Philippines - from dedicated communities to devastating mines

Feature story - August 15, 2006
The Esperanza was welcomed into Manila Bay today amid a sea of plastics, and right away the crew could see there is a lot of work to be done here. Fortunately, there is also a lot worth protecting, and some of the most successful local community efforts we've seen yet on this tour.

A couple of groupers hiding in a crevice.

Manila Bay

This bay was once considered one of the most beautiful in the world, now it is one of the most polluted.  Sludge, human sewage, industrial waste and, especially, plain garbage foul the water.  Much of the garbage is plastic from 'single use' sources - that is plastic bags, beverage bottles, cups and other items intended to be used once and thrown away. Most of these plastics come from land-based sources and are carried along deltas of rivers and estuaries, smothering mangrove trees and other marine life.

The Philippines also has some of the best examples of communities protecting their marine resources.  We'll be visiting two such places - Donsol and Apo Island.


The plankton-rich waters of the municipality of Donsol are known feeding grounds for whale sharks. These largest fish of the sea are celebrity animals. Time magazine in 2004 called the Donsol whale shark experience the "Best Animal Encounter in Asia". The thousands of tourists who flock to Donsol yearly seem to agree.

The epicentre of the whale sharks' activity is undeniably Donsol. But come migration time, the neighbouring municipalities of Bacon and Rapu Rapu find themselves visited by these gentle giants as well.

Apo Island

Known around the world as one of the best examples of a community-managed marine reserve, Apo Island is a small, steep volcanic island surrounded by narrow fringing coral reefs. The waters around it are home to 650 species of fish and 400 species of corals.

There was a time, however, when the fish were not so abundant. Decades ago the islanders used dynamite for fishing, and practised other unsustainable methods. Eking out a living as a fisherman became more and more difficult.

Coral reef protection in Apo Island began informally in 1982 under a Marine Conservation Development Program started by Silliman University in the Philippines.  At first the local community was sceptical, so the project began on a small scale.  As fish catches improved the islanders became convinced.  

In 1985, the island community and local council formalized the sanctuary, declaring waters surrounding the island up 500 metres from the shore a marine reserve, and a portion of the coast in the south-eastern part of the island a no-take fish sanctuary.

The community now plays a major role in protecting their marine resources in a model we hope will spread to other parts of the Philippines and the world.

Rapu Rapu

The island of Rapu Rapu is in many ways similar to Donsol and Apo Island.  Rapu Rapu's surrounding waters also teem with marine life.  Its locals also depend on the sea for their livelihood.  But there is an important and looming difference.  Rapu Rapu has a large open pit mine - run by Lafayette an Australian company.  This mine was temporarily closed after two toxic spills last year, but recently re-opened despite the recommendation of a presidential fact finding commission.

Reynaldo Cotorno, a Rapu Rapu fisherman who had waded out to fish on October 11th recounted what happened when the first spill reached the ocean.  As he put it, "I was wearing trousers at the time.  The seawater stung as if there were insects, but that was not it.  Perhaps it was the chemicals that caused the fish to die. There were really a lot of dead fish, big and small ones together with shellfish."  

As the presidential commission determined, another such spill is not necessary to demonstrate that mining operations will be severely detrimental to Rapu Rapu, and its surrounding waters.  Initial ecological and health studies on the Rapu-Rapu mine warned of heavy metal contamination, siltation and other acute and long-term impacts on the marine ecosystem, including the complications of acid mine drainage.

In May, a Greenpeace report revealed that Rapu Rapu residents only stand to gain about four cents (PhP2.00) per capita income per day during the mine's seven-year of operation. This amount does not even look into the environmental, health and social costs that the local population will incur from the project.

Islanders know that the fate of their community is linked to the health of the ocean.  Thinking of his children, fisherman Cotorno said, "In short, I am against the mine because I am thinking of the future."

See the slideshow of Philippines marine life.

Sign the petition

Help Philippines Ocean Defenders resist the mine.