BATANGAS, Philippines – On Saturday, September 21, International Coastal Cleanup Day, residents of Isla Verde braved strong winds and pouring rain to attend workshops on solid waste management given by skin-diving group University of the Philippines Marine Biological Society.
Fishermen, barangay officials, teachers and students wrote their individual pledges on a tarpaulin to protect the Verde Island Passage, a marine corridor between Batangas and Mindoro declared by scientists as the center of the world's coral triangle. Their lush island stands in the middle of the Passage, its designated guardian.
Some of their vows were to never throw garbage into the sea, to help start an ecotourism project and to use reusable containers instead of disposable plastic ones.
These promises are more than words on ink. They are a first step to solve one of the most alarming threats to marine biodiversity.
An ocular inspection conducted by Marine Biological Society in the Verde Island Passage in August discovered plastic bags, plastic wrappers, and other junk among coral reef and marine flora in the marine protected area.
Dubbed the "center of the center of marine biodiversity" in the world, Verde Island Passage is not just another diving spot.
In 2004, scientists recorded 1,736 marine species in a 10-by-10 kilometer area in the Passage, the highest concentration of biodiversity in a given area. It was thus declared the center of the world's coral triangle, claiming the title previously held by Palau Bintan in Indonesia.
In its waters live hawksbill sea turtles, humphead wrasses, brown spotted cods, giant clams, and more.
Despite its global significance, the Verde Island Passage and it colorful inhabitants face numerous threats.
Photo courtesy of Marine Biological Society
Polluting boats, industrial plants
A major threat is the fact that the Passage is a popular route plied daily by hundreds of passenger and cargo boats, some coming all the way from Cebu. They make their way to the Batangas International Seaport, the country's second largest port, a mere one-and-a-half-hour boat ride from the Passage.
"We see boats passing by almost every hour," said Charlie Driz, a resident of Isla Verde.
Stuffed-to-the-brim black garbage bags are thrown directly into the waters from domestic passenger boats, in flagrant disregard of local government regulations, he told Rappler.
The increased traffic of marine vessels exposes Verde Island Passage to the threat of oil spills from passing ships, some of which deliver crude oil to the many oil and gas industrial plants which put up shop along the coasts beside the Passage to take advantage of the nearby seaport.
All photos by Andrew Robles
A joint report by the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and biodiversity protection group Conservation International revealed that these facilities largely contribute to the pollution in the marine sanctuary.
"The wastes generated by the industries cause both water pollution and air pollution. Industrial effluents are almost regularly dumped into the bays. Gases and particulates from oil refineries and chemical plant containing lead and sulfur oxide, among others, are being emitted, posing hazard to both the environment and human health," the report says.
Isla Verde, or simply "Isla" to locals is home to 10,000 residents who see themselves as the stewards of the marine protected area, yet many turn a blind eye to the pollution from the industrial plants.
The reason? Many islanders are employed by the companies and fear putting their regularly-paying jobs at risk. Some of them are former fishermen who found much to appreciate in the comparatively stable source of livelihood provided by the companies.
Photo courtesy of Marine Biological Society
Instead, the local governments on the island have chosen to pursue improved solid waste management programs in their villages.
Household waste is another contributor to pollution in the Passage. Edmar Rieta, chairman of Barangay San Agapito, is starting a plastic ban in the village to emphasize to residents the need to reduce their use of plastic bags, many of which find their way into the sea.
"The barangay council will meet to craft the campaign. On October 6, we will announce the new rules at our village's general assembly," he told Rappler in Filipino.
San Agapito Barangay Captain Edmar Rieta hopes to implement a ban on plastic in his village
Much of the garbage in fact comes from outside the island. Recent flooding in Calapan, a city in Mindoro, led to more filth in Isla Verde's beaches. Detritus that ends up in the island and nearby marine sanctuaries are traced to places as far away as Manila Bay.
To turn the tide against these pollutants, Rieta organizes regular coastal and underwater cleanups.
Jaime Aquinde, a member of UP Marine Biological Society who visited Isla Verde for a coastal cleanup event in 2010, said that while there have been improvements in garbage disposal regulations, much more needs to be done.
"The leaders are aware of the threats of having no proper garbage disposal and they have already implemented some rules to address it. They now have a Materials Recycling Facility. However, they still do not have an island-wide system for collecting and properly disposing of trash. That's one of the problems we can monitor," he said.
Students, teachers and village leaders craft a solid management program together in hopes of protecting their natural resources
A new initiative by the island's local governments seeks to strengthen the island's ability to protect their part of the Verde Island Passage. With the help of Conservation International, Rieta's barangay will receive more funding for their bantay-dagat or sea guards who are residents of the island.
Markers have been installed to delineate the marine sanctuary from areas where fishing is allowed. There are already talks about a campaign to increase awareness about Verde Island Passage to be led by a famous young actor who is set to visit the island next month.
Residents of Barangay San Agapito write their pledges to protect their part of the Verde Island Passage from pollution
The promises made by the people of Isla Verde have a global impact. They need all the help they can get to protect a marine ecosystem that matters so much to the rest of the world. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.