Over the past thirty years, the mangrove forests in the Bakhawan eco-park, located in the province of Aklan, have become central to the lives of people in villages in central Philippines.
In 1990, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources approved the request of Mayor Quimpo and provided a budget of US$22,500 for the planting of Kalibo mangroves.
Quimpo had endorsed the area near the Sooc River in Barangay New Buswang as the main site for the reforestation project. This is because of the broad expanse of mudflats in the vicinity. The local government then tapped the adjacent four villages of Bakhaw Sur, Bakhaw Norte, Old Buswang and New Buswang for the mangrove plantation.
The plantation area initially covered 50 hectares to be planted with thousands of different mangroves species. It has since grown.
Women from four villages — Barangay Old Buswang, the Kalibo Mangrove in the province of Aklan — have developed a tight bond with the forest as it is a place for sharing food, culture, interactions and hopes. They have been its fierce protectors by taking head-on the challenges of conserving and expanding the mangrove forest.
“Women are an integral part of the mangrove forest. Their commitment and care for the forest cannot be underestimated,” said Liza Cesar, a member of the board of directors of Kalibo Save the Mangrove (Kasama), an organization of mangrove planters and stakeholders in the Bakhawan eco-park.
Women in the sprawling forest covering the four villages take care of their children while their husbands work as fishermen. Some women were also involved in policing the mangroves.
Cesar said during the Covid-19 pandemic, women in these communities would forage for food for their families in the mangroves. Among these were fish and crabs, among other types of seafood.
“Fortunately, as villages already knew the importance of the forests we do not receive reports of anybody illegally cutting mangrove trees. Cutting of trees is strictly regulated by the environment department,” she added.
Elizabeth Ramos, one of the original planters of Kasama and one of the elder guardians of the forest, said a few years ago, she was one of those who ran against trespassers who illegally cut trees within the mangroves.
During those times, an influential personality tried to engage illegal fishing inside the forests with his group. He has since died and the issue is not as much of a concern now, she added.
There were also times that some outsiders allowed their cows inside the forests, which damages young trees. The women working in the Kasama reported these incidents to the barangay justice system and the cow owners were reprimanded.
Rolinda Icawalo, 42, said she only started working three years ago as a contractual worker and did not know much about mangroves before she began. She was hired by the Provincial Government to work in Kasama as part of the province’s commitment to help conserve the mangroves.
Icawalo, a member of the so-called Bakhawan Police, said maintaining the forest gives food to the community, protects them from storm surges and provides their livelihood opportunities through tourism and planting of mangroves.
The Kasama sells mangrove seedlings to interested civic groups and plants them inside the forests to improve their sustainability.
“When I started working here, I learned what it is to protect the mangrove forest. I joined a series of mangrove planting activities spearheaded by various civic organizations. I also started explaining to guests the beauty of the forests. In the forests, one can breathe fresh air, exercise by walking, hear and feel the colors and sounds of nature,” she said.
Tourism is one of the by-products of the forest. The Kasama keeps the revenues from tourists coming in to wander around the mangroves mainly for relaxation and a view of the sprawling forest.
Anita Reyes, head of tourism promotion of Kasama, said that the women’s nurturing way of taking care of the mangroves enabled villagers to go inside the forest and look for food.
“This is the vision of the Kasama, to provide food for the community, so we need to protect the 250 hectares of mangrove forest to also feed the younger generation,” she said.
Rhea Rose Meren, head of the tourism office of the municipality of Kalibo, said they were planning to enter a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with Kasama.
“The MOA between the local government and the Kasama emphasizes development, capacity-building and the promotion of what is now a Kalibo eco-tourism park,” said Meren.
One of the reasons why the MOA has been stalled is because the Kalibo local government unit is currently in the process of creating an environment office. This plan to have a Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office was put forward two years ago but was delayed due to the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the management of the sprawling forest. From 15 regular staff of Kasama protecting the mangroves, only seven women now actively work as mangrove warriors.
Jay Ann Dalmacio, 35, a Kasama tourist guide, said bird photographers often come from different places to the Bakhawan to take photos.
“The Bakhawan has lured not only tourists to enjoy [the surroundings] but also birds who also just pass by to search for food. I think when the Covid-19 pandemic is over, the eco-park could also be promoted as a potential bird-watching destination,” Dalmacio said.
While the mangrove expands thanks to the women’s stewardship, it is facing more and more problems each day. Among these are the effects of climate change, especially sea-level rise.
This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network and was originally published by SunStar on 11 June 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Under the care of local women, the Bakhawan Eco-Park has become a mangrove conservation success story / Credit: Jun N. Aguirre.