Connection key to Conservation

The mangrove forests of Southeast Asia are home to an incredible array of species and provide vital services upon which millions of people depend. They offer communities numerous benefits including buffering against tropical storms and reducing coastal erosion. Yet across the globe, mangroves are struggling to survive rising sea levels and deforestation. In the Philippines, the situation is even more complex with a history of cutting down mangrove forests to build aquaculture ponds for fish and shrimp farming.

Oceanus is a non-profit that was launched in 2020 to help conserve coastal ecosystems in the Philippines, including mangroves, coral reefs, and wildlife. Their work is devoted to empowering sustainable, alternative livelihoods in the southern Philippines.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Camille, Co-Founder and Program Director of Oceanus, to find out more about their vital work. More than anything, Camille is hopeful that her work is just the beginning of change in the Philippines. She launched Oceanus during the pandemic, when many Filipinos became increasingly interested in the natural world, she says,

"When there’s an emotional connection to the ocean, it’s easier to gain support."

Mangroves win over Camille

Camille studied marine science at university and though she knew about mangroves, she was not drawn to them until three years ago when she was in a coastal community paddling in a mangrove forest with the community leader. She saw trees she could not identify and a wide diversity of birds moving through the area for the winter. This trip drove her to start a career in the conservation of coastal ecosystems like mangroves. 

“It was then I realized that this place had so much to offer in biodiversity, and as a marine scientist by background, it dawned on me to work on mangroves and explore the wildlife around it. And to also work with communities through their local knowledge.” 

She continued,

“In the Philippines, they love those colorful corals but not mangroves, seagrass and marshland and that is where I wanted to work, putting a voice on those habitats that are least valued to other people and make it valuable.”

With her non-profit, Oceanus, Camille is working hard to involve  local communities in conservation. She says that most of the communities recognize the importance of mangroves in providing storm protection from the dozens of typhoons they get a year. Communities also appreciate the food security provided by the forests with crustaceans, clams and fish. Though, Camille said it can be hard to engage communities when so many members are absent, working in the cities. However, she is having great success in some areas where locals have really taken ownership of local conservation.

Camille and community members

“I'm working now with a mangrove organization group, mostly women, and their husband's who are fisherfolk. They've been a very active community here in Mindanao since the 1980s, working for mangrove protection. We are working with them to establish a nursery for the right species. They've had training before, but not science-based and they've seen the failures of rhizophora planting. We are working with them together with Xavier University to establish a nursery, use it as livelihood to sell and restore in other areas, and also replenish the right species in front of their homes for storm protection.”

Camille, like Mangrove Action Project, understands that simply doing a monoculture and quick day of mass propagule planting will not help restore mangrove forests. Re-plantings are usually rhizophora propagules planted in large grids regardless of the soil and tidal characteristics in the area.

Camille mentioned this kind of planting as a threat to mangrove conservation and how Oceanus is now actively working to combat it with community help.

Oceanus community member working with local nursery mangrove

“One threat is improper planting of the species where some people plant monoculture of species and then plant by numbers. This really has been the problem all along. People think that if they plant by numbers they can say they have restored the area. 

The metrics of restoration have to adapt locally. People then think that if they plant thousands, they don't have to go back and monitor because they think it's already good. There's no proper planning and management. Our work really involves the start to finish and emphasizes the need to monitor and make sure it all benefits the environment and the people.” 

Other threats Camille lists differ per region in the Philippines, but there is the conversion of mangroves into fishponds. She says that people get in the mindset that if the area provided for mangroves, it would be ideal for a fish pond. Oceanus is working with funds from the Global Landscape Forum to overcome the challenge of restoring abandoned fishponds. Oceanus tries to get involved with communities early to stop fish ponds from even being considered, “We advise them to not cut the mangroves, instead work with nature to produce crabs in water inlets inside the forest.”

Camille and a local volunteer searching for fishponds

Another local threat is the stripping of bark to be used in the creation of local coconut liquor. Though Camille says this can be easily solved with community education and communicating the mangrove protection laws. 

The future for mangroves in the Philippines has exciting potential. Moving forwards Camille is pleased to see mangroves gaining international attention for protection. She is interested in the future blue carbon studies in the Philippines and the potential protection blue carbon storage will add to aiding in the conservation of mangroves. 

“We also plan to protect mangroves through finding ways of biodiversity financing so we can sustain our work with mangroves and then also extend to seagrass in the coming years.” 

We are thrilled to have Camille as an Ambassador. She is making changes in how people in the Philippines think of conservation in regards to community education and involvement. She is helping communities see value in the undervalued coastal ecosystems like mangrove forests. And as a true show of her abilities and devotion to the marine ecosystem, she started Oceanus when most of the world was on pause during the pandemic. When we asked Camille if she had any advice for young people interested in getting involved in conservation, she answered with great wisdom. 

“My advice to young people is don't be afraid to reach out to people who have done work on the ground. Some youth wanted to do the things fast without knowing there are some criteria and assessment involved in restoration work. Don't go to a place without understanding the situation. And listen to local knowledge because even if youth have easy access to information, always remember there are communities who have lived in the area for years and they should benefit from the work/ projects you would like to implement. Also don't forget to research the best practices. It's not about the numbers, but it's the quality of life for the people and the survival of the trees in the years to come.

"Passion is great, but passion for nature plus scientific knowledge and empathy to communities, and local stakeholders, makes you stand out among the rest!”

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