MANILA, Philippines – Should gorgeous El Nido in Palawan, known as the Philippines' "last frontier," be opened up to mainstream tourism?
Are its coral reefs more valuable as a fishing ground or as a diving site? Can ecotourism in general bring a return on investment?
These are just some of the questions a newly-launched study seeks to answer.
The study, "Capturing Coral Reef and Related Ecosystem Services" (CCRES), launched on Tuesday, July 7, will be undertaken by a joint team composed of scientists from the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) and the Global Change Institute based in the University of Queensland in Australia.
Partners include Cornell University; University of California, Davis; Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the World Bank.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the local government of El Nido are also on board.
Using special software and new models, the study aims to unlock the value of ecosystem services for human communities.
Ecosystem services are benefits nature provides to people. They include food, water, timber and other crops. But they also include "cultural services" like ecoutourism, recreational activities and aesthetic and spiritual benefits.
Despite their importance to human communities, ecosystem services are usually taken for granted by industry and policy-makers. This is partly because it is so difficult to measure their value.
For instance, it's much simpler to determine the market value of a mangrove forest when it is cleared to give way to a resort. But how do you value the benefits that the same mangrove forest can bring as a nursery for fish to replenish fish stocks, as a defense mechanism against storm surge or as a source of medicinal ingredients?
The El Nido study aims to measure the value of these overlooked gifts of nature.
El Nido – with its 90,000-hectare protected area of majestic limestone cliffs, pristine beaches, mangroves and coral reefs – is a burgeoning tourism hotspot.
From 10,000 visitors in 1994, it now caters to more than 50,000 visitors a year. Once a boutique tourism destination, it is now attracting more mainstream tourism, particularly the backpacker market.
Pressure on its ecosystem and natural resources is also coming from within. Population in the small town is growing at 4.7% every year.
Modeling El Nido
More people in El Nido means more demand for housing, tourism establishments, drinking water, food, sewage facilities, and more. If not regulated, the need to meet these demands can come at the cost of El Nido's healthy ecosystem, which is what tourists came for in the first place. (READ: Water pollution a rising threat in Coron)
The study will use a variety of valuation tools like special software and models developed by the University of Queensland, interviews and focus group discussions with various stakeholders like El Nido residents, tourists, local government officials and businessmen.
It will take a multi-disciplinary approach to get a complete picture of El Nido. Aside from marine biologists, the team is composed of economists, sociologists and analysts who can crunch data.
"The models are programmed. It's like you're modeling the entire system of El Nido. We input data like rates of immigration, birth rate, death rate to the model. Then it generates scenarios like what happens if population increases?
"The sewage increases by this much. Sedimentation increases by this much. Degradation of forests by this much. So if you go that track, the degradation rate may have an effect on sedimentation rate, and sedimentation rate may have effect on coral reefs," explained Quibilan.
The study will also come up with ideal spatial planning for El Nido. The team will map out which areas need the most protection, called core zones, and which areas can be used for some fishing activities, called multiple-use zones.
A model to be used, called the connectivity model, will find out whether protecting coral reefs inside a core zone will translate to higher fish catch for fishermen fishing in multiple-use zones or established fishing grounds.
This will enable the community, especially local fisherfolk, to understand how protecting coral reefs concretely contributes to their livelihood. By knowing this, fisherfolk might become more cooperative in maintaining the coral reef and may be persuaded against destructive fishing activities.
A cost-benefit model, meanwhile, allows the team to determine which use of an ecosystem will generate the most benefits for the community.
Will an area of coral reefs mean more income as a fishing ground or as a diving site for tourists? How much money is generated from diving fees? How many people are diving?
If it is used for ecotourism purposes, how far downstream do the benefits reach?
A value chain analysis model will find out how many of the locals and which sector of the community are benefiting from ecotourism.
"It may be that 50 to 60% of the population is getting their income from tourism. Maybe even the small vegetable vendor is benefiting," said Quibilan.
An argument for conservation
The predictive nature of the models will eventually help policymakers and local government make better decisions for El Nido.
"This approach will really help change the behavior of stakeholders…This means a lot to us because, in this way, the conflict between community, economies and ecosystems will eventually be resolved," said El Nido Councilor Christine Lim, standing in for her mother El Nido Mayor Edna Lim.
Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler
Theresa Mundita Lim, Director of the DENR's Biodiversity Management Bureau, said CCRES will be helpful in increasing government support for maintaining and improving the country's protected areas. (READ: 5 ways to improve how we protect our parks)
Protected areas in the country are in poor condition because of lack of funds and outdated conservation strategies, found a study.
"Our policies are also updated by the new information we receive. This study will be very important for us so we can translate it into policy which eventually can improve other protected areas in the country, especially marine," she said.
The CCRES results will also provide a good argument for the government to invest more in conservation of protected areas, she added.
"The science will help us ask for a bigger budget from the Department of Budget and Management. It has been an uphill battle for us because they always see conservation as a black hole for budget. We need the national government to realize this is a good investment for us."
Ecotourism is about enjoying nature's gifts while working within nature's limits. Aside from finding out what an ecosystem can take, the study wants to find out what it can't take.
"It's really establishing the carrying capacity of the system. It's not infinite. With more people you have more needs for water, food, and basic services like sewage and space. If you aren't prepared with your planning, you will be overtaken by events. You won't be able to reverse the situation," said Quibilan.
The results of the study will be ready in a year. Quibilan and her team hope there will still be enough time to use the study for the other raw tourist destinations already under threat. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.