A Philippine sailfin lizard in Misamis Oriental, Mindanao. Image by Domzjuniorwildlife via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

  • Mindanao, the Philippines’ second largest island group, has a troubled history of conflict dating back to the Spanish colonial era in the 16th century.
  • A recent study of Mindanao found that higher levels of both state and non-state conflict correlated with reduced biodiversity and forest cover.
  • The security problems associated with conflict also mean there are gaps in knowledge about the biodiversity of conflict-affected areas, and difficulties in implementing and monitoring programs to protect natural resources.

The Philippines’ southern region of Mindanao has a history of war and armed conflict going back more than 400 years. The contemporary conflict’s origin in this region of 26.3 million people is complex, stemming from decades-long disputes between military forces and Moro separatist groups. More recently, clashes have erupted anew due in part to longstanding issues over land and resource control, complicated by political rivalries and clan feuds. The warfare in Mindanao has resulted in the deaths and displacement of thousands of people. However, the extent to which this sociopolitical turmoil affects the region’s biodiversity has long been unclear.

A recent study now shows that conflict has resulted in both reduced biodiversity and in gaps in knowledge about this ecologically rich region. This poses challenges for conservation efforts, particularly in Mindanao’s 30 key biodiversity areas, which are globally significant for their high concentration of endemic and threatened species, such as the critically endangered Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), the country’s national bird.

In a paper published in npj Biodiversity, researchers from the University of Southern Mindanao found that “areas with higher conflict levels exhibited lower species richness, fewer occurrence records, and reduced forest cover.”

The study used geospatial and statistical techniques to analyze biodiversity data from the MOBIOS+ database of Mindanao’s terrestrial biodiversity, and conflict-related information for the Philippines from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spanning 2000 to 2021.

Overall, the study recorded 2,174 conflicts in Mindanao from 2000 to 2021, with approximately 6% occurring within protected areas. This averages to around 104 conflicts annually or about two per week over the two-decade period.

The researchers found that the occurrence or escalation of state or non-state conflicts corresponded with fewer recorded species compared to areas farther from conflicts, particularly among insect and bird species. This trend was noticeable in Sulu and Maguindanao, the provinces with the highest levels of violence, respectively representing 18% and 15% of conflicts.

“The security risks,” researchers write, “could have a negative impact on conservation efforts, particularly in terms of monitoring and implementing measures to protect natural resources,” and therefore addressing these links “warrant[s] greater scientific and political attention.”

Pulangi River in Mindanao. Researchers found that found that “areas with higher conflict levels exhibited lower species richness, fewer occurrence records, and reduced forest cover.” Image by Sicnarf Evad via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Long history of war, armed conflict

With a land mass of 94,630 square kilometers (36,540 square miles), or nearly the size of South Korea, Mindanao comprises the second-largest group of islands in the Philippines. Despite its abundant wildlife and valuable natural resources, Mindanao has a troubled history dating back to the Spanish colonial era in the 16th century. The region has grappled with a complex array of sociopolitical challenges, intensifying in the 21st century, including armed conflicts, religious tensions, clan feuds, abductions, and other forms of violence that persist to this day.

“This, in turn, limits our ability to gather accurate data on local flora and fauna, which is essential for making informed decisions about biodiversity conservation and management,” the researchers write in the study. They point to recent nationwide assessments revealing disparities in survey efforts, notably the limited studies and recorded species in Mindanao, such as on bats and primates.

The paper also highlights the gap in formal research linking armed conflict to shortfalls in biodiversity knowledge in the Philippines. Addressing these shortfalls, researchers write, “is crucial for understanding species distribution, the extent of environmental impacts of conflict, formulation of effective policies and strategies to these effects, and promoting sustainable development and conservation in the region.”

A Philippine pied fantail, found commonly in Mindanao. Image by Ray in Manila via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Doing research in troubled terrain

Study co-author Krizler Tanalgo, an ecology professor at the University of Southern Mindanao, points to the Liguasan Marsh (also spelled Ligawasan) as a prime example of a war-torn biodiversity hotspot. “This area was previously inaccessible because of the presence of militant groups, and ongoing conflict deterred researchers from entering the areas,” Tanalgo tells Mongabay in an email.

The marsh, he notes, is a vital wetland for waterbirds and a significant migration route for many other species. “Despite this, taxonomic groups have been poorly studied in the past owing to historical conflict issues in the area,” he adds.

While occasional reports of unrest still occur, Tanalgo notes that the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has generally improved peace and order, facilitating biodiversity research in the region. This includes his team’s year-long assessment of Liguasan Marsh’s ecological status.

Meanwhile, an outlier case like that of the Philippine eagle demonstrates the potential positive impact of sociopolitical conflicts on biodiversity.

“It seems we have a different trend at least for eagles,” Jayson Ibañez, director of research and conservation at the nonprofit Philippine Eagle Foundation, tells Mongabay via social media messaging. “Places or forests known as lairs of insurgents appear to overlap with eagle territories. Although we don’t have strong data, it seems the forest stayed pristine and thus suitable eagle habitats because insurgency kept commercial loggers, miners and also commercial farmers away.”

The critically endangered Philippine eagle is the country’s national bird. Image by Shemlongakit via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Peace parks, partnerships, protocols

To safeguard shared biodiversity, promote regional stability, and encourage collaboration among communities instead of conflict, one key recommendation from the study is to establish transboundary “peace parks” through cooperation between neighboring territories.

It also recommends partnerships between military personnel and local communities to improve protected area management, law enforcement, and engagement in biodiversity conservation efforts. According to the study, these can be achieved through training soldiers and local volunteers in the use of biodiversity surveillance and monitoring technologies such as drones, bioacoustics, camera traps and smartphones.

However, Tanalgo says such peace parks and research partnerships can only be realized through proper coordination and thorough planning, which involves considering cultural practices, customs and peace-and-order policies, to demonstrate respect and earn the trust of stakeholders embedded in conflict zones.

“Overall, protecting biodiversity in conflict areas needs very careful planning and the safety of researchers and communities is always paramount,” he adds.

*** This article https://news.mongabay.com/2023/05/philippines-a-global-hotspot-for-giant-clams-and-their-illegal-trade/ is with permission from Mongabay.