In Taal, communities struggle to stave off disaster

Last of three parts

TALISAY and SAN NICOLAS, BATANGAS — Being officially designated as a protected area failed to save Taal Lake from environmental degradation, and now some are saying even Environment Secretary Joselito ‘Lito’ Atienza’s defiant “no fish cages” stance for the lake will have the same result.

What may work, say scientists and activists alike, is close coordination and cooperation among all those who depend and benefit from the lake. And while they say vigilant monitoring is a must these days, ensuring that everyone understands the consequence of each one’s action is crucial if the lake is to be kept from further deterioration.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether Taal Lake (is) a protected area,” observes environmental lawyer Ipat Luna. “What matters is integrated management.”

“People have to be convinced,” she says, “that when they obey the law and reduce their profits, there will be a public benefit that extends to them also.”

Taal Lake was declared a protected area in 1996 under the National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS) Act, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) was put in charge of taking care of it.

Yet scientists say the lake has become polluted and is now in the advanced stages of eutrophication, which can only mean more algal blooms or red tide. The lake already suffers from annual fish kills caused by red tide; there are also fears that some of the lake’s endemic fish species are declining in number.

Scientists have said that much of the lake’s environmental problems are due to unregulated fish farming.

As early as 2002, a study by the ASEAN Regional Center for Biodiversity Conservation (ARCBC) had pointed out that protected area management had become more complex and “demanding.” It was, the ARCBC said, no longer confined to protecting a site from illegal activities, but also now required the extraction of participation from the local communities.

SCIENTISTS and environmental acitivsts say the “zero fish cage” proposal by environment secretary Joselito ‘Lito’ Atienza won’t save Taal lake from further degradation. [photo courtesy of Balikas]

In 2003, a study conducted by agricultural economist Arvin Vista also suggested a community-based resource management policy (CBRM) as the solution to the Taal Lake’s deteriorating water quality problem. This policy, wrote Vista, would recognize local fisherfolk as owners of the lake’s resources, which are managed and equally shared among community members, who police themselves.

Early last year, it seemed that the efforts to protect Taal Lake was finally headed toward that direction when the Taal Volcano Protected Landscape — Protected Areas Management Board (TVPL–PAMB) finished the unified rules and regulations for fisheries (URRF) for the 24,356-hectare body of water.

The URRF aims to regulate the number of fish cages in the Taal Lake, designate fish- cage zones, prohibit destructive fishing methods, and enforce other rules pertinent to the lake conservation. These include a device against the “palakasan system” between the operators and municipal mayors by giving the TVPL-PAMB Executive Committee the final authority over fish cage permits.

The TVPL-PAMB was able to put the URRF together only after a six-month consultation with various sectors affected by activities there.

The policy-making body has 137 members in all. Its executive committee is made up of the DENR regional executive director, the provincial planning and development officer, the provincial tourism officer, mayors of 15 lakeside towns and cities, 10 barangay captains, and representatives from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), the nongovernmental group Pusod Inc., and a local organization of fisherfolk.

Two-year phaseout

But Atienza, who was appointed to his post several months after the URRF had already been prepared, has refused to sign it unless it makes clear that there will be no fish cages in Taal Lake after these are phased out, which he wants done within two years.

“I cannot approve the URRF in its original form because it only legalizes what is illegal,” he told PCIJ in an interview, referring to the provision on regulating the number of fish cages in the lake.

Indeed, technically, all the fish cages in Taal Lake are illegal because although some secured permits from local governments, not one of them has an environmental compliance certificate from the Environmental Management Bureau and a clearance from the TVPL-PAMB that are required of all developments in protected areas.

Apparently, though, the TVPL-PAMB has chosen to overlook this, and not necessarily because they all heartily approve of having fish cages in the lake. Says San Nicolas Mayor Epifanio Sandoval: “While we have nothing against the secretary’s measure to get rid of the cages in Taal Lake, we are asking him to set aside his plans now. We should rather focus our attention on regulating the fish cages while we are still looking for alternative jobs for the people.”

Sandoval was also among the 11 mayors who voted unanimously on a resolution asking Atienza to defer his plan to phase out fish cages within two years. The mayors say one only has to look at what had happened in the past, when authorities ordered the dismantling of fish cages, for one to reconsider an outright ban on these right away.

In 1996, then President Fidel Ramos had ordered the dismantling and relocation of fish cages, fish pens, and other aquaculture structures in Taal Lake and Pansipit River. Ramos had said this was necessary to preserve the lake’s endemic tawilis and maliputo.

The order was followed, but it did not take long before the fish cages were back. According to the mayors, this was because the displaced fish cage operators had no other means of livelihood.

In May 2006, the provincial government also issued a moratorium prohibiting the rehabilitation, repair, and construction of fish cages in the lake that had been damaged by Typhoon Caloy. This, too, was ignored.

Last year, the Talisay Municipal Government established checkpoints in the town in order to prevent transport of bamboo, which is used to build the fish cages in the lake. But Talisay fish cage operators themselves say they were able to build even more fish cages, transporting the bamboo to the lake through fishing boats.

“Even while we’re talking, people are building cages here because it’s their source of income,” comments fish cage operator Vicente Llona.

A 2004 study conducted by environmental science researcher Imelda de los Reyes of the University of Batangas showed that majority of the 569 fish cage operators interviewed consider the job as their “primary source of livelihood.” Most of the operators were high school graduates who were now supporting at least three family members. Only a few percent of them had other sources of income like hog and poultry-raising, running a sari-sari store, and as drivers.

BFAR meanwhile says that at least 145,000 individuals would be affected once the cages are removed. The count includes an estimated five family members assumed to be dependent on each of nearly 9,000 fish cage operators in Taal Lake.

The URRF itself tries to avoid any form of intransigence from displaced fish cage owners and operators by giving them a year in which they can transfer their fish farms into the designated zones.

BFAR Inland Fisheries Research Station Chief Leah Villanueva has also asked Atienza to give the URRF a chance. Villanueva, who chairs the PAMB Subcommittee on Fisheries, says, “Within two years if nothing has changed and the water quality has worsened, then we would recommend removing all the fish cages in the lake.”

Regulating greed is key

She thinks that the fish cages would no longer be harmful to the lake if only fish cage operators would follow the suggested stocking density per cage and feeding practices by the BFAR. “When we regulate the fish cages, fish kills could be prevented and the water can now circulate freely in the area,” she says.

This is echoed by freshwater biologist Dr. Lourdes Castillo, who adds, “Aquaculture as a technology is okay. It’s the greed of people that’s making it wrong.”

She also says that while unregulated fish cage operations are largely to blame for the lake’s environmental woes, attention must be paid as well to other factors, among these activities in the surrounding watershed.

Because the lake serves as the catch basin of waters drained from the watershed, any changes there would affect the water quality, quantity, and flow of the lake waters.

Castillo warns against converting land areas beside the Taal Lake into residential sites, noting that massive deforestation of trees in the slope could cause soil erosion, bringing huge sediment loads in the rivers, streams, and lakes.

In the meantime, Asis Perez, head of the green group Tanggol Kalikasan, says that no amount of effort from the DENR and BFAR to solve Taal Lake’s problems will succeed without the participation of local governments. This is also true of the URRF, he says.

“The real challenge here,” says Perez, an environmental lawyer, “is how you can integrate all these interests, these valid concerns so that you can have a better lake, productive, and at the same time, not being deteriorated.”

Milagros Chavez, leader of the Kilusan ng Maliliit na mga Mangingisda sa Lawa ng Taal, which has been fighting for fish cage regulations in the lake since the 1990s, believes as well that any regulation in Taal Lake would be effective only if the BFAR, local governments, and fish cage operators coordinate in enforcing it.

Earlier this month, Batangas Governor Vilma Santos-Recto announced her plans to start dismantling the estimated 1,200 abandoned fish cages in Taal Lake. She also said, “(Any) plans for Taal Lake cannot be done overnight and the same is true with alternative livelihood. But to regulate (fish cage operations), we have to start already.”

The governor seemed disinclined to agree with Atienza’s insistence of ridding the lake of fish cages entirely, commenting that the environment secretary “was alarmed with the (condition of) Laguna de Bay. That was why he wanted a total dismantling (of cages).”

In fact, Atienza has said he would start working on Taal Lake as soon as he finishes rehabilitation activities in Laguna de Bay. Demolition of illegal fish cages began there last month.

The environment secretary even threatened to file administrative charges at the Ombudsman against the local officials who would defy his order and allow fish cages to stay in the Taal Lake. Atienza said nobody could prevent the DENR anymore from rehabilitating the country’s rivers, lakes, and seas. “Anybody who (tries will) have a problem,” he said.

LGU support needed

Lawyer Luna, though, believes that the DENR would be able to remove the cages only if it gets the support of the local governments.

At the very least, Protected Areas Superintendent Laudemir Salac seems to understand the need to involve local communities in protecting Taal Lake. He told PCIJ last year that he planned to ask the mayors of the 13 lakeside towns to assign a person from their municipality who could be trained and hired by the DENR as a full-time park ranger.

Once this happens, he said, the DENR would have 13 additional protected area staff to help guard the whole 65,000-hectare Taal Volcano Protected Landscape (TVPL). At the time, the department had only five forest rangers to monitor the entire area — with only one among them assigned full-time to the TVPL.

Salac said he would request the local governments involved to pay the salaries of the new personnel until the DENR had generated sufficient income from entrance fees to be collected from visitors to Taal Volcano and Taal Lake. Years before, the interim PAMB had imposed an entrance fee of P10 for each visitor, but this was not really implemented due to the lack of staff.

PCIJ asked Salac why the department was acting only now, when the lake was already polluted. His reply: “Perhaps it was only now that the need was realized.”