September 2010 Archives

Tuvalu - A Nation of Superlatives

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Want to visit the world's least populous nation?  If so, I suggest you pack your sunscreen and head to Tuvalu, whose nine Polynesian atolls are home to 12,373 inhabitants.  Formerly known as the Ellice Islands, Tuvalu achieved independence from England in 1978.  Want to visit a smaller nation?  Only Monaco and nearby Nauru can claim a more diminutive status, as Tuvalu is the world's third smallest nation.  Want to visit a lower lying nation?  Only the Maldives edges out Tuvalu, whose highest elevation is a mere 16 feet above sea level.  It is this latter fact that indirectly led to my recent visit to this very remote island nation. 

You see, Tuvalu is understandably very concerned about the rising oceans due to global warming.  In other parts of the world, this change might impact the types of crops that are grown, how much energy is used, and the introduction of new tropical diseases.  In Tuvalu, rising oceans may submerge the entire nation under water.  As Samuel Johnson said, "The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully."  Indeed, for Tuvalu the prospect of being drowned does cause a nation to take rising sea levels very seriously.  Unfortunately for Tuvalu, the negative impacts of the rising oceans are already being experienced in terms of stronger storm surges that reach farther inland.  During my recent visit, many village elders described how this is already happening, with areas that never before experienced flooding now regularly underwater during storms.

It is well known that mangrove forests ameliorate the impact of storm surges.  As was seen in the great Southeast Asia tsunami several years ago, villages that kept their mangrove forests intact suffered less damage than those that had cut their mangrove trees down. Consequently, the Tuvalu atoll of Nanumea approached Seacology for support of a win-win project.  Nanumea has a population of 660 people and outside of government employment there are no (as in zero) paying jobs on the island.  Everyone lives off the bounty of the land and sea in a subsistence fashion.  Therefore Nanumea was seeking support for the renovation and expansion of a Woman's Centre where the local women can make traditional handicrafts for sale in the capital city of Funafuti.  In exchange, the people of Nanumea would begin a two acre lagoon based mangrove nursery and reserve, planting over 1,000 mangrove seedlings along the coastline.  Seacology's response was a resounding "YES."

Along with Seacology president Ken Murdock and 42 other guests on Zegrahm Expeditions' exploratory cruise ship the Clipper Odyssey, I recently attended the official opening of the Nanumea project.  As we came in to the lagoon on our zodiacs, we were serenaded in traditional fashion by villagers who came out to greet us on their kayaks.  After receiving flowered headdresses from the wonderful Pula Taofa, coordinator of the Tuvalu National Council of Women (TNCW), and other high ranking village representatives, we walked over to the new Women's Center.  The speeches made by Pula and her colleagues from TNCW were very moving and made it clear that the Women's Center will allow women to earn income from the manufacture of traditional handicrafts and give them not only much needed income but also a sense of independence and accomplishment. It was then time for Ken Murdock and me to cut the ribbon officially opening the new Center (see photo below).  

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Photo credit Ramona Wilson

We then traveled by zodiac rafts to the other side of the lagoon to inspect the mangrove nursery (see photo below) and plant mangrove seedlings. 

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Photo credit Ramona Wilson

 It is very much in the tradition of Seacology to get our hands dirty (in this case literally) and lend a hand to our projects. The photos below show Jerry and Don Zieglar with a mangrove seedling (left), and local women planting mangroves (right).

Don & Jerry Ziegler Nanumea.JPG Local Women2.JPGWith our work completed, it was now time to celebrate.  The village put on an incredible fest featuring pigs and chicken baked in an earth oven.  Afterwards, we were treated to a wonderful performance of singing and dancing. Ken Murdock and I made our way through the 80 villagers singing in a tight knit circle around a large drum and joined the villagers in the drum circle, which was a very moving experience. As a surprise to my fellow passengers, Seacology had arranged to be the first major customer of the Women's Handicraft Center and with our support, the village presented everyone with gifts of beautiful handmade dresses, necklaces and fans.  It was an event that none of us will ever forget.


Photo credits Giovanna Fasanelli

Seacology's field representatives, which act as the Seacology's ambassadors in some of the most remote islands of the world, are an extremely important part of what makes our work so effective. Ferdie Marcelo, who represents Seacology in the Philippines, maintains a lively blog about his adventures. His latest post (below) describes one of Seacology's newest projects--providing a small community called Sitio Lubo with a micro-hydro power generator in support of the protection of 6,178 acres of watershed forest.  But this post only scratches the surface of Ferdie's amazing experiences working with Seacology. Be sure to check out Ferdie's other blog posts on his website.


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Sitio Lubo is at a cusp. Economic activity is on the upswing, but  infrastructure support is not keeping up. Farms are yielding sacks and sacks of corn and peanuts, but the far upland community is not being served by the power grid running through the Municipality of Lake Sebu, water is tapped from the many waterfalls through makeshift  flexible hoses, and the roads are so bad that mud is 3 to 4 feet deep in many sections. On one hand, coal mining companies have offered to fix the roads, provide electricity and even scholarship programs, in  exchange for rights to extract coal from the area. On the other, Seacology and its partners, Yamog, MISEREOR, and AMORE have offered to provide renewable energy through micro-hydro power in exchange for the community's commitment to protect their watershed. The community chose renewable energy.

Barangay Ned is the biggest barangay in the Municipality of Lake Sebu. 
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With a total area of 21,246.27 hectares, it is likely also the biggest barangay in Mindanao, if not the whole country, in  terms of land area. Sitio Lubo, one of some 30 sitios in Barangay  Ned, has a total area of 7,345 hectares, 2,500 hectares of which is part of the Kabulnan Watershed Forest Reserve. The climate is cool, a consequence of the 900 meter average elevation.

We arrived in the village on September 10, 2010 at about 3:30 pm  after an hour and a half ride on a pick-up truck, which took us from the General Santos City airport to the Municipality of Sto. Nino, and another 4-hour ride on a motorcycle up the southern Tiruray Highlands after a quick early lunch. We were supposed to have met with the community leaders at about 5:00 pm, but the meeting was preempted by an unscheduled PTA assembly at the Lubo High School on Responsible Parenthood, precipitated by an incidence of teenage pregnancy. We had to reschedule the following  day. Just as well. Ridingtandem on a motorcycle as it sloshed for hours uphill through thick mud and loose rock took a lot more from me than I expected. I was tired.

Sitio Lubo residents  generally rely on kerosene for lighting and fuel wood for cooking. A few households lease solar power home systems from a cooperative for P220 a month - pretty steep considering one unit can only power 3-4 lightbulbs per night. Still fewer households have small 3-kilowatt gas-fed generators, which provide enough power for several lights, a television set, and a satellite dish antenna. Gil Bopas, who graciously fed us and put us up for the night, is one of the latter.

Owners of a corn farm, corn mill and a sari-sari store, Gil Bopas and  his wife Josephine, who teaches at the Lubo High School, are one of the more affluent members of the community. But  they too are looking forward to the promise of clean energy from the micro-hydro because it would mean 24-hour electricity for their appliances without having to buy fuel all the way from municipal centers like Sto. Nino. There are simply no gas stations in these mountains.

Lubo High School itself owes much of its facilities from the local PTA. Its 12 computers were provided by the PTA, and the generator that powers them was also solicited from the PTA. Internet connection and fuel for the generator? Monthly PTA dues. In a sense, the community seems to have been left to fend for themselves, but it also seems that they are doing a pretty decent job at coping as well.


Saving the Muri Reef

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Seacology recently celebrated the completion of our project in Muri in the Cook Islands, where we are protecting the region's fragile coral reef and surrounding lagoon. 

Scattered across central Polynesia, the Cook Islands contain hundreds of miles of coral atolls and tropical lagoons. Inhabited by Polynesians since the 6th century, the islands were not discovered by Europeans for several more centuries, and were named after the 18th century explorer Captain James Cook. Formerly under the jurisdiction of New Zealand, the Cook Islands are now independently governed. 

The largest of the fifteen islands, Rarotonga is encircled by shallow lagoons and coral reefs. Home to numerous fish, seabirds, invertebrates, and other species, coral reefs like those on Rarotonga are marine metropolises. The corals themselves are small animals whose deposits of calcium carbonate make up the foundation of the reef ecosystem. It is on these layers of hardened coral that other species build their lives (see picture below). A rich variety of fish inhabit coral reefs, feeding off the many smaller fish, invertebrates, and plants that thrive in reefs, using the structures for habitat and protection. Some, such as the clownfish and parrotfish, are known for their vibrant colors and patterns. Numerous invertebrates, such as sea urchins and sponges, as well as seagrasses and algae, also populate reefs. With such abundant life, larger animals, including seabirds, marine turtles, dolphins, barracuda and sharks, live in or frequently visit coral reefs, depending on them for sustenance.

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Worldwide, coral reefs are among the most threatened of all ecosystems. High in biodiversity, they cover less than 1% of the world's oceans but contain about 25% of all identified marine species. Corals are highly susceptible to many environmental hazards, such as pollution, destructive fishing practices, and the harmful effects of climate change, particularly ocean acidification. With reefs disappearing so rapidly, it is imperative that intact reefs, such as those in Muri Lagoon, receive as much protection as possible. 

Close to the reef is Muri Beach, a popular tourist destination that features beautiful beaches and lagoons as well as coral reefs (see photo, below). Muri's corals were recently threatened by preparations for the 2009 Pacific Mini Games--plans included clearing a large portion of the lagoon for boating events. With the local community adamant about conserving their lagoon and natural resources, this development was soon halted, and the village sought to establish permanent conservation restrictions for the area. 

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Seacology is pleased to invite all our San Francisco Bay Area supporters to our 2010 Seacology Prize Ceremony. The Seacology Prize is an international award given each year to an indigenous islander for exceptional achievement in preserving the environments and cultures of the world's 100,000-plus islands. The 2010 Seacology Prize recipient is Mr. Rabary Desiré of Madagascar, who has spent several decades protecting the unique biodiversity of northeastern Madagascar.

On an island of immense poverty and rapidly diminishing natural resources, Mr. Desiré is a leader in conservation. A highly sought-after research and ecotourism guide in northeastern Madagascar, Mr. Desiré has dedicated his life to preserving Madagascar's natural resources. He established his own private conservation area, the Antanetiambo Nature Reserve. Located on a former coffee plantation, Antanetiambo Reserve is an inspiring example of successful reforestation, and today provides critical habitat for many of the island's endemic species. Mr. Desiré is a self-taught ecologist who has become an expert on Malagasy flora and fauna, especially the critically endangered Silky Sifaka lemur. He has also been active in investigations and condemnation of the illegal rosewood logging threatening the region's forests. For his lifelong dedication to conserving Madagascar's biodiversity, Mr. Rabary Desiré is awarded the 2010 Seacology Prize.

Join Seacology Board Members and supporters on Thursday, October 7 at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California to honor Mr. Desiré and hear his remarkable story. For more information on the event, click here. 

A full press release describing Mr. Desiré's achievements can be found here

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