Remelizza Joy Sacra, UNDP Philippines
17 Jul 2017 - I am not afraid of the water. In fact, I even had training in rescue swimming. But if I were to choose between flying and sailing, I would always choose to fly. The vastness of the ocean creeps me out. I always imagined that there is something beneath the waves that would eat me alive – a bull shark, or an orca, or maybe a deadly battalion of jellyfish that would sting my arms and legs.
That is, until over a year ago, then everything changed. When I started working with UNDP in the Philippines under the biodiversity portfolio, I became part of a marine conservation project, SMARTSeas PH. The project cannot always afford to hire an underwater videographer because it is too expensive. I told myself that I should learn how to dive and take good underwater photos and footage so I can allocate larger budgets for other campaigns and activities. And so, last September 2016, I had my first dive in Moalboal in the island of Cebu in Central Philippines.
Beneath the waves, it was a very different world. My first glimpse of a sardine run, soft corals, and that lone barracuda was surreal. The sight of banded sea krait along a reef wall was not frightening at all. It was exciting! My up-close encounter with a clownfish hiding in a sea anemone brought out the inner child in me. I was blurting through my regulator “It’s Nemo! It’s Nemo!” And that is when I started to fully appreciate the ocean and its residents, may they be big or small or microscopic.
One of my tasks also as a communications person of the project is to gather stories from our sites. After my deployment in Haiyan-hit areas, documenting firsthand accounts of painful and traumatic survival that made me cringe, I thought that writing stories about marine pollution, playful dolphins, and fisherfolks’ lives would be a piece of cake. It is not. Not all people will care about the bleached coral reefs unless we connect the repercussions to us – humans. It is challenging to explain how a big part of humanity’s survival depends on a healthy ocean. There is a need to show the human element of marine conservation work – that it is not all about mangroves, seagrasses, and coral reefs. It is about ensuring that fifty years from now, we will still have the food that we presently eat on our tables. It is about creating a brighter future for the families of fisherfolk, who rely mainly on fishing. It is about empowering people’s organizations, women, indigenous groups, and other marginalized sectors to speak and be part of decision-making in conserving our marine resources.
As we visited our sites, we met passionate leaders from the communities and champions from the local government units. The SMARTSeas PH Project provides technical assistance by capacitating them and developing their skills in effective management of marine protected areas. It introduces biodiversity-friendly enterprises to ease the pressure of fishing, and gradually let the fishery replenish its stock. It pushes for harmonized policies that will sustain the efforts that the UNDP started. The project covers five sites in the Philippines – all of which are considered marine key biodiversity areas.
Aside from the lack of information about the sites, these areas are home to critically endangered and endemic species. The issues that we are trying to address is how to protect 70% of the planet, and essentially our lives. Some of the threats that continue to contribute to the rapid degradation of our marine biodiversity are, in fact, something we can stop. The challenges that the community leaders are facing are something that we can lobby to our nation’s leaders. It is only through collective effort that we can provide the solutions to these ocean and human problems. And I hope that by storifying them and sharing stories, I can be one of those who can inspire and create change.
Photo: In one of our dives in the south of Palawan Island in the Philippines, Dr. Vincent Hilomen, a marine biologist and SMARTSeas PH Project Manager, identified a daisy coral. Photo by Carlos Castillo/PCSD