Lawak Island is part of the WPS protected seascape being proposed.

The move to designate the West Philippine Sea as a marine protected area and biodiversity seascape has gained support from 52 stakeholders from various sectors of society, both private and public, who converged to air a single voice of call to action during a summit held last March 1-3 at the Costa Palawan.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) set up the three-day summit through its flagship projects, Investing in Sustainability and Partnership for Inclusive Growth and Regenerative Ecosystems (INSPIRE) and Fish Right. At least 50 civil society organizations, along with the academic community and other government agencies, made a push to take a collective stand in a call to commit to the protection and conservation of WPS.

The activity was bannered by the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), Tanggol Kalikasan, Western Philippines University (WPU), and several other institutions and fisherfolk associations from different provinces that spearheaded the call to action with the signing of a “Statement of Commitment” for the conservation and protection of WPS.

It was an offshoot to the visit of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in the city in November last year, where she also pledged commitment to help the fisherfolk sector of Palawan province.

In his parting message, USAID Mission Director to the Philippines Ryan Washburn reiterated Harris’ commitment, underscoring the ties between the two countries “to protect the country’s ecosystem.”

“This summit built the partners’ relationship reinforcing our shared commitment to build new pathways to achieve our mutual goals of resilient and inclusive economic growth. This highlights the importance of peoples’ actions to promote food security and livelihood, and our support for your endeavors,” Washburn said.

He likewise lauded the active participation of CSOs in nation-building particularly in environmental protection which he said plays a crucial role in democracy and development.

“In the Philippines, we have seen how a robust society can protect habitats and enhance the well-being of filipinos. NGOs, Pos, academic and research institutions as well as businesses facilitate science-based solutions to pressing issues such as illegal unreported and unregulated fishing (IUUF), climate impacts, biodiversity loss and other development challenges,” he noted.

He also stated that with the decades-long partnership, Fish Right Program has been keeping tabs of support to sustainable use of fisheries and marine resources which resulted in enhancing the resilience of these resources and employing an ecosystem approach of fisheries management.

Noting the West Philippine seascape as a priority concern and dubbing it as the Amazon of the seas for its exceptional biodiversity, Washburn emphasized that Fish Right has to focus on the establishment of Fisheries Management Areas in the region with a common agenda and plan of action as articulated in the CSOs’ vision and priorities to sustainable and inclusive development in WPS.

“We are privileged to support the establishment of a CSO network that will harness our communities to act and decide on the future for the WPS to be sustainable and resilient. Fish Right is at the heart of our marine sustainability work along with our other projects such as SIBOL and Inspire, we will support you in your journey,” he said.

Bold move
Meanwhile, ELAC Executive Director Atty. Grizelda Mayo-Anda expressed enthusiasm with the convergence of CSOs, hailing it as a giant first step towards a more inclusive and participative action.

Noting that there have been many projects and programs implemented in the past, these were conceptualized by individuals or solely by one group.

“What is more important here is the collaboration of different CSOs. We have lots of initiatives now and some of which have come all the way from Zambales to Zamboanga,” Mayo-Anda noted.

She also explained that the convergence of the different CSOs will further amplify the call to action and gain support for the protection and conservation of the WPS biodiversity.

“When the convenors first met in November last year, topics discussed were to strengthen our voice and assert the recognition of WSP as a biodiversity area and also assert our sovereign rights,” she stated.

Our call is to eliminate IUUF and gain support for livelihood for the communities and of course, [law] enforcement has been an issue. So with this collaboration, we will see as to what extent we can do to gather our initiatives because our effots [as indviduals] are limited,” she explained.

Hagedorn bill
Mayo-Anda also cited a bill pending before the House of Representatives, filed by Palawan 3rd District Representative Edward Hagedorn, seeking the declaration of Kalayaan Island Group and its surrounding waters, including Scarborough Shoal as a Marine Protected Area. The bill has since hurdled the House Committee on Environment hearing and is now up for second reading before the plenary.

“These are just but a few and we need to do a lot. But at least, the CSOs have gathered to further strengthen our voice when we assert our territorial and sovereign rights,” she said.

Aside from House Bill 6373, several other moves have been aired, among others, Siliman University Professor Emeritus Dr. Ben Malayang’s proposal for the declaration of the entire WPS as Philippine Protected Seascape, a United Nations Environmental Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site and to be included in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Heritage Park Protected Area (HPPA) system.

Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) has also declared Lawak Island, as a protected area citing the threatened resident birds, and a potential Green Sea Turtle nesting site by virtue of Resolution no. 2022-827.

Senate Bill 1166, authored by Senator Sonny Angara, pushing for the declaration of Pag-asa Island Ecotourism Cluster and Protected Area, is also pending.

These moves, Mayo-Anda said are among primary concerns which needs support.

We also need to come up with a work plan because these are new so we need to talk,” she said.

She also however cited other factors that may come in, including the China issue which she said will make the journey quite long.

“I think the CSOS have to push more to advocate for this. This will be complicated because there is China factor, so this will take time. But what’s important is at least, we have made the first step which is very significant,” she explained.

Call for support
Hagedorn on the other hand said that while there are several major roadblocks along the way, he believes that with the support of everyone, their goal is attainable.

He cited three important characteristics needed in order to achieve the goal.

“Dedication, determination and will power to fight for what is right towards our advocacy in protecting WPS, and these are what we need in our fight,” he said.

“And while we realize that the protection and conservation of West Philippine Seascape is a herculean job, it cannot be left to government alone. This initiative needs and requires a collective whole nation action. That’s why I enjoin everyone to help us in this endeavor,” he added.