Austrian Embassy Ambassador Johann Brieger, his wife Roswitha Brieger, Councilor Michael Sadhwani, and Mark Joseph Laceste with the Ridge-to-Reef youth campers in Mt. Talapay, Coron. (Photo from the Austrian Embassy in Manila)

A recently completed educational program in Coron known as Ridge-to-Reef Camp provided immersive, hands-on experiences and learning opportunities for young individuals, with the primary objective of actively engaging them in the sustainable conservation of local marine ecosystems.

The camp, launched on November 3-5 at Mt. Talapay in Coron, was a collaborative effort between the Austrian Embassy in Manila and Lalakbayin, a social enterprise centered around eco-tourism travel and tour programs operating in Coron.

Mark Joseph Laceste, the founder of Lalakbayin, stated Wednesday that the Ridge-to-Reef Camp was carried out in Coron as an educational initiative, specifically targeting the Calamianes area because it grapples with environmental degradation caused by human activities, including illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, alongside mass tourism.

He emphasized that even with the expansion of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the area, it remains crucial to continue conservation endeavors to tackle these problems and obstacles.

“The camp provided young participants with hands-on experiences and learning opportunities through activities such as marine surveys, farm tours, and tree planting. The sustainability plan of the camp encourages continued involvement and engagement with the local youth by encouraging them to adopt an MPA and document and share their experience, with the hope of inspiring their peers to be advocates too,” Laceste said.

“The program not only provided an educational experience for the participants but also creates future educators and facilitators for Lalakbayin, an ecotourism agency that offers the camp to companies as an additional income source,” he added.

Austrian Embassy Ambassador Johann Brieger, accompanied by his wife Roswitha Brieger, visited the camp on November 3 and had an opportunity to engage with the local youth and tour the site. They were accompanied by Coron Councilor Michael Sadhwani.

According to the Embassy, the camp initiative falls within the “South-North Embassy Projects: Culture and Development” grant, with the goal of empowering and educating coastal communities, particularly the youth, to ensure their active and lasting engagement in safeguarding the Calamianes ecosystems, particularly the MPAs, using a sustainable, interdisciplinary approach.

“Austria reconfirms its commitment to advocating and promoting sustainability, conservation, and reservation,” the Embassy said.

Laceste said Lalakbayin became a partner of the Austrian Embassy when it released a call for grants early this year.

Being a friend of the embassy, he learned about the opportunity and was encouraged to apply.

Luckily, both Lalakbayin and the GMA Kapuso Foundation were chosen as grant recipients, providing us with €5,000 to support our Phase 1 program, which is also partially funded by Lalakbayin.

“Our mission is to share the beauty of Palawan with the world and at the same time, protect it through environmental education, conservation measures, community interaction, preservation of the natural resources and the local culture, and by building a sustainable livelihood for the people,” explained Laceste.

Approximately 30 young individuals took part in the Ridge-to-Reef Camp, including several who were members of the Tagbanua indigenous communities in the Calamianes region.

At the conclusion of the camp, participants were motivated to contribute to the protection of two MPAs in Coron, specifically in the barangays of Tagumpay and Decabobo.

Laceste stated that the initiative, serving as Phase 1 of the partnership project with the Austrian Embassy, involved the young campers in various thematic areas, including sustainable and regenerative tourism, marine biodiversity, and ecosystem restoration.

The Philippines, with its numerous islands and coastal attractions, faces the forefront of climate change consequences. Thanks to its breathtaking natural beauty, the tourism industry stands as a significant contributor to its economic growth, accounting for 12.7% of the gross domestic product in 2019, Laceste said.

“Looking at all these factors, it is evident that there is an immediate need for a collective effort to implement and sustain environment-friendly, leisure activities alternatives. This thematic area aims to encourage collective work to ascertain the practice of sustainable, regenerative, and meaningful travel experiences and activities,” he said.

The marine biodiversity thematic area, Laceste further explained, aims to deepen the youth’s engagement and appreciation for marine conservation, and increase understanding of the marine ecosystem and its species. n

On ecosystem restoration, he said Coron boasts a 42,000-hectare mangrove forest, one of the country’s largest, and a healthy old-growth forest.

The Mabentangen Watershed in Brgy. 6 is also a key area, covering 1,912 hectares and providing habitat for a range of species such as the Calamianes frog, Busuanga Jungle Toad, Mantanani Scops-Owl, and Spot-throated Flameback.

“These are just some of the many diverse ecosystems that the Calamianes region has, and, as mentioned, the ecosystems are home to a multitude of species. For this reason, it is vital to ensure the survival of the region’s unique biodiversity. This thematic area aims to highlight the importance of the different ecosystems, and the significance of its continuous development for the future generations to experience and behold,” he said.

The project actually began in September 2023 and concluded Phase 1 this month. Phase 2 aims to commence in January and continue until August 2024.

In contrast to Phase 1, which placed a strong emphasis on structured and interactive training to ensure participants gained a comprehensive understanding of the thematic areas, Phase 2 will involve less guidance and encourage greater participant engagement.

Having established a solid foundation of knowledge during the initial phase, the subsequent activities will focus on promoting and taking concrete steps toward sustainable tourism practices, the preservation of marine biodiversity, and ecosystem restoration.

He said this phase promotes independent and constructive learning, enabling participants to develop their own beliefs and take action based on the knowledge they have acquired. It empowers them to become guardians of the Calamianes region and advocates for the conservation of its marine protected areas.

“What’s noteworthy about this project is that it was supported by the Austrian Embassy, and the Austrian Ambassador to the Philippines visited Coron to meet with promising young environmental leaders and stakeholders,” stated Laceste.

“The resounding success of the Phase 1 program was achieved through collaboration with 14 organizational partners, spanning government, private sector, and community-led organizations. Our dedicated leadership team of 9, alongside 30 young environmental leaders, contributed significantly,” he added.

In his capacity as a young environmental advocate, Laceste expressed that the project offers him the chance to interact with decision-makers, emphasizing the significance of grassroots movements and a multi-stakeholder approach in advancing environmental conservation.

He said he firmly believes that this approach is instrumental in enhancing the overall effectiveness of their efforts.

He expressed a strong conviction that this method plays a crucial role in improving the overall impact of their endeavors.

Originally from Manila, Laceste made the decision to transition from his corporate job to dedicate himself to environmental conservation.

This year, he earned a spot in the U.S. Department of State’s Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Academic Fellowship on Environmental Issues, where he participated in a five-week program studying environmental matters at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the University of California, Berkeley.

These experiences served as the inspiration for his commitment to the preservation of Palawan, he said.

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has been with Palawan News since January 2019. She is its managing editor, overseeing and coordinating day-to-day editorial activities. Her writing interests are politics and governance, health, defense, investigative journalism, civic journalism, and the environment.