Women on storm-hit Philippine island lead Indigenous effort to restore mangroves
- Residents of low-lying coastal areas in archipelagic countries like the Philippines are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including the increase of powerful storms like 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan.
- Mangrove forests can buffer the impact of storm surges and high winds, but many of the Philippines’ mangrove ecosystems are severely degraded and efforts to restore them often fail.
- Busuanga Island, in the western province of Palawan, has a particularly effective mangrove restoration program, one that is spearheaded by Indigenous women who play a key role in planting, monitoring and protecting the forests.
Almost eight years after Typhoon Haiyan barreled into Busuanga Island in the western Philippines, the lesson it left is still etched in the mind of village leader Annabel Dela Cruz. For her and other Indigenous women in the village of Quezon on Busuanga’s northern coast, keeping their mangrove forest intact is now seen as a matter of survival amid the climate crisis.
“We were surprised because we were rarely in the path of tropical storms,” said Dela Cruz, recalling the night in November 2013 when Haiyan ravaged this island town.
Quezon’s mangrove forest, then classified by the government as logged over, provided Dela Cruz’s community with little protection against strong waves and wind. Many wooden fishing boats and thatch-roofed houses, including Dela Cruz’s, were destroyed.
Had they realized earlier how a healthy mangrove forest’s complex root network can shield a community from typhoons, they would have it restored a long time ago, the 56-year-old Indigenous leader said. So, as the villagers gradually got back on their feet, they started shoring up their defenses against future storms by restoring their mangroves.
Rebuilding natural barriers
Busuanga sits at the northern end of the string of islands that make up the province of Palawan, the entirety of which is officially designated as a mangrove protection zone, the Palawan Mangrove Swamp Forest Reserve (PMSFR), under a 1981 presidential proclamation. This designation, however, has not stopped illegal activities driving mangrove deforestation.
Available government data show Palawan’s mangrove forest cover decreased from 63,532 hectares (156,991 acres) in 2010 to 59,421 hectares (146,832 acres) in 2015. Moreover, tree densities within mangroves are often low due to logging: from 2004 to 2014, most of Palawan’s municipalities, including Busuanga, were listed as “logged over” or having “inadequate stock.”
Even after Haiyan, convincing villagers to take action to reverse the decline of mangroves wasn’t easy, says Rey Ramilo, program coordinator for the NGO Community Centered Conservation (C3) Philippines. The nonprofit group entered the island a year after the typhoon struck to assist communities in rebuilding mangroves and other coastal ecosystems; in addition to storing high amounts of carbon, mangroves buffer the impact of high wind and waves during storms.
“At first, only a few attended meetings,” Ramilo said. Residents also displayed little curiosity when his group surveyed degraded areas. This low public participation stemmed from “low awareness level on the importance of mangrove to their lives,” he said.
Villagers started to get more involved as the initial crisis receded and they were able to reflect on their Haiyan experience. “It took us months, up to years, to get back on our feet,” Dela Cruz said. The recovery was slowed down by other storms that followed. “Since then, we’ve observed that we’ve become much more at the mercy of natural forces.”
“When they saw how these calamities wreaked havoc on their lives, it became easy for us to explain mangroves’ importance in responding to the effects of the changing climate which was uncommon here before,” Ramilo said.
A source of pride
Dela Cruz and other women from the Indigenous Cuyunon and Tagbanua groups have taken the lead in rehabilitating the mangrove forests. Since 2014, they’ve planted 158,500 mangrove seedlings on 159 hectares (393 acres) of denuded coastal patches across Busuanga Island.
Unlike other Haiyan-hit areas in the Philippines, where unscientific mangrove rehabilitation had failed, the initiative in Busuanga has an 80% survival rate. This can be attributed largely to the appropriate selection of sites and species planted, with the active participation of the community, Ramilo said.
The Indigenous women have volunteered as citizen scientists, involved in particular in the monthly monitoring of seedling growth and the replacement of mangroves afflicted by parasite barnacles that reduce their root growth.
Dela Cruz said her community also supported the restoration effort with the passage of an ordinance banning mangrove forest clearing, and the mobilization of Indigenous men and women as volunteer coastal guards who enforce the policy.
“We’re extremely proud of our mangroves here,” she said. “Now, we’re committed to planting more — at least five seedlings for each household.”
When fully grown, the planted mangroves are expected to perform their many roles, including coastal protection, shoreline stabilization, and climate regulation, which scientists say will become more important on an increasingly hotter planet.
“For Busuanga and other small island ecosystems extremely vulnerable to climate change, having mangrove forests as a natural defense is important,” Ramilo said.
In that regard, they have partnered with the Busuanga municipal government to craft a mangrove conservation plan to form part of the municipality’s comprehensive land use plan. A localized curriculum on the basics of mangrove ecosystem was also designed to educate communities.
Living on the edge
In addition to the recurring typhoons, the village of Quezon, home to 1,000 people set against the rolling, rugged hills of Busuanga Island, is also experiencing other extreme weather events. “We’ve decided to take action because it’s us women here who are really bearing the brunt of climate change,” Dela Cruz said.
Years ago, at high tide, the seawater lapped 2 meters (6.6 feet) away from her backyard, Dela Cruz said. Today, it has begun engulfing her property. “Even if it’s low tide, the sea is really high. Now, come high tide and it swells up to 3 meters [10 feet inside] our fence.”
This confirms earlier assessments identifying Palawan as among the Philippines’ climate change hotspots, with the province’s northern islands having high to extreme vulnerability, specifically to sea level rise. Experts from the government-funded Coastal Sea Level Rise–Philippines (CSLR-Phil) Project say this is intensified by the combined effects of the northeast monsoon and El Niño driving the current toward Palawan.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report warns that this risk is here to stay throughout the 21st century, with devastating social and economic consequences. Scientists say it will continue affecting communities living in low-lying coastal areas, especially in archipelagic countries like the Philippines, where more than half of the 110 million citizens live along the coast.
In Palawan alone, the sea is rising by 6.19 to 9.91 millimeters (0.25 to 0.40 inches) a year, far higher than the global average of 3.4 mm (0.13 inches) a year, based on tide gauge data presented by the CSLR-Phil Project. “For Palawan, the trend is on the rise,” said Rosalie Reyes, project leader and geodetic engineering professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman.
Despite the looming displacement threat, Dela Cruz said her community has no plans of moving out yet. “Besides, where would we go? Our village is limited in space.”
Another concern for villagers is the high cost of relocating and building new homes elsewhere. Most of the people here rely on fishing and farming, occupations that put them among the country’s poorest of the poor, with average monthly household income of 3,000 pesos ($59).
Dela Cruz said she simply can’t afford a move. She’s been the breadwinner for her remaining dependent, a 23-year-old daughter, since a stroke incapacitated her husband in 2016. In the last three to five years, she said, the rainy season has started to come late, and even when it rains, there’s not enough water to maintain the backyard vegetable garden that once supplemented their income.
The pandemic has been an additional blow, shutting down a burgeoning tourism islandand turning her small business of buying and selling mud crabs unprofitable as well. “Our husbands aren’t earning enough and the burden is on us because we’re expected to make do with the little we have to survive,” Dela Cruz said.
Bid for formal protection
As the climate crisis intensifies, Indigenous women dwelling in coastal communities are pinning their hopes on the formal protection offered by the 1981 declaration of the PMSFR. “We need our mangroves now more than ever,” Dela Cruz said. “When fully protected against destructive activities, we can rest assured that it will continue to provide us buffer against storms, as well as food on the table.”
The mangrove reserve, however, falls outside the scope of the Philippines’ National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS), depriving it of regular government funding to support the creation and regular operation of its own management board and office.
“If the legal basis of a [protected area] is a presidential proclamation, it’s not formally included in the NIPAS, so that should be changed,” said Rogelio Andrada II, a forestry professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños.
Including the PMSFR’s in the NIPAS would also provide an added layer of protection for its biological wealth. Of the 39 true mangrove species recorded in the Philippines, 23 species can be found in Palawan, government data show. The reserve is also home to various endemic and threatened animals, including the Busuanga wart frog (Limnonectes acanthi), Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia), and the Palawan flying fox (Acerodon leucotis).
The initial results of protected area suitability assessment and public consultations turned out positive, boosting the chance of the mangrove reserve being legislated as part of the NIPAS, said Rhodora Ubani, conservation and development section chief for the provincial office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Palawan’s long, slender topography makes it prone to sea-level rise and coastal flooding, warranting the need to conserve its mangroves, Ubani said. “Mangrove belts are there to serve as natural barriers so the sea won’t slowly eat up the land,” she said.
While the proposal is well-received locally, some say they fear it will be derailed by influential people with financial interests in activities in the mangrove reserve. Human settlements, seawall construction and aquaculture projects are all on the rise in the protected area.
“You couldn’t take lobbyists out of the picture, because there would be some who would lobby for its non-formal declaration,” Andrada said. “But then again, making it a PA doesn’t exclude it from use, because it has zonings for multiple use and strict protection.”
If the PMSFR’s protected area legislation fails, the last recourse could be the passage of the proposed National Mangrove Forests Protection and Preservation Act, as well as the more extensive National Wetlands Conservation Act, which both recognize the crucial roles these ecosystems play in disaster risk reduction.
When and whether all these policies might finally be enacted remains unknown. For now, communities like Dela Cruz’s are doing what they can to protect themselves in an increasingly volatile climate.
“You know what worries me?” she said. “It’s the fact that climate change impacts could take us by surprise. Before, we could predict the weather … but everything is uncertain now.”