Written by staff reporter Friday, 07 November 2008 00:00
Politicians are a great deal better at talking about environmental solutions than implementing them.All too often, the moment they confront the commercial interests involved, it comes to nothing. Campaigns can be effective in persuading governments to act, as this summer’s decision to finally protect a part of Lyme Bay from the ravages of scallop dredgers has shown. But a trip to the island of Palawan in the Philippines really showed me just how effective a politician with vision and determination can be.
Filipino politics can be pretty murky, and the natural beauty of the Philippines, both above and below the water, has suffered from overexploitation down the years. However, Palawan, known as the Philippines’ last frontier, still had much of its rainforest intact, its fishing grounds were still healthy and its mineral resources largely unexploited. But with mining companies staking claims to vast tracts of the island, and logging companies eyeing up the virgin forest, it was poised to go the same way as so many other areas in the developing world.
Mining pollutes rivers, which carry that pollution across the land and onto the surrounding reefs. Extensive logging causes massive erosion, and the monsoon rains, so long the farmer’s friend, become a force for destruction. Rivers are filled with sediment, which in turn choke the coastal reefs. Slash-and-burn farming, with its inevitably short-term returns, is equally destructive. Soon, the rains start washing away villages, the catches of local fishermen dwindle and the tourists stop coming.
Mayor Edward Hagedorn, who controls the city of Puerto Princesa in central Palawan, decided that the area and its forests and coastlines would not suffer this fate. His response was to forbid the granting of mining licences, stop the slash-and-burn cycle and end all logging. Up against enormously wealthy and powerful interests, he was soon taken to court by the logging companies, accused of depriving people of an income. His argument was elegantly simple. The Philippines had 20 million hectares of forest, and 19 million have now been cut down – yet the country is still poor. Will the destruction of the last million hectares make it rich? In truth, he argued, all it will do is deprive its children of their birthright. The case against him was thrown out.
Hagedorn then turned his attention to the coral reefs, which suffered from both dynamite and cyanide fishing. With new laws put in place and proper enforcement, and a local population now firmly behind him, he soon made this a thing of the past. Collecting fish for the European aquarium trade is a common practice in the Philippines, but as the colourful species are stripped from the reefs, the whole ecosystem, with its complicated web of interdependence, soon begins to fail.
When Hagedorn banned it in Puerto Princesa, the collectors simply moved to other reefs in the north of the island. But since Puerto Princesa has the only airport, he simply halted the trans-shipment of live fish to end the trade.
Then Hagedorn started on the mangroves, which act as a giant filter to keep the coastal waters clean and are the nursery for numerous species of fish. Not content with just giving them protection, he also galvanised the population into starting replanting schemes. Puerto Princesa is now probably the only place in the world where mangrove areas are actually increasing.
Instead of giving in to big business, Mayor Hagedorn has proved that it is possible to put the environment first for the enrichment of all citizens. The population of Puerto Princesa now takes a fierce pride in its forests and seas, the fishing is so good there that it has become the country’s biggest fish supplier to Manila, eco- and dive tourism is taking off, and – British politicians take note – Hagedorn is voted back in with a landslide victory at every election.
In Britain, we’ve been promised a Marine Bill for years, yet it is still possible that the interests of big business, developers and commercial fishermen might impede the creation of protected marine reserves that are desperately needed if our biodiversity is to be maintained. If one man with no money behind him can take on the power and wealth of the corporations, then surely our politicians can do more than mouth meaningless platitudes. Our seas need protection. If the government can live up to its promises, we will all benefit, whether we are fishermen, divers or just want our children to be able to eat fish and chips.
Support the call for highly protected marine reserves at www.marinereservesnow.org.uk and talk to your local MP.