I’ve left the Cambridge office behind to join Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) Philippines team, exploring an opportunity for a new marine conservation project. Of course, there is plenty of scope – the Philippines has outstanding marine biodiversity but faces intense pressure from an array of threats including overfishing, land-based pollution, coral bleaching and coastal development. Human dependence on the marine environment is incredibly high here with fish providing nearly 70% of the country’s protein and fishing – income to millions.
We’re here to explore one idea in particular: whether FFI can help local indigenous communities to manage and protect their ancestral waters. Ancestral waters are marine and coastal areas that have been used by indigenous people over many generations, often holding great cultural and spiritual significance.
Members of the Tagbanua indigenous community of Aramaywan on the island of Palawan have written a letter to FFI requesting help in managing their ancestral waters. This is our first port of call. A more beautiful setting is hard to imagine, the village we are visiting lies with majestic forested mountains behind and golden sands and fringing coral reefs in front. Like many places on the island, people here are poor and depend directly on marine and forest resources for their livelihood. We hear stories of how at night time, villagers watch as boats much larger than their own enter their ancestral waters to trawl, one of the most destructive forms of fishing. Currently the Tagbanua of Aramaywan feel powerless to protect their ancestral waters but they have plenty of ideas and suggestions of things that they would like to do from patrols to seaweed farming, to accessing markets for their artisanal crafts.
Our team splits into two, Orly and Kay both members of FFI Philippines stay in the village to hear stories and ideas from the people who wrote and asked for support whilst I head off on a boat with marine biologist Antonio (Ton) to get a better idea of the area’s marine biodiversity and to map the boundaries of the ancestral waters. We ask to snorkel in the best fishing grounds but our guides seem reluctant to take us to these sites. Ton winks at me, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll find them!’ but on this occasion it wasn’t to be, a rising swell and waters deeper than we anticipated means that we will have to schedule a return visit with scuba gear.
Before departure, we all get together to share ideas, impressions and expectations as well as some freshly caught barbecued fish. We leave feeling full and optimistic. Our hope is that we can support this community and others like them to manage and protect their ancestral waters according to their knowledge systems and beliefs. In so doing we will be helping to conserve not only the rich marine life but also the cultural significance of this place for generations to come.