TO SAY that the Philippines is one of the biodiversity hotspots in the world is an understatement. We know some of the famous species of plants and animals that can only be found in our country. Many of us have seen some of the ecosystems that add to the natural beauty of our nation. Unfortunately, we are too familiar with the decline of biodiversity in our lands and waters due to numerous threats.

One of the most important areas that exemplifies all of these is the Verde Island Passage (VIP), known as the "Center of the Center of Marine Biodiversity."

'The Amazon of the Oceans'

Covering an area of 1.14 million hectares, the VIP is a strait that is surrounded by Batangas, Marinduque, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, and Romblon. It is home to 60 percent of all known shorefish species in the world. Its waters are home to over 300 coral species, 1,700 fish species, and thousands of other marine organisms such as whale sharks and sea slugs.

Scientists state that the rich biodiversity in VIP is partly a result of the Philippines' geographical position, being at the overlap of the Indian and Pacific Ocean and covering a long latitudinal distance that includes many marine species. In its geological history, sea surface temperatures were relatively stable and ocean currents were strong, allowing unique oceanic life to thrive.

The VIP is regarded as the center of biodiversity in the Coral Triangle, one of the eight major coral reef zones globally. This strait also offers many popular diving spots that allows visitors to see underwater creatures, coral reef formations, rock canyons, and other sights that only enhances their appreciation of marine life.

Nearby communities also benefit from the goods and services made possible by the coastal and marine habitats within the region, effectively providing support for over seven million people. Its coral reefs provide breeding grounds for fish species that form the backbone of livelihoods of 31 coastal municipalities and two nearby cities. Ecotourism is also a significant part of the local economy through activities such as diving, especially in Batangas.

The VIP's ecosystems and biodiversity also serve as natural barriers reducing risks from potential storm surges and sea level rise. In the era of the climate emergency, the ability of mangroves, wetlands, seagrasses, and others to store carbon dioxide is critical for slowing down warming and avoiding more catastrophic impacts, especially in vulnerable communities.

Threats, old and new

Despite its ecological importance, the VIP is no stranger to the same man-made threats that other key biodiversity areas in the Philippines are facing. These threats include agrochemical pollution of its waters, waste from residential areas, careless tourism practices, destructive industrial activities, and harmful fishing practices, and coral bleaching worsened by climate change.

The discharge of waste into its waters is a serious concern. As a busy passage for ships going to the ports of Batangas, Manila, and Subic Bay, commercial vessels release various pollutants into the waters, exposing communities and ecosystems to harmful substances. Corals in the area could also be damaged by large ships anchoring during stormy weather. Domestic wastewater and urban waste may also be disposed into the ocean without any proper intervention.

In this regard, local authorities have to devise mechanisms to regulate and monitor such discharge of waste into the VIP. Among priority actions must include educating coastal neighborhoods, shipping lines, nearby industries, and agricultural communities upstream about the urgency and importance of conservation within this region and the actions they may take to avoid harming it.

With all of these issues, there is yet another emerging threat in the area to which local stakeholders must pay attention: the expansion of the natural gas industry.

Proposals have emerged for building eight new gas power plants and seven new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals close to the VIP. These are aimed for addressing the Philippines's energy security issues, with its supporters claiming that natural gas is an ideal "bridging fuel" between coal and renewable energy.

However, natural gas is also a fossil fuel along with coal and oil, the burning of which is already recognized by scientists worldwide as the primary cause of global warming and climate change, which in turn impacts the VIP itself. Our country would likely have to import natural gas like it does for coal, which could lead to even higher electricity prices.

Furthermore, building the pipelines and other infrastructures necessary to make such facilities operational directly threaten the biodiversity, which poses risks to the economic, environmental, and social well-being of residents. This potentially poses even more danger to many already-threatened species such as sea turtles, groupers, humphead wrasses, and giant clams.

The VIP is not just another biodiversity hotspot that gives tourists Instagram-worthy photos and good memories. It is important to the lives of millions of Filipinos and countless creatures in its waters. Its well-being is also relevant to issues of energy security, climate action, and local economic development.

As everything in nature is interconnected, the decline of this region could lead to harmful effects years from now without us even knowing. Why risk it? Why wait? Isn't prevention better than cure?

The time is way overdue for our generation to learn from mistakes of the past. We must protect this very important paradise. We must protect the VIP ... Verde Island Passage.


John Leo is the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si' Philippines and a member of the Protect Verde Island Passage campaign. He is a climate and environment journalist since 2016.