By BONG D. FABE
JASAAN, Misamis Oriental — If there is one another thing that STEAG State Power, Inc. (SPI) would like to be known for, aside from “Empowering Mindanao,” it is this: putting premium on partnerships to protect the fragile environment of its host communities.
SPI has undertaken various programs and projects with both private and public sectors to protect the environment in an effort to ensure the sustainable future of these communities.
And it is not surprising that environmental protection is at the top of its agenda, aside of course from delivering efficient, reliable, and safe power to the Mindanao Grid because “preserving the environment or environmental conservation is in the corporate DNA of SPI,” according to its president and CEO Dr. Bodo Goerlich.
It is this principle or DNA that impelled SPI to enter into collaborative effort with the local government unit of Jasaan and provincial government of Misamis Oriental to arrest at one go the deterioration of two of the province’s jewels —Agutayan White Island and the Macajalar Bay.
“We continually desire to live up to our promise of helping improve the quality of life of the people and protect our fragile environment by practicing good corporate citizenship and undertaking programs and projects designed to benefit our host communities here in Misamis Oriental,” Goerlich said.
Located in Macajalar Bay, the Agutayan White Island is a crescent-shaped sandbar approximately 5,000 square meters sitting on a 4.5 Marine Protected Area (MPA) situated in the middle of the 1,000 square kilometers Macajalar Bay, a major fishing ground in Misamis Oriental. It can be reached through a 30-45 minutes ride on a motorized banca from Barangay Jampason, Jasaan.
Protection from further deterioration
Macajalar Bay is an important resource in Misamis Oriental as it is a major source of food resources in Northern Mindanao and the final catchment basin of major water tributaries in the province.
But this primary source of aquatic resources in the province and region is facing serious threats because of the rapid increase in economic activities, said marine biologist Josefino Bascug, a provincial consultant on environmental concerns.
Aside from increase in economic activities, other factors that contributed to the deterioration of the Bay are coastal resource mismanagement, population growth and coastal migration, said the Macajalar Bay Development Alliance (MBDA).
The deterioration of the Bay has already affected the entire marine ecosystem, Bascug said. And the main culprit is improper solid waste management in the towns and cities surrounding the Bay.
According to Amir Elazegue leader of Scuba de Oro and brother-in-law of Gov. Yevgeny “Bambi” Emano, his group picks up at least 10 kilos of garbage everytime they dive in the waters around Agutayan.
“This sandbar is formed by the natural water movement in Macajalar Bay. Chances are, if you throw your trash anywhere in the coast, it will come here,” said Elazegue, a member of PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), an international organization of dive instructors. Which is why he urged everyone to be mindful in throwing their garbage.
MBDA also said that coral cover in the Bay has been declining from 59% in 1997 down to 39% in 2008. Human disregard for corals and illegal activities are two reasons for the decline in the number of healthy corals in the Bay.
Corals are very important especially since the Philippines is a part of a marine region located in the western Pacific Ocean comprising the Coral Triangle, where 76% of the world’s coral species live. The Philippines has the richest concentration of marine life and ecosystems in the entire planet thus making it the “Global Center of Marine Biodiversity.” And Agutayan is an important component of this marine biodiversity.
“The Watch Tower will be used to protect the Bay and Agutayan,” said Gov. Emano.
The Watch Tower is the product of a collaborative effort of the government, private sector and community stakeholders aimed at promoting a good balance of economic progress, social development and environmental conservation.
The Watch Tower, a two-storey structure, has a total floor area of about 84 meters. The first level accommodates the observation room and viewing deck, while the second level occupies the lantern room and the catwalk. The lantern room includes the electrical area and two pieces of led lights that shall be powered by solar energy through a solar panel.
For Goerlich, the Watch Tower is a “symbol of the very strong partnership between SPI and the local government unit of Misamis Oriental” not only in terms of protecting the Bay but also in strengthening the province’s Tourism Framework for Ecotourism Development.
Secure Misamisnons brighter future
The Agutayan Watch Tower will “help secure a brighter future for Filipinos in this part of Mindanao,” said Goerlich. “And we in SPI are privileged to have been given this opportunity to once again participate and contribute to the realization of our fair and collective vision of sustainable development.”
Goerlich explained that the project is one of the many ways SPI is helping improve the quality of life of the people in its host communities.
Ecotourism is one of the main programs of Emano’s administration. Thus, the young provincial chief executive sees to it that the Bay is protected, especially since it is a declared Marine Protected Area (MPA) of Misamis Oriental that provides a favorable breeding ground for endangered marine species.
As an MPA, Agutayan Island is essential for the attainment of a health balance of marine biodiversity for the entire expanse of the Macajalar Bay.
Elazegue, who has logged more than 2,000 dives in Agutayan in the last 7 years, said that he has “seen species here that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.” He identified such species as Devil Rays (pagi), Eagle Rays, and Thresher Sharks, among others.
“We have Devil Rays but we take them for granted because fishermen see them all the time. But as
divers, as tourist, we no longer see them. We have Eagle Rays. Last month we saw a squadron of 12 Eagle Rays flying by. And last April, we saw a Thresher Shark,” he said.
Thresher Sharks are very special and very rare. And it is because of them that the small island of Malapascua off the Province of Cebu has gained international recognition and economic windfall.
“In Malapascua Island in Cebu, the Thresher Sharks are the ones feeding the community because of the tourists coming in. There are resorts in the island and every year they are fully booked because foreign divers go to Malapascua Island just to see the Thresher Shark. And we have them here,” he stressed.
He lamented that two years ago, a Thresher Shark was killed by fishermen.
“Those animals are very important to the ocean. We have the tower and we have the sanctuary, they can help. But if we continue to fish like there’s no tomorrow, we don’t think of preserving them, then our kids will no longer enjoy what we are seeing today,” he pleaded.
Giving people hope, livelihood
Emano said that tourism or ecotourism is not just about people enjoying natural wonders. It is also about hope — hope for the people’s brighter future — and about livelihood.
“We have envied other provinces that has made income from tourism…We are starting history here. And we are starting economic activities not only in Jasaan but all over the province,” he stressed, adding: “It’s not just tourism; we are giving our people hope, livelihood.”
“The Watchtower will not only secure this marine sanctuary, but also the future. This is not for us, this is for our children, the children of our children. This is for our province,” declared Engr. Redentor Jardin, Jasaan administrator and former mayor.
The Agutayan Watch Tower project is a coming together of various stakeholders who forged a partnership aimed at protecting the Bay and sustaining the abundance of its marine life while at the same time achieving economic development through sound ecotourism initiatives.
The project is is a joint undertaking between the Misamis Oriental LGU, Department of Energy, Municipal Government of Jasaan, and SPI.
“Many asked us why we go into community development enhancement and environmental preservation. We answer: This is our contribution to the future of our community. We have gone beyond providing electric power to sustain Mindanao. We are helping improve the quality of life of people,” said SPI’s Goerlich.
The project directly benefits the fisher folks of the coastal villages of Jasaan and neighbouring communities. It enhances the LGU’s capability to manage more effectively the local coastal marine resources through effective monitoring and enforcement of laws, thereby protecting the hatching and breeding ground of aquatic life and allow growth and development of juvenile fish. This ensures production and reproduction of species, leading to sustainability of the local aquatic resources. Likewise, the project provides Macajalar Bay users with a suitable venue for the conduct of marine researches, as well as area for tourism adventures and recreation.
“But the Watch Tower will be useless if we don’t do our part in protecting the ocean. We have a jewel here. I begged you, let’s protect it! We need to appreciate what we have here. We thanked SPI for the contribution and the Jasaan LGU and provincial government for this effort,” Elazegue said. (Bong D. Fabe)