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Can Mayors Save the Philippines’ Coasts?


By Melissa Wright, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Environment Team

Can a common agenda inspire all 900+ of the Philippines’ coastal mayors to commit to protecting the people and their precious resources — before it’s too late?

Mayor Alfredo Matugas Coro II of Del Carmen in the eastern Philippines is a coastal mayor whose life and constituency are anchored to the sea and Rocky Sanchez Tirona spearheads Rare’s initiative to revitalize the Philippines’ marine life and the dependent coastal communities. As part of Bloomberg Philanthropies Vibrant Oceans Initiative, they have worked together for the last five years to protect Filipino coastal waters and the people that depend on them. This partnership is an embodiment of Rare’s mission to empower local leaders and build local solutions to coastal overfishing.

Mayor Coro and Rocky were together at the 2019 National Coastal Fisheries Summit, held in Cebu City, Philippines which brought together hundreds of mayors from across the country, the first convening of its kind in ten years. Over the course of the summit mayors, government officials, NGO staff, and others discussed a wide-range of issues coastal fisheries are coping with including: managing resources sustainably, collecting data, safeguarding local communities’ rights, stopping illegal fishing, mobilizing funds for coastal fisheries, and building the climate resilience of coastal communities.

During the summit, the mayors approved resolutions to:

  • Strengthen coastal fisheries governance to ensure the preferential rights of municipal fishers in the utilization of marine resources
  • Improve the condition of marine protected areas and fish sanctuaries, and establish new ones, to sustain fisheries habitats
  • Strengthen marine and fishery law enforcement in coastal communities
  • Prioritize and provide adequate financing to sustain coastal resource and fisheries management programs
  • Integrate coastal resource and fisheries in municipal climate change programs

Following the summit, the mayors offered their perspectives on the unique challenges of governing the Philippines’ coastal waters, why their leadership matters, and the impact the summit could have on the Philippines’ 1.9 million coastal fishers.

The following is a conversation between Mayor Coro II and Rocky Sanchez Tirona from the summit:

Mayor Coro II: I’ve been the Mayor of Del Carmen since 2010, and just in this short time I’ve seen so much change. In my early days, Del Carmen was almost called the illegal mangrove cutting capital of the Philippines, because we have the country’s largest stretch of mangroves in our coastal waters (over 12,000 acres) and many people were conducting illegal fishing activities there. Since Del Carmen is on the coast, the constituency I need to protect includes almost 2,000 fishers who depend on the coast for food and jobs. Our whole life is anchored on this mangrove forest.

Sanchez Tirona: Del Carmen also consists of 100,000 acres of municipal waters that he has to manage, which also include abundant coral reefs and seagrass beds. So its conservation value is high.

Mayor Coro II: Since beginning our work with Rare in 2014 to inspire members of the community to see, think, and act differently to protect the fishery, Del Carmen has transformed—the fish and mangroves are coming back, illegal activities have decreased, and we’re in the midst of an eco-tourism boom. People want to visit Del Carmen for its amazing snorkeling, delicious food, and natural beauty. It’s a special place.

Sanchez Tirona: Mayor Coro is being humble. Del Carmen has won numerous awards for its leadership and innovative approaches to protecting the town’s extensive mangrove forests and coastal fishing communities. In Rare’s eyes, he is a hero and a champion for how he’s helped his people and resources.

The Philippines’ mayors like Mayor Coro have the power to transform the country’s coastal fisheries sector. Their local government units have the mandate to manage municipal waters, the 15-kilometer area from shore, where critical habitats and ecosystems are found, and which contain some of the most important areas for the coastal fishing sector.

Like all elected officials, they are accountable to their constituency, empowered to take quick action on behalf of them, and have both the responsibility and the power to protect them. Not only that, they have the responsibility to understand their communities’ needs and the unique challenges of governing coastal fisheries, to advocate for them at all levels of government, and to enact policies or investments that serve them.

Mayor Coro II: So our latest challenge is to protect our success and make sure that the fishing communities benefit from the tourism as much as those who are selling it.

Sanchez Tirona: Through Rare’s Bloomberg Philanthropies-supported coastal fisheries program, Fish Forever, our experience tells us that working directly with communities is an effective strategy for revitalizing fisheries and building hope in coastal communities. We also know that local solutions to global challenges are essential—and mayors like Mayor Coro—are key to their implementation.

Mayor Coro II: And now Rocky is being humble! Fish Forever gave my constituency hope and skills to change unsustainable behaviors. Fishers are my priority, but through Fish Forever I learned the value of harnessing fishers’ collective identity, making sure that any efforts we put forth to stop illegal fishing and improve the resources were led by the communities.

One of my goals is now to spread Del Carmen’s positive story to others. That’s why I agreed to work with Rare on the Mayors’ Summit, because we need to share this approach with others. I’ve been approached by neighbor municipalities who want to see what we’re doing in Del Carmen because they are under the same pressures from forces like eco-tourism, illegal fishing, etc.

Sanchez Tirona: Mayor Coro’s story, the story of Del Carmen, is the reason that Fish Forever is focused on mayors as critical to its strategy, and why, with Bloomberg’s support, we were able to help the League of Municipalities of the Philippines and the Philippines’ Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources pull together the summit. Cities and their mayors are poised to provide much-needed leadership on global challenges like overfishing and climate change. While we might often assume that power resides in presidents and prime ministers, the Philippines’ coastal fishing sector’s experience makes clear that its mayors and municipal managers can mobilize other mayors and use resources to make things happen.

Mayor Coro II: The summit was an opportunity to send a strong message of hope and action. It was an important opportunity for mayors to not only align on solutions, but to see that other mayors are also taking concrete action to protect and govern our seas. And the mayors stayed for the whole day, which was amazing! It showed how much they care.

Sanchez Tirona: At the two-day summit, Mayor Coro and his peers sent a strong message to their peers in government, to national and international decision-makers, and to fishing communities all over the world that coastal fisheries matter—and that mayors, networked together, have the power to implement ambitious policies and make change happen.

As Rare and Philippine mayors highlight, empowering local communities with the direct control of their resources is proven to enhance conservation, safeguard sources of income and nutrition, and ensure long-term resilience of coastal ecosystems. For more information on the Vibrant Oceans Initiative, click here.