LEBAK, Sultan Kudarat (MindaNews / 24 September) – Tucked about five hours away by car over treacherous winding mountain roads from the provincial capital in Isulan, this coastal municipality is home to a large swathe of mangrove forest that Arnold Astrolabio knows like the palm of his hand.
Fondly called “Batoy,” Astrolabio is a front row witness to the near decimation of mangroves in this first-class town with a population of 91,000, no thanks to illegal loggers and the government-sanctioned conversion of mangrove areas into commercial fishponds.
But more than anything, he’s one of the major local actors in the restoration of the dwindling mangrove cover, protecting them like his beloved children. Neighbors describe him as a “mangrove walking encyclopedia,” for knowing “by heart the scientific names and actually identifying each mangrove species” in the locality.
The 10-year old Astrolabio and his family were in Roxas City in Capiz when the Magnitude 8.1 earthquake that triggered a tsunami across the Moro Gulf struck on August 17, 1976. The family returned to Lebak to check on their relatives a month later.
“It was a devastating sight of utter destruction. Many of our relatives were killed. Coastal communities here were washed out by the raging tsunami that survivors described as high as nine meters tall,” he vividly recalls.
The tsunami struck like a thief in the dark, shortly after midnight when most people were sleeping. Thousands of people were killed, making it one of the most devastating disasters in Philippine history. Some 700 kilometers of coastline along the Moro Gulf were ravaged by the surge – up to Sulu province southwest of this town.
According to the 1978 report written by the Manila Observatory’s Fr. Victor L. Badilo and Zinnnia C. Astrilla, for the Special Committee on Tsunami Warning System, the National Committee on Marine Sciences and National Science and Development Board, about 8,000 persons were reported dead or missing. The authors noted that 95% of the deaths were due to the tsunami.
In Lebak, the report said, a total of 25 persons died due to the earthquake while 160 died due to the tsunami.
It was this morbid lesson from the tsunami tragedy that ignited Astrolabio’s zeal to conserve and protect the mangrove swamp from poachers, beginning a lifetime love affair with mangroves when he was still a teenager.
“Even if it will cost me my life, I’m ready to sacrifice so I can protect these beautiful creations of God,” he stressed, riding a motorboat as it went deep into the mangrove forest submerged in emerald-colored waters, a two-way radio clutched in his hands.
From one village to another, and another
The mangrove forest in Lebak dwindled to an estimated 400 hectares in the 1990s due to illegal cutting and fishpond conversion, data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) Community Environment and Natural Resources Office based in nearby Kalamansig town (CENRO-Kalamansig) said.
Poachers cut the mangroves for livelihood, selling them as firewood or charcoal, or for use in making furniture and to build houses or fishing boats, said Michael Reglos, a biologist at CENRO-Kalamansig and focal person for its Coastal and Marine Management Unit.
Astrolabio noted that many of the mangroves felled at the time had trunks so wide they could not be hugged by one person. Aside from firewood or furniture making, he said, the cut mangroves were stripped of their bark, which is rich in tannin, known to contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Reglos said the DENR, in partnership with the local government unit, started rehabilitating the denuded mangrove cover in the 1990s with the “rice for mangrove” project, involving community members who would receive a kilo of rice for planting a number of mangrove propagules. The “rice for mangrove” program has ended but the local government unit has continued its support to the conservation project.
“It started in one barangay, and then followed by another because they saw it working, and then another,” he added.
Reglos pointed out that with the continuing mangrove planting and its natural regeneration in the last two decades, the mangrove forest, straddling six barangays, now stands at 1,172 hectares, up 193 percent from 20 years ago. Lebak has 27 barangays, six of them coastal: Datu Karon, Kinodalan, Salmaan, Taguisa, Tibpuan and Tran.
There are also mangroves in neighboring Kalamansing and Palimbang but not as extensive as Lebak’s mangrove forest.
“Central to the success of the mangrove rehabilitation and protection here is the participation of the communities,” he told MindaNews.
Three years ago, CENRO-Kalamansig, which covers Lebak, went high-tech in its effort to protect Lebak’s mangrove forest, employing a drone to monitor and inspect portions inaccessible to DENR’s forest rangers and the “Bantay Dagat” (Sea Patrol) led by Astrolabio.
Reglos said the drone helped a lot in easing their jobs in monitoring the mangrove forest, which has become a resting spot for migratory birds.
According to DENR’s 2003 Lebak Mangrove Rehabilitation Completion Report, the average survival rate of the planted mangroves stood at 87 percent with an average height of 1.3 meters. About 755 hectares of mangrove and mudflats—which were planted with bacauan, tangal and nipa species—have been rehabilitated at a cost of about P5.7 million.
The DENR started the rehabilitation in the 1990s and wrote a completion report in 2003. From 2003 to 2023, CENRO-Kalamansig has been monitoring the expanse of the mangroves from 755 to 1,172 hectares.
Reglos explained that mangroves play an important role in the ecosystem, serving as spawning ground for reef fishes and habitat of crustaceans (crabs and shells) and gastropods (molluscs).
The Philippines has 34 species of mangroves. Of them, two are considered threatened under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
According to the global Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), a massive study of the human impact on the environment called for by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and published in 2005, 35% of mangroves had been lost from 1980 to 2000, and that mangrove forests have been declining at a faster rate compared to either coral reefs or tropical forests.
A study published in 2019 (“Inventory of Mangroves in Katunggan Coastal Eco-Park, Sultan Kudarat Province, the Philippines”) noted that 29 mangrove species, belonging to 16 genera representing 14 families, existed in remote Lebak municipality, which is about 200 kilometers away from Isulan town, the capital of Sultan Kudarat province, and 100 kilometers from Cotabato, the nearest city. The authors noted that three of the identified mangrove species are considered threatened, contrary to the IUCN Red List.
According to Global Mangrove Watch, the area of mangrove habitat in the Philippines was 2,847.98 square kilometers or 284,798 hectares in 2020, representing a linear coverage of 33.34 percent or a third of the 39,602.48 kilometers of the country’s coastline.
The contiguous mangrove forest in Lebak is about 0.35 percent of the total mangrove habitat in the Philippines.
But it is the largest intact mangrove forest in Region 12 or Socsksargen region, spanning 994 hectares in 2020, according to the Philippine Forestry Statistics 2021 released by the Forest Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Vital biodiversity role
Dr. Jurgenne Primavera, considered the “Mother of Mangroves in the Philippines” and a TIME magazine “Hero of the Environment” in 2008 for her work on sustainable fish farming, said mangroves can greatly help mitigate the impact of typhoons and storm surges in coastal areas.
Aside from serving as a “defense barrier,” mangroves have lots of other traditional uses, according to Primavera, a recipient of a Pew Fellowship in marine conservation.
For instance, the bark of Avicennia alba can serve as astringent and its resinous secretion for birth control, she said.
Primavera said the leaves of Excoecaria agallocha can be used to treat epilepsy, its sap for ulcers and toothaches.
Other mangrove varieties, according to her, can be used to treat diarrhea and dysentery, to groom hair, as food ingredient, and as skin cosmetic.
On top of all that, Primavera said mangroves are important to keep marine biodiversity in place.
Since 2021, Primavera has been pushing for the legislation of “coastal greenbelts” across the Philippines, which had hurdled the scrutiny of the House of Representatives and is still under deliberation in the Senate. The international non-profit Oceana strongly supported the legislative measures mandating the establishment of local coastal greenbelt zones in the country.
Apart from coastal protection and its medicinal uses, mangrove forests also serve as a major source of carbon capture to mitigate the impacts of climate change, Primavera noted.
Threats remain but …
Astrolabio and Reglos both admit that despite the government’s efforts to protect the mangroves, there are still incidents of poaching by some locals, because “these culprits need to feed hungry stomachs.”
These nefarious individuals operate using a hide-and-seek scheme, the duo lamented. The culprits reportedly cut the mangroves when the Bantay Dagat members are not around, and selling these as firewood in places like Cotabato City.
But most of the coastal communities have been helping protect the mangrove forest because they have realized its positive contribution to biodiversity and to the livelihood of the people, owing to the continued awareness campaign conducted by local environment workers, Astrolabio said.
Reglos pointed out the local government unit has established a mangrove ecopark and a nursery, which reflects the LGU’s commitment to protect and further multiply the tropical plants’ population.
“The bigger the mangrove area, the bigger is the positive impact to the marine biodiversity. But if the mangroves will be wiped out, it would have tremendous impact to the marine biodiversity, especially to the reef species and crustaceans in the area,” he said.
Astrolabio said the local government-supported Bantay Dagat has been doing its part to protect the mangroves by “teaching people hard lessons.”
“One time, we confiscated a banca (boat) loaded with mangroves to teach the owner a lesson and relay to the rest of the public that we are serious in the campaign to conserve our mangrove forest,” he recounted.
The owner was freed after he was reprimanded and his boat seized by authorities, Astrolabio said.
He said he and the other members of the Bantay Dagat have been loathed for what they have done to the culprits involved in the illegal cutting of mangroves, noting their work is risky “but it’s part of our job.”
The Philippines has perennially been considered as the most dangerous place in Asia for protectors of the environment, according to the watchdog Global Witness.
Illegal cutting of mangroves is punishable under Presidential Decree 705 or the Revised Forestry Code. Section 43 states that “all mangrove swamps set aside for coast-protection purposes shall not be subject to clear-cutting operation.”
Illegal cutting of mangroves is punishable under Presidential Decree 705 or Forestry Reform Code of the Philippines, issued in 1975 by then President Ferdinand Marcos Sr., father of incumbent President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Section 43 of that Code states that “all mangrove swamps set aside for coast-protection purposes shall not be subject to clear-cutting operation.”
Overall, community members in the coastal communities and the local government of Lebak have been reaping the benefits of a healthy mangrove forest.
On one hand, the benefits the community reaps from the bounty generated by the the contiguous mangrove forest – crabs, shells, fish, for example — have inspired communities in other areas to replicate and provide a regular source of livelihood for the locals as crabs and shells abound.
On the other hand, the mangrove forest has paved the way for the rise of a major tourism destination: the Lebak Katunggan Coastal Eco Park located in Barangay Taguisa.
Katunggan means mangrove swamp.
The ecopark was officially launched by the Department of Tourism and the local government unit in 2017. It is easily accessible as the eight-kilometer stretch from the poblacion is now a concrete road.
The Taguisa Women’s Association, composed of some 30 members, mostly housewives, manages the ecopark, taking turns to offer their time and efforts to help conserve the mangrove swamp. It’s more of a “labor of love,” as association president Bernadette Tacardon describes it, as members receive a measly monthly allowance.
“We endured the meager salary because the mangrove forest is a very big help to our community,” Tacardon said, adding that association members are actively involved in the planting and propagation of the mangroves.
If one group tells the association they would plant mangroves in this area, association members volunteer their help.
Aside from selling souvenir shirts, the association earns a share from the entrance fees to the ecopark. An 840-meter boardwalk welcomes visitors, extending all the way to the shoreline where visitors can picnic and swim at the beach.
Adult non-residents pay P50 and P10 for children in entrance fee.
The boardwalk amid the mangroves is perfect for communing with nature or for self-reflection.
Tacardon said the association members “don’t mind” their small pay as the larger community reaps great rewards from their efforts to help conserve the mangrove forest.
Crabs and shells are abundant inside the mangrove forest, which community members can gather for the market, or as food for the family, the 48-year-old community leader said.
“It’s heartwarming to see an entire family entering the mangrove forest and emerging with harvests of shells or crabs,” she told MindaNews.
Astrolabio vowed not to get tired of protecting the mangrove forest that has been their source of food and livelihood, and, as he hopes, could be their “sturdy wall” against storms and hopefully, against a tsunami.
Astrolabio, who lives near the Katiunggan Ecopark, continues to monitor signs of poaching in the forest as he has been doing so for decades now.
Staying inside the mangrove swamp, he says, provides him positive energies and a magical sense of peace with himself and with nature. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)
[This story was produced through the support of the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID)Philippine Sustainable Interventions for Biodiversity, Oceans, and Landscapes (SIBOL) in partnership with theAssociation of Young Environmental Journalists (AYEJ) under the Green Beat Plus biodiversity journalism training program. The content and publication of the report are the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.]