How to be a Bangsamoro Scientist

Dolphins gleefully play and jump in Tawi-tawi waters. MindaNews photo by FERDINANDH B. CABRERA

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews/6 November) — On 21 January 2019, the plebiscite to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) will be held in the core territories of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), along with other areas that would opt for voluntary inclusion in the new region. The ratification of the BOL would officially create the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and abolish the ARMM.

The island provinces of Tawi-Tawi and Sulu are included in the ARMM core territories. On the run-up to the plebiscite, some residents examine how the change in administrative jurisdiction would impact on their issues and concerns.

On the southernmost region of the country sits Tawi-Tawi, a province composed of about 300 islands and atolls in the Coral Triangle. The biggest among these is Tawi-Tawi Island where the capital town of Bongao is located. As of midyear 2015, the population stood at just a shade under 400,000 predominantly Muslim individuals of Sama descent, with a sprinkling of the Tausug among them. Christians form less than one percent of the total population.

Tawi-tawi is beautiful. It is an unsullied tropical paradise teeming with vibrant biodiversity. Tawi-Tawi is a conservationist’s dream, with over 1800 species of fish, more than 400 species of algae, over 450 types of coral, 22 species of marine mammals, and five species of sea turtles.  The low population density – at less than 300 people per square kilometer – is easily accommodated by the ecosystem’s carrying capacity.

Tawi-Tawi is home to Dr. Filemon Romero, professor emeritus of the Mindanao State University. Romero obtained his MS Oceanography and PhD in Environmental Science degrees from the University of the Philippines – Diliman. He is a licensed fishery technologist and an environmental management expert. Not surprisingly, he is recognized especially among Mindanao Muslims as THE Bangsamoro Scientist. In 1996, he began working for World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) in the Philippines, and had focused much of his conservation work in improving the management of and coastal law enforcement in Marine Protected Areas, especially in Tawi-Tawi.

Romero is optimistic that the BARMM would set environmental protection among its prime agenda for responsible governance. While Tawi-Tawi is graced with incredible natural endowments, Romero knows that the island ecology has to be carefully balanced to prevent it being overwhelmed by environmental threats. In one breath, the scientist rattles off a list of these threats that point to problems with wildlife law enforcement: harmful fishing methods using dynamite, cyanide, or long line; coral quarrying and bleaching; and over-exploitation of fisheries resources. He also decries the man-made pollution that result from gaps in implementing the Solid Waste Management Act, with many Tawi-Tawi residents resorting to open pit waste disposal. The effluence inevitably washes off to the sea.

But it is not only the dangers posed on the pristine marine waters of Tawi-Tawi that concern Romero. He also wishes to protect the habitat for Tawi-Tawi’s contributions to new records in biodiversity. In a statement he released early this year, he wrote, that the island province is

“… home of the Sulu bleeding-heart (Gallicolumba menagei), Blue-winged racquet-tail (Prioniturus verticali Strigidae), Mantanani scops-owl (Otus mantananensis), Sulu hornbill (Anthracoceros montani), Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia), rufous-lored kingfisher (Todirhamphus winchelli) and the Tawitawi brown-dove (Phapitreron cinereiceps). We also have the endemic species of rat (Muridae Rattus tawitawiensis) and new species of pig (Sus spp. nov.). Tawi-Tawi Island also supports a population of slow loris (Nycticebus coucang) – Kokam, a Sundaic primate that is not found elsewhere in the Philippines. We also have the critically endangered Philippine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis) in Languyan and Panglima Sugala.”

Economic activities in the port on a late afternoon in Bongao, Tawi-tawi with Bud Bongao peak as backdrop. MindaNews photo by FERDINANDH B. CABRERA

Further, Romero hopes that the BARMM would prioritize crucial research initiatives, such as efforts to clone the mother seaweed that produce better carrageenan content. With about 80 percent of the Tawi-Tawi population engaged in seaweed farming, the island province is known as the seaweed capital of the Philippines. The research could make possible the mass production of a superior variety of seaweed, locally known as agar-agar, thus improving the economic prospects of the islanders.

With the creation of the BARMM looming in the horizon, Romero is excited for Tawi-Tawi to help birth “something produced in the Bangsamoro that would improve the livelihood of the people”. Some of these directions involve nurturing climate change-resistant corals in a nursery he had set up some years back. He is also interested to develop the technology for hatchery breeding of the humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulates), a species of reef fish locally known as mameng that is a delicacy in high-end Asian restaurants. Not much, however, is known about the reproductive ways of the mameng, except for what the scientist cautiously observes to be its pattern of synchronizing spawning aggregation with coral spawning.

Romero stresses the importance of harmonizing the efforts of various stakeholders for environmental conservation. His stint with WWF had seen him promoting integrated Population, Health and Environment approaches to also incorporate population and health programs into the conservation agenda. He sees the need to improve the locals’ capability to protect wildlife, particularly in the organization and training of quick response teams to rescue stranded sea cows (dugong) and other marine life, as well as to prevent the trafficking of the endangered species, such as the charming kokam, a species of slow loris that could only be found in Tawi-Tawi.

Currently the Site Coordinator of Protect Wildlife Tawi-Tawi, Romero champions the Highlands to Oceans approach to prevent drastic landscape change and the economic disruptions that go with the deforestation of mountains, heavy siltation of waterways, and eventual pollution of coral reefs.

He has made it his priority to strengthen the Bud Bongao Management Council so that the site remains to be what locals believe to be a “healing mountain.” Bud Bongao is the first community-administered protected area in the ARMM. It is the most famous pilgrimage site for Muslims and Christians alike. Rising 340 meters above sea level, the moist forest houses three carefully tended shrines, one of which is believed to be the tomb of a preacher who accompanied Karim ul-Makhdum, the Arab merchant who arrived in neighboring Simunul Island about 630 years ago and built the Sheik Karimal Makdum Masjid.

More recently, with the ARMM Regional Board of Investments’ approval of the registration of Mina Vida De Mindanao Corporation’s P940.5 million nickel mining investment in Languyan, Romero has assisted the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to constitute a mining monitoring team. He believes the team should get to work at the soonest possible time, not only to ensure the prevention of deforestation from mining activities, but more importantly, to rewrite the mining story in the Philippines.

“I am not anti-mining,” he said. “I am for responsible mining.”

This environmental scientist has not been known to shirk his duty on matters closest to his heart. Together with Moro lawyer Randolph Parcasio and Fr. Jun Mercado, he is formulating the Mining Policy for inclusion in the proposed BARMM Environmental Code.

He is optimistic that his passion for environmental conservation would be shared by the BARMM administrators, whoever they may be. Indeed, Dr. Romero has paved the way with the distance he had gone so far.  With the guidance of the Bangsamoro Scientist, the BAR is poised to be the trailblazer in balancing equity, economy, and environment for sustainable development. (Gail Ilagan/MindaNews)