KALIBO, Aklan -- For over three decades, the mangrove forest has long been an inseparable part of the lives of people in villages in central Philippines. They have been taking care of the vast forest for generations.
Women from four villages --Barangay Old Buswang, the Kalibo Mangrove in the province of Aklan-- developed a tight bond with the forest as it became a place for sharing food, culture, interactions and hopes. For years, women have been fierce protectors by putting their lives at risk by taking head-on the challenges in the growth of the mangrove forest.
“Women are an integral part of the mangrove forest. Their commitment and care for the forest could not be underestimated,” said Liza Cesar, a member of the board of directors of the Kalibo Save the Mangrove (Kasama), adding that the lives of women surrounding the mangroves in Kalibo are closely associated with the forest.
The Kasama is an organization of mangrove planters and stakeholders in the eco-park, many of whom are women.
Women in the sprawling forest covering the four villages are taking care of their children as their husbands work as fishermen. Some women were also involved in policing the mangroves.
Cesar said during the Covid-19 pandemic, several women can be found looking for food to be given to their families from whatever they found in the mangrove. Among these were fish, crabs, among other types of seafood.
“Fortunately, as villages already knew the importance of the forests we do not receive reports of anybody illegally cutting mangrove trees. Cutting of trees is strictly being regulated by the environment department,” she added.
Rolinda Icawalo, 42, said she only started working three years ago as a contractual worker and did not know much about mangroves. She was hired by the Provincial Government to work in Kasama as part of the province’s commitment to helping in the conservation of the mangrove.
Icawalo, a member of the so-called Bakhawan Police, said maintaining the forest gives food to the community, protects them from storm surges and provides their livelihood through tourism and planting of mangroves.
“When I started working here, I have been taught by experience what it is to protect the mangrove forest. My job descriptions tell me to assist the mangroves, so I joined a series of mangrove planting activities spearheaded by various civic organizations. I also started explaining to guests the beauty of the forests. In the forests, one can breathe fresh air, exercise by walking, hear and feel the colors and sounds of nature,” she said.
Elizabeth Ramos, one of the original planters of Kasama and one of the elder guardians of the forest, said a few years ago, she was one of those who ran against trespassers who illegally cut trees inside the mangrove.
During those times, an influential personality tried to do illegal fishing inside the forests with his group of men. The personality, however, died of natural death and the issue has gone down, she added.
There were also times that some outsiders allowed their cows inside the forests, which damages young trees. The women working in the Kasama reported these incidents to the barangay justice system and cow owners have been reprimanded.
Anita Reyes, head of tourism promotion of Kasama, said because of women’s nurturing way of taking care of the mangroves, villagers are free to go inside the forest and look for their food.
“This is the vision of the Kasama, to provide food for the community, so we need to protect the 250 hectares of mangrove forest to also feed the younger generation,” she said.
Rhea Rose Meren, head of the tourism office of the municipality of Kalibo, said has not the Covid-19 pandemic happened, they were planning to enter a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with Kasama.
“The MOA between the local government and the Kasama envisions to be emphasized in development, capacity-building and promotion of what is now a Kalibo eco-tourism park,” said Meren.
One of the reasons why the MOA has been stalled is because the Kalibo local government unit is currently in the process of creating an environment office. The plan of having a Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office was created two years ago but was stalled due to the pandemic.
Tourism is one of the by-products of the forest. The Kasama keeps the revenues from tourists coming in to wander the mangrove mainly for relaxation and a view of the sprawling forest.
Another way of revenue of the Kasama is that it sells mangrove seedlings to interested civic groups and plants them inside the forests for sustainability. The Kasama also lobbies from different government organizations.
Among those who were tapped was the Population Commission, where women were given training on population management. Some women were also trained in various livelihood skills.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the management of the sprawling forest. From 15 regular staff of Kasama protecting the mangrove, only seven women actively work as mangrove warriors.
Jay Ann Dalmacio, 35, a Kasama tourist guide, said aside from mangroves, some bird photographers coming from different places come to the Bakhawan to take photos.
“The Bakhawan has lured not only tourists to enjoy but also birds who also just pass by to search for food. I think when the Covid-19 pandemic is over, the eco-park could also be promoted as a potential bird watching destination,” Dalmacio said.
While the mangrove exponentially grows in numbers, it is facing more and more problems each day. Among these are the effects of climate change, especially sea-level rise.
In the 1990s, then-Department of Environment and Natural Resources secretary lawyer Fulgencio Factoran approved the request of Mayor Quimpo and provided a budget of US$22,500 for the planting of Kalibo mangrove. The local government then tapped the adjacent four villages of Bakhaw Sur, Bakhaw Norte, Old Buswang and New Buswang for the mangrove plantation.
Quimpo had endorsed the area near the Sooc River in Barangay New Buswang as the main site for the reforestation project. This is because of the broad expanse of mudflats in the vicinity. The planting was done in the first quarter of 1990.
The plantation area initially covers 50 hectares to be planted with thousands of different mangroves species. Records indicated that there were a total of 210 planters of the mangroves, 109 male and 101 female. (SunStar Philippines)