Science and survival with the blue communities of Palawan

Village leaders during Blue Communities - Philippines' participatory planning workshop

By Lota Creencia, Karen Madarcos & Edgar Jose -

Palawan is a narrow archipelagic province located southwest of Manila in the Philippines. In 1990, it was declared UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve owing to its globally significant biodiversity. Previously the province was declared the Mangrove Swamp Forest Reserve. It has the highest remaining mangrove coverage in the country, extending 60,172.2 hectares, with 93,792.93 hectares of seagrass beds, and 228,333.9 hectares of coral reefs.

Palawan coastal habitat map

Mangroves and the marine life they support provide valuable resources and services to coastal communities. These ecosystems are a source of food, income, and protection from extreme weather.

Many laws and management initiatives have been established to ensure mangroves are protected and used sustainably. But they are still under threat. Interviews conducted with local people reveal that mangrove areas are still converted into fishponds and community or commercial structures. Mangrove trees are harvested for use as building and cooking materials. Often, these products are not only used within households but also sold all over the province. When asked why, people would answer, "We do not have a choice, we have to eat." Coastal communities are a vulnerable low-income population that depend on the coastal ecosystems and the sea for their daily food and survival. One of the ways they do this is by harvesting and selling mangroves.

Ultimately the loss of mangroves will lead to a decline in fisheries, expose the coast to large waves and floods, and disturb marine biodiversity. These vulnerable communities will have less to catch, affecting their available food, income, protection, and health and wellbeing.

Conflict between science and survival transpires when people depend on natural resources for daily living. Talking about our research with the community in the language they can connect with is a challenge. How did our Blue Communities project reconcile that conflict and help coastal people take action?

Building trust

We have been visiting our community coastal sites since 2018. Aside from creating formal agreements with the local government units, our team built a long-term relationship with coastal 'blue' communities. We established our reputation by properly introducing our project goals for the blue communities and by clarifying assumptions along the way. We strengthened our relationships by conducting regular visits, by being transparent, living the community life, treating everyone fairly, and avoiding political and religious affiliations.

Owning the process

At the beginning of our engagement, we called a collective stakeholder meeting to ask the policymakers, implementers, and users about the coastal marine issues. We gauged our research and extension activities from this. During community engagements, we consulted local leaders and sectoral groups on the best practices and social norms. We kept them informed and ensured they could contribute to every activity.  Simple things like identifying respondents, guiding our researchers, adopting us into their homes, transporting us around the islands, and providing valuable data. We made sure local people knew the value of these contributions and that it would be impossible for our projects to thrive without them. Including them from the beginning helped them trust the scientific information gathered from their villages and motivated people to set up their own initiatives to continue this work.

Bespoke materials

For science to benefit society it must be communicated in a way that people understand.  We overcame this challenge by creating accessible multimedia information materials to communicate our research findings. For this project, we considered the local language and dialects, used simple local terminologies, and provided relatable examples using interesting visuals featuring local communities and subjects.

Facilitating informed participative planning

Asking local communities to identify a specific issue within their village was a particularly effective way to mobilise community-led initiatives. Once the issue had been decided on, we invited coastal communities to identify possible solutions and how they could be implemented. This facilitated participative community planning was coupled with recommendations from technical experts along the way. Through this collaborative process, people learned that they have the ability to come up with local solutions to local issues. They also understood that making decisions based on established scientific information will make their initiatives easier and more sustainable.

Consent, safe space, and respect

As our project progresses, we learn that people who voluntarily join the cause recognise that they are an important part of a bigger picture. They are given a friendly stage for discussing their thoughts. We make sure these thoughts are respected.

Villagers and local leaders taking a quick rest for photos during the community-led mangrove planting

Inspiring action with evidence

Each community is unique and so engagement should be unique too. Following several activities incorporating the above-mentioned strategies, an island community in Palawan called “Biton” (meaning star) and local officials started planting mangroves and cleaning their coasts. To date, this is part of their regular activities. It brings people together and has resulted in more than 4,000 mangroves planted in disturbed areas, that is, areas that used to have more mangroves. Alongside these initiatives, village-led information campaigns using local dialects have been incorporated into community meetings. People from nearby villages who have observed the activities on the island have been inspired to set up their own initiatives.

Seeing our work evolve and start to be implemented at this local level gives us hope that, while not always easy, we can reconcile science and survival for a more prosperous and sustainable planet.

Lota Creencia, Karen Madarcos & Edgar Jose are researchers on the Blue Communities – Philippines project.

Blue Communities is building capacity for sustainable interactions with marine ecosystems for the benefit of the health, well-being, food security and livelihoods of coastal communities in East and Southeast Asia. The programme is funded by GCRF. Visit the Blue Communities website to learn more about the programme.

Main image: Village leaders during Blue Communities – Philippines’ participatory planning workshop

Image 2: The coastal habitat map of Palawan consolidated by Blue Communities – Philippines

Image 3: Villagers and local leaders taking a quick rest for photos during the community-led mangrove planting