This is a speech I have waited 13 years to give, since I first visited the Bugtongbato mangroves. Make that 14 years, if we go back to 1996 when my then SEAFDEC assistant Junemie, now Dr. Lebata-Ramos, excitedly reported a beautiful mangrove patch she had seen in Ibajay. I thought she was exaggerating until another colleague confirmed her story. When I came with a SEAFDEC group in 1997, it was love at first sight! Never mind the mangroves I have visited all over the Philippines and SE Asia, Japan, Brazil, Ecuador, Africa and even Florida in the USA – the captivating BugtongBato-Naisud mangroves will always be my favorite.
So I was shocked to find during that visit that many trees were girdled – that is, the bark was scraped, and I asked the Barangay (Village) Head Why? He replied – to kill them by setting on fire (dag-oban kag patyon), following the advice of a government environment official that in order to make a livelihood from the mangroves, he should plant bakhaw. As the forest is dominated by Avicennia, locally knows as apiapi or bungalon, he concluded that he would need to kill these first. So I pleaded – please save the trees because I will need them for my research – which was not really true at the time. But return to Iloilo I did, to obtain research funds for Mangrove-Friendly Aquaculture.
In the course of my field work until early 2000, I invited Filipino scientists, among them Dr. Rex Sadaba of the UP Visayas and Dr. Josette Biyo of the Philippine Science High School, who in turn brought their own students, and also foreign scientists from Japan, Sweden, UK, etc. One particular day I remember walking in the Ibajay market with an Australian mangrove expert in tow, when a vendor asked me pointblank: Is he your husband? She thought I was a native Akeanon who had brought my Caucasian spouse to the famous beaches of Boracay. She could not appreciate that there was/is something in Ibajay far more beautiful and precious than Boracay.
Since then, my experiences suggest that these mangroves are not only enchanting but also enchanted, protected. Please do not laugh if I tell this story of the first time Junemie and I visited the centuries-old trees some 800 meters and 10 minutes by footwalk from here. At the time, it took more than an hour through the slippery jungle to finally locate the Avicennia rumphiana stand. When we had our fill of admiring the magnificent trees, we started the return trip as the sun was going down. To our dismay, our local guide confessed that he had never seen that part of the forest so we kept going around in circles. After what seemed an eternity, we finally found the road. My own interpretation is that the spirits of the forest were testing us, and finally saw our good intentions. Earlier in the 1980s, People Power of a handful of local folks and officials prevented chainsaws from turning the forest into fishponds.
So I say to those who visit these mangroves – be pure in heart, respect the plants, do not cut their branches nor throw garbage. Unfortunately, this was not the case during my past visits, for each time I would notice a cuttabigi here or a burned piag-ao there. These are just 2 of the 27 species of true mangroves in this EcoPark, as documented in the Handbook of Philippine Mangroves (co-authored with Rex, Junemie and Jon Altamirano). You will see their scientific and local names on the nameplates hanging from the trees and also in the poster inside the Information Center. By the way, there are other posters that describe the importance of mangroves, their uses, and so on, so I will not go into that.
More recently, we simplified the 106-page book to a shorter, laminated Mangrove Field Guide which is cheaper and easier to carry. My fondest hope is to see Filipinos, both adults and children (including my 2 apos surnamed Tirol who happen to be Akeanons) going to the forest and appreciating it. Toward this end, my Pew grant has funded the writing and publication of Mangrove Modules for elementary schools. Last November, we distributed some 2,000 copies of these Modules with the accompanying Teacher`s Manual to 80 schools throughout Panay.
May I end by saying that this Park is only one livelihood option for our partner POs – the Bugtongbato Fishers Association and the Naisud Marine and Aquatic Organization. There is also food processing in collaboration with the Aklan State University, and hopefully more research studies from UPV and even foreign universities. In the early 2000s, SEAFDEC made it possible for me to do research in these mangroves. In 2005, the Pew grant provided PhP100,000 for the first part of the footwalk, but it was a solo flight project for me. In 2008 came the ZSL grant which not only provides funds from London, but also the best human resources available -- my staff of 9 from ZSL and Pew. Without all of them, we will not be here today.
Finally, on behalf of ZSL and also SEAFDEC Aquaculture Department (where I am Scientist Emerita), our deepest thanks go to our PO partners and LGU officials – Mayor Lulu (Ma. Lourdes Miraflores), Vice Mayor Sta. Maria, SB Solidum, Cap. Inguillo and Cap. Gregorio, and their support staff.
Good day and enjoy the mangroves!
SEAFDEC Aquaculture Department