In the middle of the brackish water of Malampaya Sound in the Philippines’ Palawan province, Panchito Calamare stands on an outrigger fishing boat one drizzling May morning, slowly pulling in his crab line and removing one by one the day’s haul.
When he returns home, he hands over the crabs to his wife, Gloria, to weigh. Other fishermen also come to sell their catch to the couple. Within an hour, their regular buyer arrives to collect the catch, which will eventually land in restaurants and hotels across the province.
The couple recognize that their bountiful catch is tied to the thick mangroves blanketing the sound’s coast. “We take care of our mangroves. We don’t cut them down, because it’s where the crabs and fishes spawn,” says Panchito, 53, from the Indigenous Cuyunon group. “That’s also why we make sure other people won’t destroy them.”
Sitting in the shade of a nipa hut, 44-year-old Gloria faces a mangrove forest while weaving a fishing net. “The mangroves are really a big help to us,” she says. She observes that the crabs inhabit the mangroves until they mature, move to the sea, and are caught by fishers like them.
“When we fish, we also manage to capture those crabs. It’s a great help to us because we’re able to sell a few kilos a day, and save up so we can support the schooling of our children,” she says, noting proudly that her two oldest children have finished university thanks to Malampaya Sound’s bounty.
Speaking to people like Gloria gives the impression that Malampaya Sound is a place where mangroves and coastal communities coexist harmoniously. But getting here took a long, tough journey. For decades, people showed little regard for this rich ecosystem, until the damage reached a point where it was clear that catches were declining in step with the mangroves. Only in the past 10 years has a broad shift in attitudes taken place, as local communities and environmental authorities work together to save this so-called blue forest.
The Tagbanua Indigenous people, the sound’s early inhabitants, collectively named the 200,115-hectare (494,495-acre) land- and seascape Malampaya, meaning “rich in fish.” Experts say it’s rightly named, thanks to its mangroves, which are among the Philippines’ finest.
“Historical accounts noted that you need to part the waters before you could set foot on the coast, so you won’t step on crabs,” says Benjamin Gonzales, a coastal and fisheries management scientist at the Western Philippines University. “Mangrove is the lifeline of the marine fishes found in the sound, because it serves as the spawning and nursery grounds of so [much] marine life in the coastal areas.”
Malampaya’s highly productive fisheries made the area the “fish bowl” of the Philippines, especially from the 1960s to the early 1980s, Gonzales says.
In 1985, Malampaya was found to have 2,500 hectares (about 6,200 acres) of mangrove forests, and more than 150 fish species, including at least 60 commercially important species sold not just in Palawan, but as far away as the Philippines’ capital, Manila, and even Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.
This bounty lured waves of migrants from nearby towns and provinces, including Gloria’s family. Born in Romblon province in the heart of the Philippines, she was 13 when her father decided to make the move for good. “We heard from returning fishers that life in Malampaya is peaceful and you don’t have to worry about food because it’s brimming with fish, so our entire family relocated here,” she says.
The in-migration resulted in the degradation of Malampaya’s coastal resources, with some settlers cutting down mangroves for timber, fuelwood and charcoal. By 1998, the area’s mangrove cover was reduced to less than 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres).
In an attempt to reverse this, Malampaya Sound was officially designated as a protected landscape and seascape in July 2000. Covering 22 villages within the towns of Taytay and San Vicente, the protected area was home to around 68,000 people as of the 2020 census, 70% of whom rely on fishing for their economic and food security.
“Without the mangrove, you can just imagine what will happen to the area,” Gonzales says. “And this will further affect the number or the integrity of the population of fishes, crustaceans, shells and other animals and plants within the area … The lesser the mangrove, the lesser the fish, so the people would have lesser food and source of livelihood.”
In 2015, the most recent year for which official data are available, the Philippines had 7 million hectares (17.33 million acres) of forest cover, of which 303,373 hectares. (749,651 acres) or 4.3% were mangrove forests. Mangroves were estimated to cover 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) in 1918.
Recognizing the importance of mangrove forests as carbon sinks and bulwarks against storms, the government has made efforts to restore the degraded mangroves, primarily via the National Greening Program (NGP), the first round of which ran from 2011 to 2019.
Nationwide, the NGP didn’t perform well, a 2019 report by the Philippines’ Commission on Audit concluded. The program reached only 11.82% of its 1.50-million-hectare reforestation target, the report notes. Issues cited in the report include a lack of surveying, mapping and planning, and soil analysis prior to starting.
The program in Malampaya Sound, likewise, hasn’t always been a shining success story. From 2011-2013, local communities’ help was enlisted to plant 271 hectares (670 acres) with 542,000 mangrove propagules. Only half of the plantings survived, far below the 85% survival target, the local office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reported.
“As part of the project’s maintenance and protection component, we replaced dead mangroves but nothing happened,” says Josephine Dela Cruz, president of the Malampaya Multipurpose Cooperative, a civil society organization. Dela Cruz says she suspects the site wasn’t fit for planting as it gets submerged at high tide, drowning the propagules.
Dominic Wodehouse is the executive director of nonprofit Mangrove Action Project and a member of the IUCN’s Mangrove Specialist Group. He says DENR field offices faced additional challenges due to the very large area targets set by the program. “Finding large expanses of uncontested space suitable for planting was challenging, forcing the attempted afforestation of mudflats,” says Wodehouse, who studied Malampaya as part of his dissertation research. Mudflats, he notes, spend too much time saturated by water to be suitable for mangrove establishment, particularly when planted with the mangrove species used by the program.
The species mostly planted under the NGP were Rhizophora apiculata (locally known as "bakhaw lalaki") and Rhizophora mucronata (locally known as "bakhaw babae"), mid-zone species rather than the more appropriate low-zone pioneer species. This resulted in sub-optimal outcomes both in terms of survivorship and biodiversity, he explained.
“We’ve learned so many lessons [from the agency’s past mistakes] that should not be applied at present,” says local NGP coordinator Nikkie Edep, as the government extends the program implementation until 2028, covering 7.1 million hectares (17.5 million acres) of degraded forestlands.
Other factors for the low survival rate, Edep adds, include the lack of a massive community consultation and information drive prior to the project start. “Those who were unaware of the NGP plantations, they crossed through, hitting our planted propagules.” She says the occurrence of strong winds and waves associated with typhoons and monsoons also affected the survival of planted propagules.
While the NGP reforestation initiative fell short of its target, the 135.5 hectares (335 acres) successfully planted as part of the program did play a role in a broader increase in mangrove cover. By 2016, data from the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority’s (NAMRIA) show mangrove cover in Malampaya Sound had reached 3,064 hectares (7571 acres), well above the 2,513 hectares (6,210 acres) recorded in 2005. Though not yet ground-validated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, satellite data indicate that the figure held steady in 2020.
According to Malampaya Sound superintendent Clarissa Pador, village government-led mangrove reforestation initiatives that began in 2017 also contributed to the increase in mangrove cover. As threats to mangroves are reduced, the area also gets a boost from natural regeneration.
Pador, whose office falls under the Department of Environment and National Resources, credits ongoing outreach and information sessions, done alongside their biweekly seaborne patrols, for contributing to people’s increasing awareness of environmental laws. “If they hadn’t been aware, the villages with vast mangrove areas would have been gone,” she says.
As threats to the mangroves recede and communities see improvements in fish catches, Pador says they’ve started to actively participate in coastal law enforcement and advocacy — a much-needed boost for a strained workforce.
Carbon credits have yet to be introduced widely in Palawan province or even in the Philippines; for now, people have been compelled to protect their mangroves and other coastal-marine resources without these monetary incentives.
“Our staff can’t perform our role of safeguarding the entire Malampaya Sound against illegal activities because of its vast area coverage,” says Pador, who leads 13 people.
“Even in the mangrove forest, we can’t monitor it 24/7, so we collaborate with barangay [village] officials, and purok [hamlet] and Indigenous people leaders to disseminate why mangroves should not be cut down,” she adds.
For fishers like Panchito, partaking in mangrove protection initiatives as a bantay dagat, or sea patrol volunteer, isn’t only a social responsibility, but also a matter of survival. “If we chance upon [people acting illegally], we are duty bound to report them to law enforcers, so no one dares to violate environmental laws here,” he says. “It will be difficult for us if we lose our livelihood source, because it’s where we get money to buy rice.”
Some villages have started initiating monthly mangrove-planting activities, as they start to see the link between a healthy mangrove forest ecosystem and their livelihoods.
“At low tide, we pick mangrove propagules and plant them in areas with gaps to help increase the mangrove forest cover, so as to also improve the number of fishes and not scare them away,” Gloria says.
Indigenous cultural belief, meanwhile, helps keep Malampaya’s mangrove forest intact. Indigenous Tagbanua fisher Edgar Valderama, 48, says they believe in pahadlok or mangrove-dwelling spirits. “People rarely go to that area because the mangroves are enormous and believed to be hosting evil spirits,” he says.
Out of fear, the Tagbanua people don’t linger in the mangrove forest, staying just long enough to gather food and sparing this ecosystem from destruction and unsustainable resource extraction. “Many of us got lost there, not just me,” Valderama says. “When you go there to glean for shellfish, you should go home right away. If you hear someone shouting, don’t try to follow that voice because it will lead you astray deep in the forest until you’re hungry.”
Eric Zerrudo, director of the Center for Conservation of Cultural Property and Environment in the Tropics at University of Santo Tomas in Manila, says this belief exemplifies Indigenous people’s deep spiritual relationship with their natural environment, which gives them their “own set of protection and management with regards to their landscape.”
This traditional system exists alongside legislation protecting Palawan’s mangroves, Zerrudo says. “This Tagbanua belief system creates another level of protection for the mangroves.”
Mangroves aren’t just important for fish.
Restored and protected mangroves, as an ecosystem-based adaptation approach, can dissipate powerful tropical storms’ energy, reducing storm surge, flood and erosion risks for coastal communities. This is especially important in the Philippines, where the occurrence of six super typhoons a year is now the “new normal” due to the changing climate.
Research shows that 100 meters (330 feet) of mangroves can reduce wave energy by up to 66%. In the Philippines, a World Bank study estimates that mangroves can “reduce flooding to 613,000 people annually, of whom more than 23% live below poverty, and avert more than US $1 billion in damages to residential and industrial property.”
When Typhoon Rai hit northern Palawan in December 2021, Malampaya Sound’s mangroves’ protective role was affirmed. They saved not just coastal-dwelling households, but also local fisheries. “After the typhoon, our catch declined. But it didn’t last long because it started improving a few weeks later,” Panchito says.
While Malampaya’s terrestrial forest was affected, the naturally growing mangroves were able to withstand the storm’s wrath and left no significant property destruction within the protected area. “I can say that the mangroves here are very resilient because in our [visual] inspection no [significant] mangrove forest damage was recorded,” Pador says.
Recognizing mangroves’ role in addressing climate change and protecting against storms, the Philippines is developing a road map to increase mangrove cover by at least 20% by 2030.
“To effectively do that, we need to do science-based, community-managed mangrove restoration to ensure we avoid the mangrove planting in unsuitable areas,” says Jocel Pangilinan, climate resilience program director at Conservation International Philippines, which initiated the creation of the road map with the government.
Dela Cruz, who represents the civil society organizations in Malampaya’s protected area management board, says they’ve seen the value of mangroves to their lives and will keep supporting initiatives to conserve it amid the changing climate.
“Because our mangroves are thriving, even if our community was hit by a typhoon, we still have a source of livelihood,” Dela Cruz says. “As our mangroves are resilient, we as a community are also resilient.”
This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published by Mongabay on August 29, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Fishers in a boat in the Malampaya Sound mangroves / Credit: Rex Remo for Mongabay.