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EJN-Supported Story Bolsters Support for Nature-Based Solutions for Coastal Resilience in Siargao Island, Philippines

seagrass visible beneath shallow water

In December 2021, Super Typhoon Rai, locally known as Typhoon Odette, made landfall in the Philippines. It became unexpectedly powerful and reached typhoon category 5 in less than five days. 

An NPR story recorded that the typhoon left at least 12 people dead and forced 300,000 people to evacuate; Inquirer news reported that damages were pegged at around P20 billion. 

One of the areas in the path of the calamity was Siargao Island, off the coast of Surigao del Norte, one of the top tourist destinations in the Philippines.  The island completely lost connection with bigger islands in the province as electricity and telecom lines were downed, making it more challenging for immediate response to arrive. 

Seven months after the typhoon wreaked havoc on the island, on October 2022, local journalist and EJN grantee Yasmin Arquiza published a story with EJN support on the “remarkable rebound” of Del Carmen, Siargao. Arquiza said she was interested in Siargao’s recovery as she worked at the global conservation non-profit organization RARE prior to working as a freelance journalist and the island was her project site for five years. 

“I returned to the island because I wanted to check what happened with the mangroves in Siargao. I produced this story because of my desire to maintain a connection with the community, and I wanted to see how they were coping,” she said. 

“I was impressed with the developments I saw on the ground and wanted to share the recovery and success story of the community of Del Carmen. I applied for an EJN grant because it needed an audience beyond the Philippines, and I thought it would be helpful since they are lobbying for the site to be declared as a wetland of international importance,” said Arquiza. 

After disasters, news stories on the impact on typhoons in communities are expected. Environmental journalism typically spikes in the aftermath, but sustained reporting and follow up stories can make an impact. However, newsrooms often do not prioritize this due to the pressures of the news cycle. Often, deep diving on environmental issues are made possible through the resources of grants.

“A protected paradise” 

Arquiza’s story discussed how the islands’ extensive mangrove forests protected houses from huge waves which lessened damage and casualties. 

Her report triggered a positive response from government officials, particularly Del Carmen Mayor Alfredo Coro II and the Department of Science and Technology both at the provincial and national level, as the story validated their implementation of nature-based solutions in protecting the environment. Coro attributed Del Carmen’s quick recovery to these factors. 

Recovery was unfortunately slow for less connected and poorer provinces, such as in the province of Dinagat, one of the most badly hit areas by the typhoon and where villages were completely wiped out. A year after, the island was reported to have 'a long way ahead' for 'Odette' recovery.

Siargao’s quick recovery, on the other hand, is attributed to its mangroves. The total mangrove area of Del Carmen is 4,871 hectares based on the assessment of Global Mangrove Watch. The local government has not officially measured the area conserved after the typhoon. However, according to Gina Barquilla from the Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office of Del Carmen, only the frontal part or near shore part of the mangrove site was destroyed and the interior parts were conserved. 

Siargao had a minimum death toll of 15 people out of 200,000 residents, and coastal villagers attributed this to the island’s extensive mangrove forests which protected houses from huge waves, lessening damage and casualties.

There was quick access to needed items by the community—public health, water, food, shelter, cash, and tourism and commercial flights resumed back by early February 2022 or three months after the typhoon made landfall. 

“The quick access to Siargao triggered a new wave of support because previous tourists who connected with the island appealed for more support for the island,” said Coro. 

What most of the public isn’t aware of is that the entire island was recognized as a protected site, called as the Siargao Islands Protected Landscapes and Seascapes (SIPLAS), in 1996, covering all nine municipalities and 48 islands within Siargao and Bucas Grande. 

Coro, who has been Del Carmen’s mayor since 2010 and its Vice Mayor in 2019, said that their mangrove conservation has been a continuous work with previous administrations.

“It was also during my term with Siargao Islands Landscapes and Seascapes' Protected Area Management Board (SIPLAS – PAMB) that we started celebrating the SIPLAS Week which is now part of the annual budget of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) SIPLAS-Protected Area Management Office (PAMO).  

“Our conservation efforts were 10 years in the making. It’s important to tell the story of coral reefs, seagrass, and mangroves so that we can show that these science-based solutions are working. If the release came from government officials, this won’t be believed, because we are the ones implementing the solutions,” said Coro. 

Arquiza’s story was released in late 2022, months after the national elections and a huge earthquake in Northern Luzon. For Coro, the story was published at an opportune time, as people have the tendency to forget older news stories, he said.

Coro said that after the article, UN agencies and major international donors introduced new programs focused on strengthening responses especially at the family level and food access. 

According to the mayor, to truly bounce back, projects should have three stages of implementation: Response, Recovery, and Rebuild. 

In the aftermath of Odette, several government and non-government organizations such as the Australian and French Embassy and the United Nations immediately responded to the island’s needs. The local government received livelihood support for fisherfolks, schools received educational materials, and NGOs built learning hubs. 

“They were there during the immediate response, but there’s still a lot of work to be done because there’s still a need for ‘recovery’ and ‘rebuild’. So when the media, such as in this article by Arquiza, reminds the public that there’s still work to be done, these organizations come back with a plan,” said Coro. 

According to an October 2022 Inquirer report, the island needs P2.5B or $45M to completely recover.  

Screenshot of a text conversation from a cell phone.
Arquiza asked Coro if the article helped the community in any way. Coro responded by saying he uses the article whenever he is invited for talks because the findings are “validated” by the media. Arquiza’s article mentioned that the international conservation NGO Rare commissioned the Marine Environment and Resource Foundation (MERF) to survey the damage of the typhoon, three months after the onslaught / Screenshot by Yasmin Arquiza. 

As per the Del Carmen mayor, the article helped the community in acquiring follow-up support and funding from the Office of the Civil Defense because it proved that even though the local government was carrying out rehabilitation projects, they still needed more support. 

Siargao is still waiting for the support but the local government has submitted all the documents required by the agency to access funding assistance for Barangay Covered Courts, Barangay Halls and Barangay Communications Networks. These are townhalls and public centers where events can be held by the community. 

Importance of environmental reporting 

Front page of a newspaper
The EJN-supported story on Siargao was front-page news in SunStar Davao

Mayor Coro said he framed the newspaper article to show his constituents. 

Siargao doesn’t have a local community newspaper and it’s a destination often too far and expensive for Mindanao-based journalists to cover. Often, coverage is limited to tourism and surfing competitions which overlooks the importance of Siargao as a protected area. 

The island doesn’t have a lot of mainstream media; it only has a local radio station in school which is their main medium for disseminating information, the journalist explained. 

"To be published on the full front page of Sunstar Davao is a big deal to demonstrate to contacts and relevant organizations that nature-based solutions can move the initiatives of the community,” said Arquiza. 

Environmental journalism grants as such support Arquiza in reporting under-represented areas, and at the same time bring the story to an international audience. 

Picture of a social media post.
The official Facebook page of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) shared a link to Arquiza’s article.

Three days after it was published, the official Facebook page of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) with over 177,000 followers reshared a link to Arquiza’s article. 

Mariel Makinano, Provincial Director of DOST in Surigao del Norte, said that Arquiza’s article provided accurate detail of the aftermath of the typhoon while also recognizing the intervention of the DOST and its campaigns for Del Carmen’s 4,000 hectares of mangrove forests to be included in the global listing of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

According to India Water Portal, mangroves are considered coastal wetlands because they ‘include plants that are adapted to wet soil conditions, mangroves grow in undrained hydric soil, and the soil is saturated or inundated with water at least during the growing period of the plants.”

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance is an inter-governmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.

Wetlands included in the Ramsar Convention may be able to receive funding and investments for their conservation, they may also be connected to significant alliances that align with the organizations’ goals to prevent loss and degradation. 

“The goal of the National Research Council, together with the DOST, is to share the biodiversity efforts of the government with a broader audience,” said Makinano. 

Makinano said that because of the article, people became more aware of the importance of conserving Siargao’s wetlands to help mitigate the climate crisis, especially since the islands in Surigao del Norte are prone to disasters. 

“It’s a good thing that the article highlighted the synergies of different key players in rehabilitation. From the national government agencies, researchers from the Surigao del Norte State University, and members of the private sector who lent vehicles and donated materials—everyone was linked in aiding recovery efforts,” said Makinano. 

“The article can influence policymaking and inform the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council on how to support affected communities in Siargao island and other regions,” she added. 

Actions needed and future hopes

Siargao is still reconstructing health stations and daycare centers with the support of the Department of Health and the Department of Social Welfare and Development. The local government hopes that the additional support of national government agencies for rehabilitation will be disbursed soon as it has been delayed since December 2021. 

“There’s immediate response and help, but we still need additional help in terms of rebuilding infrastructure like schools, barangay halls, and public facilities. We need help in rebuilding the town halls [for instance] because, for the locals, it is a symbol of community,” said Coro. 

As of now, there are projects on agri-fishery processing, food innovation, water testing laboratories, and eco-friendly septic system facilities for waste management. Coro said that the goal is to build a resilient community that can withstand natural disasters. 

The local government is inclined to continue prioritizing nature-based solutions to adapt to the changing climate as they have recognized their rich natural resources as priceless assets after the local government with NGOs such as the UN’s International Rescue Committee did their Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) assessment. 

They hope to continue their ecotourism mangrove plan which includes building a boardwalk for education and appreciation of mangroves, establishing a mangrove nursery to nurse propagates, and constructing a mangrove view-deck to curb destructive fishing practices while also promoting birdwatching, as advised by non-governmental organizations and scientists. 

The story has factual inputs about our experience and our working solutions. Our experience with Odette proved that our mangroves became a strong support against the storm surge, and that access to food was easily available after the disaster because fish were visible in our waters a few weeks later, the mayor noted.

"The value of our wetland is hard to prove because it takes time to explain science, and it’s better explained through the media,” added Coro. 

The local government of Del Carmen is still waiting for the results of their application with the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. They applied in 2021 before typhoon Odette hit the island, and Coro is hopeful that their quick recovery documented in the EJN-supported article can vouch for the green measures taken by the island to help the awarding body to make their decision. 

For her part, Arquiza is completing a book on renewable energy (due to be published early next year) and hopes to continue reporting climate stories to inform audiences about the importance of decarbonization and adaptation. 

She aims to keep seeking out  overlooked issues that require action from the government, where coverage of these issues can influence policy change. 

Banner image: Seagrass beds along the shoreline of Barangay Caub are considered blue carbon, a natural defense against climate change / Credit: Yasmin Arquiza.