To say that the Philippines is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots is an understatement. We know some of the famous species of plants and animals that are found only in our country. Many of us have seen some of the ecosystems that add to the natural beauty of our country. Sadly, we know all too well the decline in biodiversity of our lands and waters due to many threats.
One of the most important areas that exemplify all of this is the Verde Island Passage (VIP), known as the “Center of the Center for Marine Biodiversity”.
“The Amazon of the Oceans”
Covering an area of 1.14 million hectares, the VIP is a strait surrounded by Batangas, Marinduque, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro and Romblon. It is home to 60 percent of all known shore fish species in the world. Its waters are home to more than 300 species of coral, 1,700 species of fish, and thousands of other marine organisms such as whale sharks and sea slugs.
Scientists say VIP’s rich biodiversity is partly a result of the Philippines’ geographical position, being at the overlap of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and spanning a long latitudinal distance that includes many marine species. In its geologic history, sea surface temperatures were relatively stable and ocean currents were strong, allowing unique ocean life to thrive.
The VIP is considered the center of biodiversity of the Coral Triangle, one of the eight major coral reef areas in the world. This strait also offers many popular dive sites that allow visitors to see underwater creatures, coral reef formations, rocky canyons, and other sites that only enhance their appreciation of marine life.
Neighboring communities also benefit from the goods and services made possible by the region’s coastal and marine habitats, effectively supporting over seven million people. Its coral reefs provide breeding grounds for fish species that form the backbone of the livelihoods of 31 coastal municipalities and two nearby towns. Ecotourism is also an important part of the local economy through activities such as diving, especially in Batangas.
The ecosystems and biodiversity of the VIP also serve as natural barriers reducing the risks of possible storm surges and sea level rise. In the age of climate emergency, the capacity of mangroves, wetlands, seagrass and other seagrasses to store carbon dioxide is essential to slow warming and avoid more catastrophic impacts, especially in vulnerable communities.
Threats, old and new
Despite its ecological importance, the VIP is no stranger to the same human-made threats faced by other key biodiversity areas in the Philippines. These threats include agrochemical pollution of its waters, garbage from residential areas, negligent tourism practices, destructive industrial activities and harmful fishing practices, and coral bleaching exacerbated by climate change.
The discharge of waste into its waters is a serious concern. As a busy passage for ships traveling to the ports of Batangas, Manila and Subic Bay, commercial vessels release various pollutants into the waters, exposing communities and ecosystems to harmful substances. Corals in the area could also be damaged by large anchored ships in stormy weather. Domestic sewage and urban waste can also be discharged into the ocean without any appropriate intervention.
In this regard, local authorities need to devise mechanisms to regulate and monitor such discharges of waste into the VIP. Priority actions include educating coastal neighborhoods, shipping lines, neighboring industries and upstream farming communities about the urgency and importance of conservation in this region and the actions they can take to avoid harm him.
Along with all of these issues, there is yet another emerging threat in the region that local stakeholders need to pay attention to: the expansion of the natural gas industry.
Proposals have emerged for the construction of eight new gas-fired power plants and seven new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals near the VIP. These aim to address the Philippines’ energy security concerns, with proponents claiming that natural gas is an ideal “transition fuel” between coal and renewables.
However, natural gas is also a fossil fuel along with coal and oil, the combustion of which is already recognized by scientists around the world as the main cause of global warming and climate change, which in turn impacts the VIP himself. Our country would probably have to import natural gas like it does coal, which could lead to even higher electricity prices.
Additionally, the construction of pipelines and other infrastructure needed to make these facilities operational directly threatens biodiversity, posing risks to the economic, environmental and social well-being of residents. This potentially poses even more danger to many already endangered species such as sea turtles, groupers, humphead wrasse and giant clams.
The VIP is not just another biodiversity hotspot that gives tourists Instagram-worthy photos and fond memories. It is important to the lives of millions of Filipinos and countless creatures in its waters. Its well-being is also relevant to issues of energy security, climate action and local economic development.
As everything in nature is interconnected, the decline of this region could have adverse effects years from now without us even knowing it. Why risk it? Why wait? Isn’t prevention better than cure?
It is high time our generation learned from the mistakes of the past. We must protect this very important paradise. We have to protect the VIPs… Verde Island Passage.
John Leo is Deputy Executive Director of Programs and Campaigns for Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and a member of the Protect Verde Island Passage Campaign. He has been a climate and environment journalist since 2016.