Illana Bay in Zamboanga del Sur is one of the single biggest marine resources in Southern Philippines. It cuts through one province, one city, seven municipalities and 56 barangays.
Its coastal area covers 501,000 hectares, including an estimated 4,000-hectare mangrove forest. Fish caught from the bay used to supply Metro Manila and Cebu.
But decades of abuse had caused the degradation of Illana Bay’s marine ecosystem. Local governments also focused more on upland development and turned a blind eye on the dying bay.
There was mass destruction of mangrove forests and seagrass in the eighties as residents considered them a nuisance and unnecessary growth. Instead they set up fishponds and cut down mangroves to be sold as firewood.
Dynamite, cyanide, trawl and other forms of illegal fishing destroyed coral reefs that gave life to the very creatures people depended on for a living. Upland and lowland degradation also contributed to the silt that eventually covered the coastline and devastated the natural reef cover in the bay. Marine products were so depleted that fisherfolk had to travel outside the bay for their catch.
By 1998, it was becoming clear that a concerted effort was needed to save the bay.
One of the biggest challenges was the presence of several political and warring factions like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro Nationalist Liberation Front. Yet all have a common enemy: poverty, which was rapidly growing as people’s single source of income was depleted.
The local government thus created the IBRA IX Council. Agreements were signed providing clear mechanics and details of cooperation under the program, including the pooling of funds, personnel and other logistic requirements. With technical assistance from experts, the local government developed a coastal resource management plan and trained people to implement them.
The local government also passed 11 ordinances to institutionalize its policies and make the program sustainable.
In just six months after the program was launched, fish catch grew to five kilos a day per fisherman working for four hours, from three kilos. In three years, the volume of fish caught in the bay dramatically rose by 65%. Operation costs were also reduced by 30% as fishermen no longer had to go far to catch fish, resulting in greater productivity and rise in incomes.
Alternative coastal-based livelihood projects were also created. Fisherfolk were organized and honed their entrepreneurial skills.
The economic gains put hope back into the eyes of some rebels, pirates and illegal fishers, and encouraged them to return to the lives they once led. Most of them even volunteered to local Bantay Dagat organizations to further protect the marine resources.
The Alliance not only transcended physical borders, it even pierced political boundaries. Local residents now have hope that the great Illana Bay would be fully regenerated after five years.
This program is recognized as one of the Ten Outstanding Programs in the 2002 Galing Pook Awards.