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Metro Manila's last mangroves under threat

By Dennis P. Liuag


Metro Manila could lose the remaining wetlands and last refuge for endemic Philippine Ducks along its southern coastline if the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) pushes through with extensive reclamation and real estate development plans in that part of Manila Bay.

The 635-hectare Three Island Reclamation and Development project site is situated beside the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHE A), a protected area of ponds, lagoons and mangroves, setting off a storm of protest from environmentalists and birdwatchers as well as local officials hoping to tap the ecotourism potential of the site.

The site is an important feeding and rest area for endangered species like the Chinese Egret that migrate south to escape the harsh winters in China, Japan and Siberia, thus its interest to conservationists. At the same time, the mangroves ecosystem are a natural barrier to storm surge, provide spawning grounds for marine life and filter pollutants from the water.

“The reclamation will cut off circulation of sea water into the lagoons and eventually destroy the mangroves and lagoons which are a migratory bird haven and nursery for marine life,” explained urban planning expert Anna Maria M. Gonzales.

“In the past years, the lush open spaces of these coastal wetlands have provided residents and commuters with a delightful break from the incessant assault of concrete, glass and steel that has become poor substitutes for an authentically uplifting bayside view,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales, who has worked closely with conservation groups in promoting the 175-hectare protected habitat, lamented that “counterparts around Asia take care to preserve natural habitats yet the PRA conveniently ignores public interest and basic science while agreeing to haphazard development leading to destruction of environmentally critical sites.”

Furthermore, the PRA plan threatens to erode the already precarious situation of fisher folk and shellfish gatherers who depend on the conservation of mangroves and mudf lats for livelihood and subsistence in eight coastal barangays of Las Piñas and Parañaque, Gonzales said.

Because of the diversity of bird species it offers, the Las Piñas- Parañaque Critical Habitat and Eco-tourism Area is one of several bird sites named by the Department of Tourism in Birdwatching in the Philippines, the two-volume illustrated series promoted during the 2009 World Travel Mart in London, and both the British Bird Fair and Taipei International Birdwatching Fair held last year.

Manuel S. Sabater, a community environment and natural resources officer assigned to the National Capital Region office of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources, prepared a Vulnerability Assessment Report in 2010 that sparked concerns about threats to the habitat.

According to Sabater, the coastal barrier islands in the LPPCHE A known as Freedom and Long islands are significant parts of an ecosystem. The report noted that development along the lines of the PRA’s plan will greatly impede circulation of saltwater while a proposed channel to extend the mouth of Parañaque River westward will cut across the bird roosts and breeding areas in the northern section of Freedom Island. Beach front development on this island will allow land access to more predators and the resulting storm surge area in the present lagoon is expected to adversely affect habitat functions.

A recently discovered aerial photograph of the site dated 1982 showed the existence of “Third” barrier island, which has since disappeared as a result of wave erosion, sea level rise and quarrying for reclamation material. Critics of the reclamation project point out that the PRA seeks to create real estate in the same site where its earlier activities contributed to the loss of this island.

Environmentalists expect an increase in sea levels and extreme weather events as a result of rapid climate change over the next decades. “Research by the Tyndale Center in the United Kingdom suggests we need a 10 percent increase in green space in our cities to combat climate change,” Gonzales said. “There also are concerns over increasing urban heat island effect resulting from new urban sprawl.”

Reclamation, which usually takes years, will also impact on the economic situation of the entrepreneurial poor who depend on conservation of the wetlands for their livelihood in eight shoreline communities of Las Piñas and Parañaque.

“One-sided hard engineering projects like the one pursued by the PRA seems out of place in a planet threatened by sea level rise and extreme weather conditions due to climate change,” according to entrepreneur and Wild Bird Club of the Philippines founder Michael Lu. “It is not worth the socio-economic risk over the long term.”

“SMEs and the entrepreneurial poor were among those gravely affected by the massive floods that inundated Metro Manila in recent years. So, the SME sector and coastal residents can easily appreciate the need for the protection of these wetlands,” Lu said. His company recently requested their suppliers to switch from Styrofoam packaging to vacuum molded recycled board.

Win-Win Solution
The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines and other conservation groups hope to replicate environmental success stories like the Mai Po Reserve and Hong Kong Wetland Park in Hong Kong, Guandu Nature Park in Taiwan and Thailand’s Bang Poo in that embattled section of Manila Bay.

Whilst opposed to fur ther reclamation and heavy construction in and adjacent to the mangroves and lagoons, Gonzales says “the bird watchers and conservationists have a ready alternative.” Gonzales and her fellow advocates are putting forward their own proposal for protecting and expanding the sanctuary.

Conservat ionists plan to establish a nature trail through the beach forest, walkways in the mangroves, as well as bird observation hides and towers. The main feature in the built up area will be a modest natural history center and laboratories. Amenities will include a hostel for overnight visitors, dining areas, washrooms and a parking lot. Meanwhile, sections of the lagoons will also be set aside for local subsistence fisheries and gathering.

Lu is optimistic that they can get the public opinion on their side. Already, over a dozen volunteers, including children, responded to the call for support and have been spending the past weekends at the LPPCHE A cleaning Freedom Island beach.

Former Rep. Cynthia Villar of Las Piñas City has expressed opposition to the reclamation project, which she fears will only worsen the flood problem in Metro Manila. In a recent visit to the site, Villar said her organization plans to tap the litter-strewn Freedom Island beach as a resource for Las Piñas recycling projects. Villar said there is a demand for inorganic litter like the Styrofoam, plastic bags and cast-off sandals that litter the beach. Ground into pellets and chips, the plastic and Styrofoam is used in the production of hollow blocks for use in light construction.

“The nature sanctuary is a win-win situation. This will be a sanctuary for birds and marine life, a center for science education and environmental research, a local source of livelihood and certainly a recreational haven where city dwellers can escape the stress of urban life,” Lu said.

Civil engineer and outdoor enthusiast Jun Osano has spent the past Sunday afternoons with his 11-year old daughter Yana, picking up plastic wrappers and Styrofoam from Freedom Island beach. “Our children deserve to grow up in a city with green public spaces,” he said.

“Malls are great places,” Osano added. “But our kids also deserve alternatives to concrete and steel, like the opportunity to be immersed in nature and appreciate our diversity of life on our planet.”

The Coastal Lagoons are open to the public. To reach the site, take the Manila Coastal Road and turn right at the service road just before the toll plaza. Visitors must show ID and register themselves at the gate before being allowed access. For guided visits, please contact the author or the WBCP at: