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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
December, 1998 Vol. 1 No. 12

The Year We
with the Ocean








n 1998, ten thousand Filipinos age 3 years old to 73 years old pledged "to live in harmony with the ocean, tens of thousands headed for the coast for a dayís cleanup of beaches and shorelines, and more than a million others participated in public awareness campaigns in an unprecedented and dramatic show of support for ocean conservation. The media, government, cause-oriented groups, business, and the public at large all celebrated the wonders of the ocean, even as they fretted about how fast these treasures were being depleted.

Okay, so we had reason to do all that; 1998, after all, was the Year of the Ocean. The media played up the ocean theme in more occasions than anyone can remember, and there was enough drumbeating to ensure that we all heard the message loud and clear. And we responded. Indeed, how could we not?

In 1998, we watched amused and awestruck as the dolphins and whales of Tañon Strait displayed their playful, friendly nature before TV cameras. We felt wretched seeing how cruel humans can be as hunters preyed on the gentle and hapless whale sharks of Bohol and Bicol. We marveled at the beauty and color of life in our coral reefs. We were dismayed when we heard about how fast and how extensively these precious marine habitats have become degraded. We applauded the efforts of coastal communities in reversing the wave of destruction sweeping our ocean, and then worried that these efforts may be too little, too late, too few and far between. We sorely felt our loss ... come to think of it, yes, where have all the sea turtles and the dugongs gone?

A window of opportunity

The outpouring of support for the oceanís cause in the past 12 months did not happen by accident. It was, in fact, the offshoot of an international public awareness campaign that began a few years back, in 1994, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted a proposal to declare 1998 as the International Year of the Ocean to create "a window of opportunity" for governments and the greater community to focus on the problems that beset the marine environment and find solutions to these problems.

In the Philippines, the UNESCO National Committee on Marine Sciences (NCMS) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), through its Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP) and Coastal Environment Program (CEP), took on the challenge of giving flesh to the Year of the Ocean mission. In particular, CRMP, a Cebu-based technical assistance project funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), put together a year-long public awareness, advocacy and education campaign with one primary goal: to bring ocean and coastal resource management issues into the "mainstream" of public consciousness.

CRMPís campaign was packaged along the celebration of the 1898 Philippine Declaration of Independence as well as the Year of the Ocean theme. It thus focused not only on ocean issues in general but also on the fact the Philippines, being an archipelagic country, has a rich maritime heritage and a greater reason to celebrate and protect the ocean. In a year that saw many headline-grabbing events unfold, the campaign fought for attention by appealing to the Filipinoís innate affinity for the sea. "Our Seas, Our Life" became both a slogan and the name of an exhibit that brought CRMPís message about the ocean to five major urban centers around the country, touching about a million people in a very direct way and moving thousands to action. "I Love the Ocean" was a bumper sticker message that became the name of a fast-growing environmental movement, that became a catchphrase even schoolchildren (especially schoolchildren!) could recognize.

A rediscovery

Indeed, the publicís tremendous response to the campaignís call to action was the biggest success -- and surprise -- of the year. It was not entirely planned, says CRMPís Information, Education and Communication (IEC) Coordinator Rebecca Pestaño-Smith. In Cebu, about 350,000 people visited the "Our Seas, Our Life" Exhibit at SM City Cebu, and more than 2,000 of them signed up for membership in the "I Love the Ocean" Movement. In Metro Manila, at the SM Megamall, some 650,000 people trooped to the exhibit, and more than 4,000 of them signed up with the Movement, many of them wanting -- sometimes demanding -- to have the chance to become actively involved in the ocean conservation effort and, as one of the yearís slogans puts it, "make a difference."

"I must admit such huge response caught us flat-footed," says Smith. Though "I Love the Ocean" is meant to be a self-propelling citizenís movement that emphasizes individual responsibility for keeping the ocean clean, healthy and sustainable, "we realize that it is up to the Project to give the Movement a leg up by setting up a mechanism that would allow its members to work together." With some help from cause-oriented organizations, such mechanism is now in place, at least in those places where the Movement has been officially "launched" -- Cebu, Metro Manila, Negros Oriental, Davao City, Sarangani and Puerto Princesa City.

"Our message of appeal must have struck the right chord," Smith observes. Clearly, the problems of our coastal communities -- marine pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing, etc. -- are not so remote, alien or invisible to the malling crowd. Contrary to our worst fears, the Filipino has not lost his connection with the sea; he simply needed to rediscover it.

Local action

For all its "international" label, the Year of the Ocean was very much a local concern for each of those places that observed it. Up in the national capital region, it was all about Manila Bay, garbage, and marine pollution. Down south in Cebu, it was about blasted reefs, poverty among fishing families, and Mactan Islandís resort "overdevelopment." In Negros Oriental, it was about Tañon Straitís dolphins and whales, marine sanctuaries, and perhaps even the controversial, ongoing expansion of the Port of Dumaguete City. Further south in Davao City, it may have been about Davao Gulf, and in General Santos City, about Sarangani Bay.

With the Year of the Ocean events as springboard, ocean conservation programs and coastal resource management projects are taking shape in these places -- with a decidedly local bias. During the two-week staging of the "Our Seas, Our Life" Exhibit in Negros Oriental, for example, an "Ocean Manifesto" was signed by the governors of the two Negros provinces and representatives of different sectoral groups, who vowed to actively pursue and support coastal resource management on the entire Negros Island.

In Cebu, a core group of "I Love the Ocean" members has initiated activities, including kayaking clinics, "coastal treks" and bird-watching tours at Olango Island, that served both educational and fundraising purposes. In Metro Manila, preparations are underway for the holding of a General Assembly that will pass a vision and mission statement and an action plan that will determine the directions of the Metro Manila-based Movement for 1999.

The national agenda

Local or international, the Year of the Ocean also played to a national audience, just as CRMP has planned it. The idea was to take advantage of the "window of opportunity" created by the yearís events to bring to national attention not only the threats and problems facing our coastal environment and communities but also the successes that have been achieved in coastal resource management.

"National action" is a crucial component of the Projectís IEC program, which is rooted in what is known as the "transformational communication framework." It means creating a "critical mass" -- 10%-30% of the population -- and a policy and social environment that engenders sustained and consistent changes in social norms and environmental behavior, and thus triggers large-scale and far-reaching social transformation. Simply put, it means getting enough people to support and actively work for the oceanís cause, so that being ocean-friendly becomes a social norm, and causing harm to the ocean becomes a reason for public rebuke or censure.

In 1998, CRMP had ample opportunity to bring its message to a national audience, thanks to the interest generated in the national media by the Year of the Ocean campaign. This created a ripple effect that continues to this day, extending the campaignís reach at least tenfold, touching the fisherfolk in the remote barangays, the students, office workers and housewives, and the topmost ranks of government.

We cannot as yet be certain that any of these has truly created an impact that will result in the normative transformation we seek. But this much we do know: we stand at the end of 1998 looking into many more open windows of opportunity for cooperation than we dared to imagine when we first set out on this yearís journey. The Year of the Ocean has allowed many of us to re-establish our connection with the ocean. This year, we found out that we shared not only an affinity for the sea, but also the singular task of protecting the ocean, of which we are very much a part and therefore must be responsible for, both locally and globally.

The task is unarguably daunting, but do it we must. Our future depends on it. -- Asuncion Sia, IEC-CRMP


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