How this small Philippine beach town went from mangrove cutting capital to country’s largest mangrove forest

In 2010, the Municipality of Del Carmen’s Mangrove Forest was almost considered as the illegal mangrove cutting capital of the Philippines. Now, the small town in the Southern Philippines has one of the largest contiguous blocks of mangrove forests in the country. Not only did Del Carmen’s conservation program save its local ecosystem, it also brought its people out of poverty.

A small town with big ambitions

The Municipality of Del Carmen is located in an island in the Southern Philippines. It is visited by 4-6 typhoons annually.

Del Carmen is a 5th Class municipality located in the island of Siargao in the Pacific Ocean. Over 20,000 people permanently call this municipality their home, with an average of over 200,000 local and foreign tourists each year also temporarily lodging in Del Carmen. Besides tourism, the town’s economy is founded upon agriculture and fishing.

Due to its geographic location, Del Carmen is highly vulnerable to typhoons, storm surges, sea level rise, and other effects of climate change. In fact, it is visited by up to 4-6 typhoons annually. Strong winds, rains, and waves are so commonly experienced—especially during the tail ends of the year—that locals call them part of normal life.

Though Del Carmen is challenged by limited resources, the town continues to persevere, innovate, and rely on science- and nature-based adaptation efforts to ensure that it is climate change ready. Its Mangrove Management Program is a prime example of how environmental restoration and conservation can benefit both ecosystems and humans.

From mangrove cutting to mangrove planting capital

Over a decade ago, many of Del Carmen’s residents were illegal mangrove loggers, cutting the tree for their livelihood needs. This practice had adverse effects on the town’s environment, biodiversity, and disaster resilience.

In 2010, the Del Carmen Mangrove Forest was almost considered as the illegal mangrove cutting capital of the Philippines. It was normal for people to cut mangrove wood for use as cooking and baking fuel. This was for a number of reasons, including poverty and not understanding the value of mangroves. They did not realize the long-term impacts of what they were doing—that without the mangroves, they are more vulnerable to loss of biodiversity and loss of livelihood, among other climate impacts.

Now, Del Carmen has one of the largest contiguous blocks of mangrove forests in the country. It currently spans over 4,800 hectares, with 27 various mangrove species and a rich ecosystem both above and below the water. Over the past decade, the town has planted over 600 hectares of mangroves which have an 80% survival rate thanks to the use of coconut husks to nurture and acclimate its locally-grown mangrove seedlings.

However, Del Carmen’s mangrove reforestation journey was not without its challenges. Just as typhoons were part of normal life in the town, so too was mangrove cutting. The local government, led by current Mayor Alfredo Coro II, faced various hurdles at the beginning and throughout the transition. For many residents, this livelihood—although illegal and damaging to the environment—was all they knew. Understandably, they were fiercely resistant about changing the status quo.

Changing hearts through evidence-based benefits and people empowerment

Del Carmen put people at the heart of its mangrove forest reforestation efforts, ensuring that illegal mangrove cutters were capacitated into more viable livelihoods. (Photo from the Municipality of Del Carmen Facebook page)

Del Carmen began its restoration efforts by first understanding the root causes of the issues facing the people and the mangrove forest. These insights led to the development of a holistic management plan that banks on science and data to simultaneously save the mangroves and uplift the peoples’ lives. Biodiversity; fish stocks; site conditions; mangrove seedling survival and growth rate; and poverty rate and hunger incidence—these were just some of the indicators assessed and routinely monitored to ensure the program was on the right track. Specifically, Del Carmen experienced a 200% catch increase for near-shore fishers and reduced poverty incidence by 32%.

Besides guiding the local government on where and how to start, these data were integral to communicating with Del Carmen’s citizens the story of how they are directly affected by the loss of mangroves. These data points were also used as the backbone for Del Carmen’s various information, education, and communication activities, including house-to-house visitation along the mangrove forest corridor and classroom discussions at all education levels.

Ultimately, however, Del Carmen’s goal was to change its people’s behavior, fortify their values, and empower them. Capacity building and community organizing activities were regularly held to transition illegal loggers into eco-tourism guides, boat operators, fishermen, and forest caretakers. In fact, the illegal loggers from before are now Del Carmen’s main partners in its Mangrove Management Program.

The illegal mangrove cutters became one of Del Carmen’s main partners in the town’s mangrove reforestation efforts. (Photo from the Municipality of Del Carmen Facebook page)

Del Carmen focused on saving the environment, but the co-benefits also spilled over to its constituents’ lives. So much so that they have taken full ownership of the program. The government rarely intervenes now; it is the citizens themselves who grow the seedlings, plant the mangroves, and upkeep the mangrove forests.

Del Carmen’s message to the world

But unfortunately, there’s only so much a single municipality, or city, or even a single country can do against climate change. “Our recent experience with Typhoon Rai just this past December 2021 is a testament to the fact that there needs to be concerted effort from everyone,” said Mayor Coro.

Del Carmen was devastated by Typhoon Rai, with 100% of public and private infrastructure damaged by heavy rains and winds. (Photo courtesy of the Municipal Government of Del Carmen)

Rai was a Category 5 Super Typhoon unlike anything Del Carmen has experienced before, bringing with it intense rainfall and 195 kilometer per hour winds. The town’s mangrove forest was put to the test as it was ground zero for the typhoon’s landfall. While the mangroves were able to dampen the storm surges enough to prevent the wipeout of coastal settlements, the impact of waves and winds was still felt inland.

While the mangrove forest was able to somewhat dampen storm surges, passenger boats were still thrown onto the town’s sea ports. The town said it was unlike anything they have experienced before—a clear manifestation of the effects of climate change. (Photo courtesy of the Municipal Government of Del Carmen)

Waters were able to carry passenger boats above the ports. 6,724 families lost their livelihoods as farms were flooded and fishing boats were capsized.  100% of the town’s private and public infrastructures were damaged. 4,942 homes were lost. The impact to humans, the built environment, and the natural environment would have been much worse without the mangrove forest.

“Del Carmen was left in ruins. Right now, a few months after the typhoon, we are still undergoing recovery and rehabilitation. And we only expect the typhoons to get stronger and stronger each year. Such is the effect of the world’s climate crisis,” Mayor Coro explained.

Del Carmen is still undergoing recovery and rehabilitation after being devastated by the super typhoon. (Photo courtesy of the Municipal Government of Del Carmen)

“On behalf of Del Carmen, I call on local governments throughout the Philippines, throughout Southeast Asia, and throughout the world. We must act now and we must act together if we are to keep global warming in check, if we are to fulfill the Paris Agreement, and if we are to save this planet. Only by taking this sustainability journey together can we ensure that urban development is fair and equal for all the cities and citizens of the world,” concluded Mayor Coro.

Those who would like to extend assistance to Del Carmen can do so by following the details in THIS LINK.

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