Philippine Daily Inquirer / 07:02 AM November 08, 2015
Here’s some good news: The pinnacle of Philippine scuba-diving and its underwater treasure, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP), a Unesco World Heritage Site, was officially launched as the 35th Asean Heritage Park (AHP) on Thursday, Nov. 5.
Considered the true “Last Frontier” of the country’s waters, Tubbataha (the name comes from a Samal word, meaning “long reef exposed at low tide”) sits in the center of the Sulu Sea, over 97,000 hectares of unfathomable depths, charismatic species and ripping currents.
Some 182 km outside Puerto Princesa, it’s also located within the Coral Triangle, considered the global center of marine biodiversity.
The TRNP, described by Asean Centre for Biodiversity executive director and lawyer Roberto Oliva as “a piece of heaven on earth,” is the first ever marine park in the Philippines, and the fourth in the Asean region, to join the prestigious roster.
“AHPs are known for their unique biodiversity, ecosystems and outstanding values,” says Angelique Songco, Protected Area superintendent of TRNP for the last 15 years. “They are areas recognized as priorities for conservation in the region. Being inscribed as an AHP means our network of support has expanded—and in nature conservation, support is precious currency.”
‘Poor voyage planning’
Tubbataha last hit the news, though in a less pleasant way, in January 2013, when the USS Guardian, a 224-foot American Navy ship, ran aground there due to “poor voyage planning,” as authorities admitted later, damaging over 2,000 sq m of reef.
In February 2015, the United States paid the Philippines P87 million in damages.
Here’s the bad news: Songco and the park have yet to see the money. Amid the clamor to make the money a direct donation to park management, it was instead channeled through the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Although the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) is not recognized as a government agency and receives no government funding, it is now being asked to submit a “work plan” to get the money—or an explanation for how they’re going to use it.
“The reason the fund was transferred to DENR is precisely because we are not considered a government office by the Bureau of Treasury and the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), so DENR was considered the default agency,” Songco notes.
In a meeting with the agencies last September, Songco reports, it was agreed that the payment would be transferred to the Tubbataha Trust Fund created under the Tubbataha Act of 2009. “The documentation to enable the transfer is now in the hands of the DENR.”
Songco, conservationists and the diving community are eagerly awaiting the release of the funds so Tubbataha can be better protected.
“Using the US compensation as seed money to establish an endowment fund, from which interest alone will be withdrawn, could ensure the park of at least P3 million in annual revenues, without diminishing the capital fund,” say Songco.
“There are many financial wizards in this country who can help us. I harbor the dream of having consistent funding with which to manage this crown jewel of our ocean.”