Feature Story

07 December 2009

Marine Conservation in the Philippines: Women Play a Key Role

UBAY, Philippines — How can poor communities adapt to rising sea levels and more-intense storms as the planet heats up? A successful grassroots drive to restore and protect marine habitats here may offer some lessons. Women are actively involved, and available family planning services complement their efforts.

Greed, not greenhouse gases, caused an environmental disaster in this coastal township, where 70 per cent of the population relies on fishing for their livelihood. Decades of destructive practices – including the use of dynamite, cyanide and illegal nets – caused the once bountiful fish catch to crash in the 1990s, dragging residents deeper into poverty as the population continued to grow.

Incomes fell and food prices rose, squeezing women as they struggled to feed their families.

“Fewer fish were being caught and women were affected, since we manage the household budget,” recalls Ada Olaguir, who sells fish in the market. “We had to buy smaller fish, and we had to pay more. That made it harder to send our kids to school.”

Women have an important role to play

The effects of global warming could have a comparable impact on marine habitats and people’s living standards. And poor women will be among the hardest hit, according to The State of World Population 2009 by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

The report, Facing a Changing World: Women, Population and Climate, says it is imperative to involve women and address their specific needs, including reproductive heath concerns, when countries respond to climate change.

Women have participated actively alongside men in the wide-ranging effort Ubay citizens mounted in response to the man-made environmental crisis.

The community established fishing sanctuaries in spawning areas a few years ago and started patrols to halt the use of dynamite and other illegal practices. Planting parties were organized to restore mangrove swamps, which had been plundered for firewood. The mobilization involved grassroots groups including fishermen’s associations and village management committees.

The work is important, notes Carolina Bacatan, a village captain. “If we do not protect our seas, we might not have any more fish to catch. Women have a big role because protecting our environment is related to the chores we perform at home.”

To sustain women’s involvement, the community groups teach participants skills so they can earn supplementary income. Bacatan says this is intended to give their families a leg up against poverty.

Protecting mangroves, a critical habitat

Marivic Cuyag, a fisherwoman and the mother of seven, says the conservation efforts have paid off. “The fish won’t go near the shore if there are no mangroves where they can lay their eggs. When the mangroves were cut, we didn’t catch many fish. But now that they are guarded and allowed to grow, our catch has increased.”

Ubay Mayor Eutiquio Bernales has given strong political leadership to the habitat restoration campaign. Donors including USAID have provided assistance.

Bernales knows well the harm illegal fishing causes, and he is firm about locking up violators. Working on a fishing boat 50 years ago he saw a man blow himself up with dynamite. Over the years he has seen his constituents grow poorer as fishing declined and the population grew.

But the mayor, a physician, is also passionate about women’s health. He wants to build a birthing centre in every barangay, or village, where women can deliver safely. Under his leadership, Ubay has partnered with UNFPA in the past couple of years to expand reproductive health services including family planning and safe childbirth.

Contraceptives are readily available at local health centres and shops. With support from the PATH Foundation Philippines, Inc., peer educators have been trained to teach others about family planning services. Community-based distributors like Josephe Deserva offer contraceptive pills and condoms to their neighbours in remote villages. This outreach has led to a significant increase in the number of couples using family planning.

Enabling women to plan their families

Enabling women to choose smaller families is seen as an important way to ease the pressure population growth is putting on the environment. Bohol’s population is projected to grow 50 per cent between 2000 and 2012.

Family planning is also supported as a means to empower women so they can play more productive economic roles.

Rosalena Otara, 29, is taking advantage of the opportunity. She dropped out of school when she got married at 17. For the next decade she was pregnant much of the time, and in a constant struggle to feed her growing family. Her husband makes barely enough as a farm worker to pay for the rice they consume.

“Life is hard with such a big family,” she says. “When we run out of rice I give my share to the children and my husband. I also gather clams to sell so I can buy more rice.”

After six children Otara persuaded her husband that things needed to change. Now she takes the pill and has time to attend high school equivalency classes. She hopes one day to get a paying job in town.

In places threatened by global warming, women need to be fully involved in adapting to new realities, The State of World Population 2009 asserts. Education and good reproductive health care strengthen societies’ resilience and enable women to participate. Ubay’s success in combating environmental damage due to human activity may offer a useful lesson for communities facing climate change challenges.

–William A. Ryan