Livelihood from the Living Sea

PictureIn 1974, a marine reserve was established in one of the tiny islands of our country. One side of the island was declared as the core sanctuary or a “no take zone” and the remaining areas became the buffer zone where sustenance fishing was allowed. In ten years there were significant improvement of the non-fished area.  Live coral cover had spread dramatically, fish abundance had more than doubled and more importantly,  fish catch in the fishing zone increased from 14 tons / km2 to 36 tons / km2 (Russ and Alcala 1996).  This clearly shows that by protecting a portion of the island’s reef from fishing or any form of harvesting, the fish population within that zone will increase and eventually spillover to the adjoining reefs outside the sanctuary.

With the guidance and support of Siliman University in Dumaguete City, Sumilon Island became a model for fisheries management that stresses the importance of fish sanctuaries as a means to increase fish stocks. In 1984, the Sumilon marine sanctuary was violated and in the subsequent years the fish yield declined.

Since then the marine reserves, sanctuaries and parks have increased to more than 1,000 marine protected areas or MPAs throughout the Philippine archipelago. Majority of these MPAs had been established through a municipal or city ordinance. A marine reserve is an area where non-destructive fishing or non-commercial harvesting is allowed but regulated.  Marine parks are areas wherein educational, recreational or conservation oriented tourism activities are allowed. The marine sanctuaries are strict protection zones where no extraction may take place and where access may also be prohibited, in its extreme form it is a “no take, no touch” area.  A sanctuary is usually located within the boundaries of a marine reserve or a park.

Out of the hundreds of MPAs in the country only a handful are effectively managed and usually these are the sites where the LGU and the local communities have consistently worked together to monitor, manage and protect their coastal resources.  Many of these successful MPAs have also become attractions for tourists, specially for snorkelers and scuba divers who visit these places because of its well preserved condition, live coral cover, high biodiversity and abundance of fish. Thus aside from the ecological importance to fisheries and food security, successful MPAs have also become valuable tourism resources.

Conservation and Livelihood

A common concern in all protected areas of our country whether it is in the forested mountains or in the coastal areas is the lack of livelihood opportunities for the local communities that depend on the natural resources that is being protected. Thus provision of alternative sources of income is always mentioned as part of the management strategy in nature parks and other protected sites.

Alternative livelihood that is not dependent on resource extraction has always been viewed as a means to reduce pressure on the natural resources in these critical areas.  The most viable option is Community based nature tourism or what many refer to as eco-tourism. However this strategy has rarely been successfully implemented mainly due to the lack of capability within the communities and the concerned LGUs.

Buhay Dagat program

In 2008, the Philippine Commission on Sports Scuba Diving (PCSSD) of the Dept. of Tourism launched the Buhay Dagat Program that intended to open economic opportunities for coastal communities. The program simply means “hanap buhay mula sa buhay na dagat” (livelihood from a living sea) and it introduced community-based tourism in an MPA.

PictureThe primary objective of Buhay Dagat was to introduce an additional source of income for People’s Organization or fisherfolk communities that protect and manage their Marine Protected Areas. Most of the people engaged in the gallant effort of protection of municipal MPAs do so in a volunteer basis and more often than not it entails a lot of sacrifices to the point that livelihood is compromised. A substantial amount of time is devoted to the monitoring and protection of the site by the local community as stewards of their coastal resources.

Buhay Dagat trained interested residents to become snorkeling guides so that they can offer skin diving activities to of the marine sanctuary thereby empowering them to derive supplemental income from coastal tourism. Initially, ten (10) MPAs were selected throughout the Philippine archipelago as pilot sites for this program that aims to help alleviate poverty in the communities and at the same time, encourage them to further strengthen and continue protection of their respective marine sanctuaries.

Site selection

Potential sites for the program were identified using a criteria the following: an established MPA with effective management being implemented; willingness of the community that protects and monitors the MPA to engage in coastal tourism; receptiveness and support of the local government unit (LGU); area is safe and secured from political unrest/insurgency and criminality; great potentials for coastal tourism; current bio-physical status (well preserved ecosystem, high biodiversity); readiness for tourism; suitable for snorkeling at least six months in a year; no threats from logging, mining, pollution and uncontrolled development; and no hazards (rip currents, boat traffic, surf, abundance of sea wasp, etc).

The MPA management rating developed by the MPA Support Network (MSN) is also referred to, as a basis of initial selection. A site validation is then conducted prior to the final selection and implementation.

Capability Building

PictureA six-day, on-site training was offered by the PCSSD from 2008 – 2011 to deserving fisher-folks, communities or people’s organizations. Successful participants were accredited as Reef Ranger snorkeling guides. This was in recognition of their qualification as trained snorkeling guides and dedicated protectors of the MPA.  Aside from practical skills like skin diving, aquatic guideship, water safety and rescue techniques, the training covered topics on the environmental principles, conservation of marine resources and community-based sustainable tourism. The program was developed by Blue Water Consultancy and it’s team of experts conducted the Reef Ranger snorkeling guide training.

Buhay Dagat’s first site in November 2008 was the Cabacungan Fish Sanctuary in Cabilao Island located in Loon, Bohol. The island is a known dive site and several boats travel daily all the way from Mactan, Cebu to bring divers. Hundred Islands National Park in Alaminos, Pangasinan was the second site where the Reef Ranger training was conducted in December 2008.

While the Buhay Dagat program was started during the term of Sec. Ace Durano, the program was continued when Sec. Alberto Lim was at the helm of the department. From March 2011 to 2012 the program was successfully implemented in 8 other sites: Sipalay City and Sagay City, Negros Occ., Palaui Is. Protected Landscape and Seascape, Sta. Ana, Cagayan, Lubang and Looc, Mindoro Occ., Limasawa Is., Southern Leyte, Aloguinsan, Cebu, and Daram, Samar. It was also conducted in Lian, Batangas on the request of the municpality and the Center for Social Concern and Action (COSCA), La Salle in Oct. 2012

In the last quarter of 2012, the program was discontinued by the current executive director of PCSSD. However the initiative was replicated by the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (now renamed Biodiversity Management Bureau) for the ecotourism enterprise development of the Integrated Coastal Resource Management Project of DENR. In 2012 -2013 it was successfully implemented in 8 other sites in the provinces of Cagayan, Zambales, Masbate, Cebu and Davao Oriental. From 2014 – 2015, Buhay Dagat was also conducted in Southern Leyte, Northern Samar and Samar in with DOT Region VIII.


The simple philosophy of the Buhay Dagat program is that if the people care for and protect the sea and their MPAs then it will continue to provide them food and livelihood. With the Buhay Dagat initiative, protection of marine resources and biodiversity conservation are strengthened through coastal tourism while providing economic benefits for local communities.

The first edition of this article was published in Haring Ibon Jan-March 2009 Issue no. 37

Photos are by Louie Mencias

The hiking trails of Lubang

PictureThe Verde Island Passage, also called  VIP, is located between Batangas and Mindoro.  Dubbed as the center of marine shorefish biodiversity in the world,  it is not only rich in marine resources.  It has also been blessed with an island group that is endowed with outstanding natural assets.  The Lubang Island Group or LIG is composed of the municipalities of Lubang and Looc and are nestled on the western tip of the VIP.  In 2010  the  leaders of both towns decided to craft a single roadmap for tourism development. I had the privilege of being given the task of facilitating the planning process and help the island residents articulate for themselves  the type of tourism that will uplift the lives of the people.

PictureBack then, the islanders agreed that hiking in the forests of Lubang is one activity that will be promoted. After all,  LIG has an extensive forest cover that, interestingly, has been preserved due to the presence of a Japanese straggler by the name of Lt. Hiroo Onoda.  He was an Imperial Japanese intelligence officer who was sent to Lubang in December 1944 to bomb Tilik port, but failed. When the Americans and the Philippine Commonwealth forces landed in Lubang in February 1945, Onoda ran into the jungles and stayed there  for 30 years, refusing to believe that the war was over.  He came down from the mountain only upon receiving a direct order from his commanding officer Major Yoshimi Taniguchi in March 1974.

Five years ago, I was part of the team that assessed and mapped  the forest and the caves where Lt. Onoda used to live.  Three Onoda Trail loops were  plotted and designed so that they can  provide hiking experiences to visitors of varying levels of skills. Onoda Trail has emerged as  the primary tourism product of Lubang due to its historical value. Even Japanese tourists have started visiting the island. Trained guides take visitors  to four of several caves in the forest that became Onoda’s refuge.

Another interesting hiking site is Hulagaan which starts off from the beach that is known for its colorful rocks. A visitor rest area has been constructed near the delta of a stream and here hikers are briefed prior to the hike.  An hour walk ends in a wondrous waterfalls with a pool deep enough for a refreshing swim.  The trail weaves through the forest and has railings and stone steps, making it relatively easy for most visitors. Back on the beach hut,  one can laze at a natural “infinity pool” at the stream and get a free pedicure from the tiny fishes that are found there.


The Municipalities  of Lubang and Looc are the only LGUs in the entire MIMAROPA region that have a roadmap for tourism development.  It will not come as a surprise if  one day Lubang becomes the model for community-based sustainable tourism development. Soon, it will implement a cutting-edge concept  that applies the principles of wealth generation for  tourism that I have conceptualised and designed to promote inclusive growth. I call it The Chain of Prosperity.

This article was originally published in Chen Reyes-Mencias’ blog, QuantumLight.
Photos are by Chen Reyes-Mencias

Ecotourism Site Spotlight: Dahican beach

PictureDahican beach located in Mati City, Davao Oriental is far from the usual. Every year, from January to June, several female Pawikans lay their eggs in Dahican.

Amihan sa Dahican, a group of local young surfers and skim boarders who are passionate about the environment, has taken the liberty to be stewards in the area. They protect the eggs by putting fences around them or by transferring them to the hatchery which they have established with the assistance of the Biodiversity Management Bureau.

The beach is also known to be a great surfing spot. Beginners can  get lessons and rent boards from Amihan sa Dahican. Some of the members of the group have also been trained to conduct snorkeling activities in nearby reefs. They can also take you to the nearby islands to see other beaches and natural attractions.

There have been regular sightings of dugong and whale sharks in the area. Dolphins have regularly passed through the eastern seaboard of Mindanao during summer, allowing visitors to go dolphin watching during early mornings.

Another site worth visiting in the area is the museum in Mati City that features what the province has to offer. The museum even has a humongous skeleton of a whale at their lobby.

To get more information about Palaui or if you would like to visit the island, please go to the website of Ecotourism Philippines.

Photos are by Patricia Mencias

Five ways to be a better traveler in 2016

PictureTravel is an excellent way to learn and expand one’s world.  Travel trends such as lower airfare, cheaper accommodations and increased disposable income for younger people,   have all contributed to the increased tourist traffic of popular, as well as new destinations.  Travel has never been  this big before.  Experts predict that it will further increase in the coming years  as destinations become more accessible, and new outstanding places are discovered.

Although increased tourist traffic may drive the economy,  people can also cause negative impacts on the places they visit.  Unfortunately for the Philippines, the measure for the industry are both economic – tourist arrival and tourist receipt – such that the price of economic development is not part of the equation.  We simply do not have an idea of the extent of the  social and environmental costs of tourism development in the country.

It goes without saying that every tourist has a footprint,  since every human being leaves an impact on the planet on  a daily basis.  The footprint comes in the form of the resources that are utililized, such as water, energy, food, as well as the wastes that are produced.  It is therefore  important for people to be more conscious of their decisions and behaviour when travelling because they may actually be contributing to the destruction of the destinations that they visit.  Here are some tips on how to travel more responsibly and lessen ones’ impact.

  1. Learn, don’t just take photos. The selfie culture is making travel less experiential. People scramble to take their photos against the landscape or with somebody from the community, primarily to post in the internet.  Learning or getting inspired have become secondary objectives. Very few willingly immerse themselves in the culture of the place, or consciously capture the available knowledge with their  minds. Travel is no longer an opportunity for deep experiences. It has been reduced to a chance to simply take a photo. Consciously enhancing one’s travel through experiential learning can create long-lasting memories.
  2. Follow rules and protocols.  Visitors equally share the responsibility of taking care of the place with the locals.  The money that tourists pay gives them  the right to experience that place and the people.  It does not  provide them the right to exploit or disrespect those who live in the community.  Visitors should be the ones to adjust to the culture of the people living in the places that they visit, and not the other way around.
  3. Be conscious of your footprint on a daily basis.  One’s footprint is measured by how much resources are used and the volume of trash produced. When visiting another place a visitor should be more mindful of his/her  choices, behaviour and actions.  Reducing the use of plastic and avoiding the use of styrofoam or disposable packing materials will contribute significantly to environmental conservation.  Disposing of trash responsibly and following “Garbage in / Garbage out” policy is the hallmark of a responsible traveler.
  4. Learn to appreciate community-based initiatives.  Studies show that social enterprise is the most appropriate business model for rural destinations.  It provides an opportunity for many of the marginalized members of the community to be part of tourism development.  Having well organized and capacitated communities should be the goal of all local governments, so that the concept of “inclusive growth” can truly be realized. Purchasing products of social enterprises will   help provide an economic incentive for the protection of natural and cultural assets.
  5. Willingly pay a premium for high value experiences.  There is  value for  being in outstanding natural  landscapes and seascapes, and having the privilege to witness unique and authenic traditions and culture.  Destinations that have management regimes need to  earn from tourist visitations for them to be sustained over many years. Nature or heritage is not free.  There is also value in being given the right to experience a place,  especially if only a limited number of people are allowed to do so. High value/low volume strategy is  best applied for protected areas and pristine environments because it  provides an opportunity to generate income from tourism without having to compromise the integrity of the natural assets.

So,  the next time you travel, seriously consider these tips.  They will  put more meaning to your vacations.

This article was originally published in Chen Reyes-Mencias’ blog, QuantumLight.
Photos are by Chen Reyes-Mencias