Who's In Charge Here?
An emerging spirit of cooperation raises hopes for the resolution of legal and jurisdictional issues that get in the way of sustainable development of coastal areas
By Ruth Mercado
Not so long ago, bird hunting in Olango Island was a seasonal sport. Hunters were drawn to this tiny island some six miles off the east coast of Mactan Island in Cebu by migratory birds -- thousands of them -- stopping over on their flight from the harsh Siberian winter on their way to Australia, or resting their wings on their return journey in the spring. They preyed on egrets, sandpipers, plovers and the 45 or so other migratory bird species that have been spotted on the island.
Thankfully, the hunters' heyday is over. Since 1992, when the government declared Olango a protected area by virtue of Proclamation 903, hunting in the area has virtually stopped. Now hunters of another kind come to the island to 'shoot' the birds: camera-toting tourists, amateur and professional nature photographers, and TV and film production crews cough up as much as P3,000 per day in fees for the chance to shoot Chinese Egrets feeding on the mudflats and waterways in an extensive tidal flat southeast of the village of Santa Rosa.
For all the success of the bird sanctuary, however, Olango Island still struggles with some basic questions related to the development and protection of its natural resources. The island is surrounded by a reef, which stretches to 10 km in a south-westerly direction. This reef has been a major source of livelihood for the fishers of Olango and nearby islands, who harvest it for food and aquarium fish; much of the reef, however, has been decimated by dynamite and cyanide fishing. The island's mangrove area, which provides shelter and food for Olango's birds, is also threatened. Illegal cutting of trees is said to be common in the mangrove, especially in a 100-hectare area that has been declared a multiple use zone.
Who -- or what -- is supposed to regulate, manage or simply define and direct resource development (and protection) seems to be the root of Olango's problems. Olango has seen a number of institutional initiatives come and go, varied and steady as the migratory birds that sojourn on the island. Often, several groups would operate on the island at the same time. Most would be well-meaning, but their divergent goals and overlapping functions would many a time lead to animosities and 'turf wars' -- and no lasting effects on the people who should have benefited from their programs. Olango residents say they have seen it all. They've been hopeful, then confused, and then restless, frustrated and angry, and now they’re merely apathetic. A few of them who still care ask, "Who's in charge here?"
State of confusion
Or, sometimes, the law is simply not airtight and can be misinterpreted easily. Take this specific case in Malalag, a coastal town in Digos, Davao del Sur: The Malalag municipal council passed an ordinance banning lampurnas, a fishing gear destructive to coral reefs. Other municipalities in Digos, however, tolerate the use of lampurnas. Fish operators are therefore able to skirt the law by securing lampurnas permits from neighboring municipalities. Armed with such permits, they fish in the very waters where the gear is prohibited. Recently, the Bantay Dagat (citizens’ sea-watch group) of Malalag arrested lampurnas operators fishing in Malalag Bay. When the charges were filed in court, however, the judge ruled in favor of the illegal operators, saying the municipal ordinance passed by the municipal council lacked 'imprimatur,' as it was not sanctioned by the Secretary of Agriculture (in truth, such sanction is not now necessary under the Local Government Code of 1991 (LGC). Worse, the Bantay Dagat members involved in the apprehension of the lampurnas operators were brought before the Office of the Ombudsman for "illegal arrest." The Office of the Ombudsman dismissed the case and upheld the ordinance, and the case against the lampurnas operators has been raised to the Supreme Court. But the incident has done its damage. According Melchor Maceda, learning area coordinator for Davao del Sur of The Coastal Resource Management Project (CRMP), as a result of the incident, "the fisherfolk of Malalag have become pessimistic about their capability to solve illegal fishing problems." The fishers’ newfound confidence in themselves, built up through persistent efforts by community organizers, has been shaken, he adds. "Some people are no longer receptive to the idea that they can help solve the illegal fishing problem."
The law falls short
In many ways, the LGC has cleared up some jurisdictional issues. The LGC devolves to local government units much of the authority and responsibility over marine resources that used to be the purview of the national government. The LGC states, for instance, that the municipality or city may institute ordinances banning the use of certain fishing gears without approval from the national agencies. The Legal and Jurisdictional Guidebook for Coastal Resource Management, which was produced as a joint project of the DENR, the DA, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), and other concerned groups from different sectors, says, "Section 149 [of the LGC] reinforces this [authority] by identifying the appropriate entity, the Sangguniang Bayan (SB) and specifying its powers and the mechanism to enforce such powers through ordinances: '...the SB shall, by appropriate ordinance, penalize the use of explosives, noxious or poisonous substances, electricity, muro-ami, and other deleterious methods of fishing and prescribe a criminal penalty in accordance with provisions of this code; the SB shall have the authority to prosecute any violation of applicable fishery laws.'"
But, more than the devolution of functions to the local government units, what is needed according to experts is a single legislation explicitly covering fisheries and coastal and marine resource management. Indeed, in some ways, the LGC may actually muddle jurisdictional issues even more, at least for the time that it takes local government units to find their way through the maze of laws over which they now have partial or full responsibility. For years, concerned groups have been pushing for the passage of a fisheries code which they say would rationalize the management and development of the country’s fishery resources. Such a code has only recently been enacted, and its implementing rules and regulations are still being drawn up.
Setting matters to right
To ensure that the Council has the wherewithal to do its job, the local government of Bantayan passed an ordinance providing for the allocation of P100,000 annually for the upkeep of BIMPS. Council officers have been trained in bookkeeping and budget management and are expected to submit to the mayor periodic reports on the park’s overall management and financial status. This way, functions are made clear and local institutions are strengthened.
In Malalag, towns along the coast of Malalag Bay are working together to unify their ordinances. With a unified ordinance, recurrences of incidents such as the lampurnas case would be minimized.
As for Olango, the small island still gets more than its fair share of attention. At least five different institutions have ongoing projects on the island. There is an NGO that handles research and education, another NGO that handles self-help cooperatives, a government agency safeguarding the flora and fauna habitats of the island, a university that organizes a fishers’ group, and a project that promotes sustainable coastal area development leadership -- all want a say on how to shape the economic and environmental contours of Olango Island.
But, even here, there is a difference: While relationships are still far from truly collaborative, there is now a palpable willingness to at least explore avenues for cooperation. Filipinas Sotto, a marine biologist at the University of San Carlos in Cebu, describes the turning point: "For over a decade, we have had tremendous funding and tremendous campaigns on coral reef protection, but our coral reefs continued to be threatened. Today, 10% of the world's reefs are seriously degraded, all because the fisherfolk, the very people who would sustain the preservation of these reefs, were never involved."
Today, says Sotto, coastal resource management revolve around one philosophy: "Man is the key." Without man, without the community’s involvement, no amount of money will save our seas and coastal environment.
Everyone recognizes what it will take to set matters to right. Says Litly Morales, whose organization, Save Nature Society, has long been involved in community organizing efforts on Olango, "An 'Olango Commission' is being organized so that Olango’s concerns can be addressed, from the protection of the bird sanctuary to garbage management to instilling discipline among residents and visitors alike." Already, preliminary discussions among concerned groups have helped to clarify institutional roles in the development and protection of Olango Island.
Given these promising developments, some people now say that perhaps all that is needed to rationalize resource use and improve law enforcement in coastal areas is an integrated approach born out of cooperation among all parties concerned -- from the national government, to the legislature, to the local government, to non-governmental organizations, to fishers’ associations, all the way down to the individual fisher. One cannot help but wish for the ideal, of course: clear laws, clear policies, clear regulations, clear jurisdictions; in short, an environment where no one will ever need to ask, "Who’s in charge here?"
Related story: Work on fishery ordinance fast-tracked.
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