Tourists and conservationists help preserve national park

TUBBATAHA REEFS NATIONAL MARINE PARK, Palawan — Since 1995, park rangers have relied on aging government equipment and meager funds to protect this remote atoll in the middle of the Sulu Sea from poachers and illegal fishers who have ravaged its resources.

But with the help of foreign grants and increasing tourism revenues, the country’s most favored scuba diving destination has reversed the trend. Park rangers are getting improved facilities and proper training, and Tubbataha’s marine resources have recovered significantly.

As foreign visitors start flocking to local beaches and exploring tropical forests in December to escape wintry climes back home, national parks are expected to benefit from the flow of tourist dollars.

The much-needed income is a blessing, as the national government has not provided a budget for managing national parks. Without the money from entrance fees and the patronage of conservation groups, many protected areas would still be languishing from government neglect, their forest and marine resources getting depleted due to exploitation.

The national government has an imperfect record in managing massive foreign-assisted projects intended to stem the decline of national parks and the country’s unique natural resources. It could learn a lot from more modest yet successful initiatives, which have been strengthened by partnerships with local communities, indicating that local actors are more effective than government agencies in raising funds and conserving protected areas.

Tubbataha was only one of many national parks that found themselves on fast tracks to perdition. Despite its declaration as a World Heritage Site in December 1993, Tubbataha continued to be in danger of losing its colorful corals and myriads of fish due to lack of patrols and full-time staff. A four-year grant worth $1.7 million from the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility marked the turning point for the park, enabling it to hire a park manager and form a functional management board to sustain conservation efforts.

Tourists have also been doing their share. Since 1998, Tubbataha has earned more than P9 million from scuba divers who visit the park during relatively calm weather from March to June. Park fees range from P1,250 per local diver to P2,500 each for foreigners, the third highest in the world after Galapagos and a park in the Caribbean, says park manager Angelique Songco, but guests keep coming back. The park recorded its highest visitor arrivals this year and collected P2.3 million in fees.

At the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, another World Heritage Site in Palawan, tourism revenues are helping pay for the salaries of the staff. Tourism has grown tremendously since 1993 through Mayor Edward Hagedorn’s aggressive promotion efforts, reaching a peak of nearly 40,000 visitors in 1997. The park earns up to P3 million in entrance fees annually, and the city government provides the remaining funds for operations, park manager James Albert Mendoza says.

Even the tiny Apo Island Marine Reserve in central Visayas earns substantial revenues from tourists. The 72-hectare island has only 700 residents but it gets up to 5,000 visitors and an average of P3 million annually in park fees. This year, the protected area received P362,000 during the peak month of April. Aside from entrance fees, the management charges other fees such as P5,000 for commercial video productions.

Established as a Protected Landscape and Seascape in 1994, Apo Island has since bought several boats for patrols and ferrying guests, put up mooring buoys and maintained an office and mini-jeep in Dumaguete, capital of Negros Oriental, where it is located. Residents also intend to reforest areas hit by landslides and plant fruit-bearing trees to augment their income.

The impact of these localized conservation efforts has been dramatic. Marine biologist Angel Alcala of Silliman University reports that Apo Island’s residents used to average 10 tons of fish catch annually before the school started assisting the community in the early 1980s. Since then, marine catch has nearly doubled in the fishing zone of the island’s 106-hectare fringing coral reef, where 11 hectares have been designated a no-take marine sanctuary.

In Tubbataha, where fishing is banned, Palawan-based researchers of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Philippines found that fish biomass in the park had increased to 165 tons per square kilometer, more than triple the figure in 1997 when the group first began working in the area. Hard coral cover, the major indicator for a healthy reef, declined sharply after the 1998 coral bleaching from El Niño but is slowly inching up to its former levels of nearly 50 percent this year, researchers report. This is a significant boost for the park, which counts 396 species of corals and 441 species of fish among its valuable resources.

In contrast to these locally based and more modestly funded park initiatives, the national government’s big-ticket conservation projects have failed to achieve many of their goals and even generated much ill will among project partners. And while the big-time projects were supposed to help reduce poverty among local communities while conserving park resources, many local players have alleged that the NGO consultants and staff were the ones who benefited most.

In 1986, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) had sought support from the World Bank and the Japanese government to assess the status of the country’s protected areas for the first time. Through the Integrated Protected Areas System project, the DENR collaborated with the UP Science Research Foundation and the Foundation for Sustainable Development in reviving conservation efforts.

Three years later, WWF-US provided funds through a debt-for-nature swap arrangement with the Philippine government for the protection of selected sites such as El Nido and Tubbataha Reefs in Palawan, and Mount Pulag and Mount Isarog in mainland Luzon.

These pioneering efforts provided the basis for the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) law that was passed on June 1, 1992. The DENR pilot-tested the law through the Conservation of Priority Protected Areas Project or CPPAP that obtained a $20-million grant from the World Bank and the National Integrated Protected Areas Programme or NIPAP that was funded with a grant of 11 million euros from the European Union.

The NIPAS law stipulates a 13-step process to declare a particular site as protected area through congressional action in order to fully enter the NIPAS fold. This would give each site more flexibility in crafting localized and appropriate mechanisms for management.

Data from the DENR’s Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) show that 209 sites were included as initial components of NIPAS, based on its research of national parks and other places covered by previous protected area legislation. They range in size from less than 10 hectares to 200,000 hectares and cover a wide variety of categories.

Despite its formidable financial support, CPPAP managed to get legislation for only half of its 10 project sites. Park fee collections amounted to P1.9 million in all sites after seven years, according to the DENR – a far cry from those of other parks not included in the project. In contrast to Apo Island in Negros Oriental, for instance, CPPAP’s Apo Reef in Occidental Mindoro collected a measly P781,630 in entrance fees for three years.

NIPAP’s results fell short as well, considering the amount of money poured into the project. In El Nido, one of its sites, revenues only reached P500,000 and most of it came from one company. In Coron Reef, the staff was unable to organize a Protected Area Management Board due to opposition from the indigenous Tagbanua community that had obtained a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title to the island.

It is worthwhile to note that the five legislated CPPAP project sites — Batanes Protected Landscape and Seascape, Mt. Kanlaon Natural Park in Negros Occidental, Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park in Isabela and Mt. Kitanglad Natural Park in Bukidnon — are those where the protected area supervisor maintains good relations with the host NGO, says Teresita Blastique, chief of resource assessment in PAWB’s biodiversity management division. In most sites, conflicts hampered many project activities.

In Apo Reef for instance, project coordinator Edmark Ipac says previous staff were fired for meddling with a community group “not for the good of the organization but for personal benefits,” a pattern that was repeated in other sites. Local residents were also confused with the project as it had two offices, one identified with the DENR and the other with a nongovernmental organization.

Many of CPPAP’s problems stemmed from an experimental setup that allowed a new consortium, NGOs for Protected Areas Inc. or NIPA, to manage the bulk of project funds. When the project ended in June 2002, the World Bank had cancelled $2 million in livelihood funds and uncovered cases of “misprocurement, ineligible expenditures, and conflict of interest,” according to a statement from its Philippine office.

Chris Hoban of the World Bank Manila office says the cases were referred to their Department of Institutional Integrity. “This internal investigation identified significant wrongdoing and deviation from the grant agreement,” he says. The findings were not made public and instead passed on to a government committee led by the Department of Justice with members from the Department of Finance and DENR for legal action.

In its final report, the World Bank found the implementation of CPPAP “unsatisfactory” and placed most of the blame on NIPA, with the DENR getting a mild rebuke for failing to adequately exercise oversight functions, says Blastique.

Former NIPA program manager Ipat Luna attributes the failure of CPPAP to a flawed design and choice of project sites. The World Bank insisted on economic bottom lines that required community partners, such as farmers and indigenous peoples who have never set up a bank account before, to join a cash economy even if they were not ready for it.

There was an attempt to revise the design midway through the project, but Luna says “the expectations raised by a $10-million livelihood fund could not be changed.” Many project partners saw the funds as “a double-edged sword and not a carrot,” she says. “There were too many restrictions on what cannot be done in a protected area and how the funds can go into the hands of the subproject proponents.”

Fishers who have a stake in Apo Reef Natural Park, for example, lost interest after NIPA disapproved their proposal for a mobile rice mill. Pedro Calmorin, treasurer of the Sta. Lucia Fishermen’s Multipurpose Cooperative in Sablayan town, says many of their fisher-members are seasonal farmers and having easier access to a rice mill would have boosted their income.

“The project is also for the protection of Apo Reef because it will lessen fishing pressure in favor of farming,” Calmorin explains. “We spent a lot of time in preparing the proposal.”

It did not help that one of their livelihood projects, the installation of fish aggregating devices on the boundary of the municipal waters, failed because the structures were destroyed, apparently by other fishers who envied their access to CPPAP funds.

Instead of using foreign grants as leverage for subsequent funding and creating income-generating ventures, many foreign-assisted sites did not seize the opportunity afforded by the project to develop sustainable financing schemes.

In Malampaya Sound, a NIPAP site and one of the richest fishing grounds in Palawan, the management board only decided to study fee collection systems in 2003, three years after the project had ended, says park supervisor Pedro Velasco.

In El Nido, management board member Mariglo Laririt says the results from a willingness-to-pay survey of NIPAP were not acceptable to local residents and came out only in June 2002. Instead, the local association of tourist resorts and restaurants came up with their own system for collecting visitors’ fees.

Fortunately for some sites, groups like WWF-Philippines has stepped in to support protected areas such as El Nido in Palawan, Apo Reef in Mindoro and Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park in mainland Luzon.

A former CPPAP site, Sierra Madre has a budget of $12 million covering seven years, according to senior enforcement specialist Rodolfo Quicho, Jr. “Many activities here are donor-driven, but my position is that projects like ours should focus more on capacity-building and setting up systems, testing them on the ground, and innovating on them so they can be sustained,” he said in an interview months before muddy waters and thousands of logs and uprooted saplings tumbled down Sierra Madre and into Quezon and Aurora towns.

Yet even with their massive resources, Quicho was unsure if the project was helping residents improve their income. He said they were looking at the impact of policy and law enforcement on the local lobster industry, which their fisheries expert said was the only viable one in the country.

Quicho observed that legislation is no guarantee of government support at all. He said RA 9125, which created the Sierra Madre Natural Park “still has to see the light of full implementation” and the lack of budget allocation makes that even more difficult. The law says the DENR can include the park in its annual budget allocation, but the government agency is unlikely to do that as its local office has already taken a slice from its meager budget to spend for the park.

Still, former NIPAP and CPPAP project sites could take comfort in the increasing subsidy by local government units of protected area efforts. Commented Quicho: “I think partnership is the key to resource mobilization. If (local governments) would only exercise their political will to put funds and other resources into conservation, that would be a lot of help.”