Buoyant People, Missing Buoys

I arrived in El Nido with buoyant spirits and a buoy problem. I’ll start with the buoyant spirits. Even after forty-six hours of travel from Washington DC, the reason for El Nido’s fame as a tourist destination became immediately apparent. From town, the horizon in every direction is dotted with stunning limestone karst mountains. Covered in primary rainforest, they stand as monoliths, separating one coral-fringed beach from the next. It’s the kind of landscape that cannot help but buoy even the most jetlagged travelers spirit. It’s the kind of landscape that could transform even the most hardened Texas oilman into a conservationist, at least for the duration of his stay in Palawan. It’s the kind of landscape that inspires you to dive into the water and marvel at rainbow-colored reefs; to run up a mountain in search of a striking Palawan hornbill; to work hard so that your grandchildren can also wonder at the landscape you’re currently enjoying.

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As one of eight GU Impact fellows spending the summer in El Nido – five of us are drawn from Georgetown University, two from Ateneo University, and one from University of the Philippines – I am privileged with the opportunity to pursue that hard conservation work. Our task for the summer is to help local stakeholders create a communications platform in order to centralize information about El Nido’s tourism landscape and El Nido’s “national park,” the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area. By doing so, we hope to contribute some small measure to the conservation of a landscape stressed by booming local and tourist populations, and to the support of livelihoods stressed by rapid economic change. It’s daunting and exciting work. It starts with buoys.

One of our first assignments was to attend a meeting organized by the local protected areas superintendent or PASU. The subject of the meeting was the enormous mismatch in the park between boats and buoys. Ever more anchors from ever more tourist boats going into the park are damaging its vulnerable coral reefs. These reefs are already stressed by global increases in temperature and ocean acidity. The addition of localized stressors like wayward anchors could cause them to permanently disappear. So buoys, which allow boats to anchor without dropping a physical anchor, are critical for the marine ecosystem’s healthy persistence.

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The meeting, which had already been in session for four hours before we arrived, and continued for another three afterward, ran like an enormous cat-herding effort by the park’s assistant superintendent or “PASU.” The assistant PASU, named Carol, heroically tried to steer the town’s stakeholders (fishermen, resort-representatives, government officials, and dive operators) toward a unified plan for the park’s buoy population. Everyone agreed that buoys were necessary, but everyone had different ideas about how the buoys should be designed, where they should be placed, and who should be in charge of managing them. Moreover, nobody seemed to know just how many buoys were already in the water or why existing buoys seemed to be disappearing into thin air. So the buoy meeting, complicated by the uncertainty and lack of centralized information pervasive in El Nido’s tourism landscape, dragged on for a full day.

The need for complicated bureaucratic cat-herding, and the willingness of El Nido’s stakeholders to sacrifice a full day of work for a meeting on buoys, is a testament to the value of the region’s ecosystems and the caring of its people. El Nido is stunning, and El Nido’s residents recognize the importance of preserving it. But it seems the acceleration of El Nido’s tourism development and of the complicatedness of its bureaucracy has outpaced the town’s ability to manage that growth sustainably. Hopefully we can, by building our communication platform, play some small role in building the capacity required for sustainable tourism, tourism that funds conservation measures, supports local livelihoods, and builds a global awareness of El Nido’s value.

The day after the buoy meeting, we had the opportunity to accompany the protected area’s team as they monitored existing buoys. That meant that we also had the opportunity to sail and snorkel through some of the most beautiful islands in El Nido. It can be a tough internship, but I guess we manage somehow.

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