by Jennifer Ng
EL NIDO, Philippines, June 21 (Xinhua) -- While patrolling the seas around the clock and chasing down errant fishermen are ideal interventions to preserve marine resources such as coral reefs, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) believes that simply changing the way people do business or their habits when they go on vacation would also boost the efforts.
This is because, UNEP said, human activities have a big impact on marine resources. Aside from climate change, population increase and coastal development have also contributed significantly to the damage on coral reefs.
"A fifth of the world's coral reefs have been lost, and more than 60 percent is under immediate, direct threat. Climate change and ocean acidification will increasingly affect all reefs. What we do impact on reef health," said Jerker Tamelander, head of UNEP 's Coral Reef Unit.
UNEP singled out tourism as constituting a "significant pressure" on coral reefs. While tourism can bring in much-needed revenues for developing countries, the tendency of businesses to disregard the need to protect the environment so they can rake in more profits can exact a heavy toll on the natural resources of the Philippines.
For UNEP, this is simply unacceptable especially since this would mean the destruction of more natural resources such as coral reefs. Recognizing the need to put in place doable "best practices " that can be adopted by businesses, locals, and tourists, the UN unit partnered with Britain-based charity The Reef World Foundation and local non-government organization El Nido Foundation (ENF) to roll out the Green Fins approach in the Philippines.
Green Fins is a set of simple measures that seek to preserve coral reefs in popular diving sites in the country. UNEP and ENF organized a study tour for foreign and local journalists in El Nido town in the western Philippine province of Palawan. The tour is meant to showcase how the Green Fins approach is being implemented in El Nido.
GREEN FINS IN EL NIDO
El Nido (Spanish term for 'the nest') is a first class municipality located in the northwestern tip of Palawan province. It covers 18 villages, of which 16 are coastal villages and has a population of 39,095.
It was in the 1980s when the beauty of the town was discovered by a handful of tourists and domestic visitors. Scuba diving tours in El Nido became popular after Ten Knots Development Corp. (TKDC), a subsidiary of Japanese firm Nissin Sugar Manufacturing Corp., put up a resort for divers. To preserve El Nido and its marine resources, TKDC and Andres Soriano Corp. spearheaded the set up of ENF.
"Tourists shied away from El Nido due to malaria, criminals, and leprosy," said ENF Chairman Alberto Lim, who is also the country's former Tourism Secretary. Palawan Province, Lim noted, is home to the Iwahig Penal Colony and the Culion Leper Colony.
With malaria cases now significantly reduced in Palawan province and leprosy no longer a threat in Culion Island, El Nido and other towns in Palawan province have seen an influx of tourists and diving enthusiasts in recent years. Citing figures from the Municipal Tourism Office, Lim said tourist arrivals in El Nido rose to 62,960 last year, from 10,000 in 1994. Tourism has become the number one source of revenues for the local government in recent years.
"This alone has made it imperative to put in place a management strategy that will ensure the protection of remaining coral reefs in El Nido," he said.
ENF Executive Director Irma Rose Marcelo said El Nido has 447 reef-building coral species and 44 unconfirmed species. El Nido reefs are home to more than 800 fish species.
It is for this reason that the ENF decided to bring in the Green Fins approach to El Nido in 2012. Under the Green Fins approach, diving centers are assessed based on their adherence to the Code of Conduct which consists of 15 "best practices" that seek to minimize the impact of the diving and snorkeling industry on coral reefs. To protect marine resources, the Code of Conduct calls on diving centers to implement simple measures such as no stepping on coral.
"It makes sense to engage the diving and snorkeling industry because of the passion of people who are involved in it. Divers serve as 'eyes' that alert us about the damage on coral reefs," said Samantha Craven, project manager of The Reef-World Foundation.
Centers who agree to follow the Code of Conduct have to undergo a training session, followed by an assessment of their dive center at least once a year. This process requires allowing a fully- trained Green Fins coordinator to go to the dive center and carry out a one-hour training presentation. An assessor would then join one of the dive trips of the establishment to observe staff and their customers.
Assessors will then give corresponding scores to each criteria. Scores range from 0 (no environmental impact) to a maximum of 330. A lower score indicates that the establishment is more adherent to the Green Fins Code of Conduct.
In return for observing the Code of Conduct, a diving center becomes a Green Fins member. While UNEP and Reef World officials would not say whether membership in Green Fins has a direct impact on an establishment's bottom lines, they agree that a Green Fins establishment tends to attract more customers who want to patronize environmentally responsible businesses.
The local government of El Nido is looking at institutionalizing the Green Fins approach by requiring them to become a member before getting their license. El Nido Vice Mayor Nieves Rosento said this may be implemented next year.
To protect the town's marine resources, Rosento said there is a proposed "Eco-Tourism Ordinance" which will impose fines against tourists and boat men who will break coral reefs. "The local government is also planning to award outstanding establishments and eco-friendly dive shops."
BUSINESSES TOE THE LINE
Caera Travel & Tours is one of the pioneer Green Fins members that has seen its business grow exponentially in the last four years. Proprietor Ramil Panganiban said he started his business in March 2010 with a capital of only 500 pesos (11 U.S. dollars). His informed people about his business via a notice printed on a small coupon bond.
"When I started, I rented boats for my tours. Through hard work and diligence as well as our focus on providing excellent customer service, we now own three boats," Panganiban said.
Before he became a Green Fins member, Panganiban said he already understood the value of preserving the town's marine resources to ensure that future generations will continue to be able to earn from them. Because of this, he said he did not have a hard time complying with the Green Fins guidelines.
"If we don't take care of the corals, if tourists see only dead corals, it would be bad for business. Tourists will no longer come here to visit our town so it only makes sense to preserve our coral reefs," he said.