the Philippine mangrove ecosystem in our educational system.
Sometimes I think about how our precious Philippine mangroves are currently being burnt to the ground, and how a toad, under the full protection of various laws, is skipping freely in the French champs.
There is a need to recognize the intrinsic and the instrumental value of our natural resources. Mangroves indirectly or directly play a part in our everyday lives.
Wangari Maathai once said, “You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”
Aga finished Management and Conservation of Nature and recently graduated from a course called Analysis and Inventory Techniques of the Biodiversity in France. She plans to go back to the Philippines and work for the environment. She is currently still learning French and working with Ecotone Resilience (www.ecotoneresilience.org).