School in the Seas: Reef Conservation Through People Participation

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A school in the seas where tourists learn about reef conservation was built through ardent people participation.

Conservation of natural resources is difficult to achieve without people participation. People who depend on the resources for survival will not be able to appreciate the importance of conservation unless they derive benefit from it. As environmental economics put it, the moral approach is not effective. Conservation is not possible if people have nothing in their stomachs. They need to derive benefit from it.

The effective conservation of Pambato Reef, a small section of reef lying within Honda Bay in Puerto Princesa, is an aberration from the usual approach to conservation and an illustration of the need to tie up economic benefit with conservation. It showcased people participation at work at the highest level, i.e., self-mobilization. The reef's 'discovery' led to the creation of the unique School in the Seas where visitors from the different parts of the globe come and learn about reef life. As a result, once illegal fishers derive sustainable income that wean them away from destroying the reef.

Reef 'Discovery'

Pambato reef was discovered accidentally by a young fisher when his hook got entangled in the "rocks" underneath the well-frequented route of fishing and tourism boats between mainland Palawan and an island that bobs in and out of the water. This is the reason why that island was called "Luli" from the word "lulubog" and "lilitaw, meaning "submerge" and "emerge" respectively. The fishermen dove to untangle the fish hook then was amazed of the lush growth of corals unexpectedly in a place frequented by people and is known to have been overfished and damaged by rampant illegal cyanide and dynamite fishing. There is a rich diversity of life underneath and no one suspected it exists. Different kinds of massive and branching corals thrive with various kinds of fishes in it.

Pambato Reef

I visited Pambato Reef and took this picture just below the School in the Seas.

Self-Mobilization at Work

The young fisherman is a member of the association of boatowners, the Honda Bay Boatowners Association or HOBBAI. He immediately informed the leader of the group about the wonderful find. Recognizing the potential of the reef as a very accessible site that will add more excitement to the experience of tourists who normally avail of the island-hopping tour of the islands dotting the bay, the association decided to make the reef one of the "must go" destinations for tourists. Despite the lack of legal mandate to protect the reef, they protected it themselves and started to collect fees from the tourists. When the local government knew about this, they noted that the declaration to protect the reef is illegal but the association was tenacious in its stand to keep it as an important resource that must be protected, primarily because it can generate revenue to them. After the legal issues have been addressed, the reef eventually got a legal status as a protected area where limited tourism use, such as snorkeling, is allowed. The reef had become a favorite destination of tourists coming from all over the country and even the globe - a showcase of sustainable reef conservation.

School in the Seas

I had the opportunity to be involved with HOBBAI when I was invited by a local non-government organization to train the members of the association about the ecology and importance of the reef. I explained about reef ecology and identified some of the common corals and fishes found in the area which I incorporated into a reef identification manual. Sometime after that, a floating school in the seas with a roof shaped like a sea turtle named "Dalub-Karagatan" was built and installed near the reef. The school in the seas served as a place where the trained fishers, who were once illegal fishers themselves, brief the tourists and tour them around to see one of the city's pride - a reef near the city.

School in the Seas

The School in the Seas, a reef conservation project of HOBBAI and ABS-CBN Foundation, Inc.

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Posted on Jun 15, 2010