It all started with an earthquake.
It was not out of the ordinary when the ground began to tremble in the fishing barangay (village) of Silonay, Philippines, on November 15, 1994: Part of the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” the Philippines is no stranger to earthquakes. But in the months after the temblor, something strange happened: Mangrove seedlings began to sprout up along the muddy banks of the nearby river that emptied out to the ocean.
Before the earthquake, a few mangroves grew near the ocean’s edge, but most of the coast was bare. Whenever typhoons hit and the storm surge rose, the river flooded the town.
Just over two decades later, the former stretch of mud looks like this:
Climate change is already being felt across the globe, making growing seasons less predictable, raising sea levels and exacerbating extreme weather events such as typhoons and droughts. Adapting to this new reality is critical — and in small towns like Silonay, where poverty is chronic and manmade solutions few and far between, protecting nature may be the easiest, cheapest way to do it.
In fact, it has already saved people from catastrophe.
The new reality
Separating mainland Luzon and the island of Mindoro, the Verde Island Passage is known for its spectacular range of marine life, from whale sharks to sea turtles to record numbers of coral species. These waters also provide food, income from tourism and other benefits for more than 7 million people, including the 1,400 residents of Silonay.
When mangroves began growing here, the villagers didn’t quite know what to do with them. Ever resourceful, people began to use the trees for what they could. “[People] cut them down,” said Silonay resident Alma Bool. “They used them as firewood.”
What they didn’t realize is that by destroying these newly created fish nurseries, they were potentially jeopardizing their main source of revenue: fishing.
In 2009, scientists with Conservation International (CI) visited Silonay as part of a larger mission: to figure out which areas within the Verde Island Passage were the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. Among other changes, they predicted:
- Rising ocean temperatures, causing coral bleaching and resulting declines in fish populations;
- Increase in local sea levels, leading to more land being claimed by the ocean; and
- Greater frequency and strength of typhoons.
When the researchers met with community leaders to share the results of their study, they had another piece of bad news: Silonay appeared to be among the most vulnerable areas within the passage. But the scientists also explained that the town’s residents also had an unprecedented opportunity: to protect its serendipitous mangroves to help protect themselves.
The giving trees
Steamy, muddy and full of sharp branches and biting insects, mangrove forests don’t have the same cachet as redwoods or palm trees. Yet they play a crucial role in buffering coasts from storms — significant given that about half the global population lives within 60 kilometers (37 miles) of the coast.
Since 2012, CI and Silonay residents have been working together to protect and expand the natural barrier between the town and the ocean. Community members agreed to prohibit the cutting of mangroves; in return, CI donated several kayaks and helped them to build a 900-meter (almost 3,000-foot) bamboo boardwalk through the forest. The kayaks and boardwalk help community volunteers monitor the area and keep a lookout for rule-breakers (a watchtower was recently built as well).
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The kayaks and boardwalk also enables visitors to get a close look at the trees and the bird and crustacean life they support. The small entry fee to the forest includes a mangrove seedling, which the visitors (sometimes tourists, but mostly local schoolchildren) plant themselves to ensure that the forest keeps expanding.
In addition, the money from visitor fees provides seed funding for other income-generating projects organized by the community and supported by CI and other partners, from selling snacks and mangrove-themed T-shirts at a small shop to baking chips to sell to local schools. By finding a variety of ways to make money, residents are reducing their risk from the potential collapse of any one industry — and therefore making themselves more resilient to the effects of climate change.
Weathering the storm
A lot of Filipinos have Typhoon Haiyan stories — recollections of the storm (known locally as Yolanda) that swept through the country in 2013, killing more than 6,000 people and devastating entire towns. The Silonay story is less dramatic than it could have been.
“We didn’t evacuate,” Bool said. “The whole community stayed [in Silonay] because we thought that our mangroves will protect us.” And they were right — although the town flooded during smaller typhoons, the mangroves kept Haiyan’s waves at bay.
Bool credits hearing about the devastating impact of Haiyan on the town of Tacloban (located on another island) as a wake-up call alerting everyone in her community about the true value of these coastal forests. “It became an eye-opener here, and when they learned how Typhoon Yolanda destroyed Tacloban, and how one island in Samar was spared because of the mangroves.”
But their benefits go beyond storm protection — there are everyday victories, too.
“It’s where the fish lay their eggs, and that’s why the supply of the fish in our seas is continuous,” said Morel Bool, a Silonay fisherman and Alma’s cousin. “Before there were mangroves here, fishing was quite difficult, and it got to a point that our catch was so limited that we had to venture farther.” Thanks to a growing fish population, dolphins have even begun returning to the area after years of absence.
As world leaders prepare for December’s U.N. climate meeting in Paris, at which participants are to deliver a global climate change action plan, the residents of Silonay are already one step ahead. They’ve been taking their own actions for years, recognizing that protecting nature is in their own interest.
Now, everyone in Silonay leaves the mangroves alone to do what they do best. And on the rare occasion when someone (usually an outsider) is caught violating the no-cut rule, the community knows what to do.
“One time, we arrested a poacher and we brought him into town,” recalled Morel Bool. “We just asked the violator to plant trees.”
Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.