An interview with Marites (Tess) Gatan Balbas, Deputy Director of the Mabuwaya Foundation, an organisation supported by Synchronicity Earth – and others – to conserve the Philippine crocodile through its community-based wetlands conservation programme in San Mariano, Isabela in the Philippines.
Do you remember what you wanted to be when you were growing up?
When I was young, I dreamt of being a teacher. I had heard that teachers were always well respected and were a model not only for children but for everyone. As a teenager, my dream changed – I decided I wanted to be an accountant, so that’s what I enrolled to study for my first year at college. The problem was, to study accountancy, you had to go to a private college, which was quite expensive, and my parents could not afford my studies after that first year. So, rather than stopping my education, I opted to enrol in the public university in our college for a forestry course. I knew that the foresters in our municipality had a good standard of living, with big houses and a steady income – at least that’s what I had heard – because at that time logging was booming in the Philippines. At the same time, I also realised that logging was not creating a better place to live. If it’s not done sustainably, it destroys the environment.
I knew that because of all the logging, the Philippines would need people to restore the forests that were being removed, and that they would need people who knew about forests to do that.
Did you always love animals? Or did you have a specific experience that led to you being interested in animals?
Honestly, I never used to like animals! I was afraid of everything that bites and I saw people who had been bitten by animals and had died or had developed severe infections.
When I was 16 years old, in my first year at college as a forestry student, we were taught about the status of the environment and the wildlife that lives in the forest. To be honest, the lectures themselves were not all that impressive, but what they said really worried a student like me. Knowing that forest cover and wildlife species were dwindling gave me the motivation to finish my studies and try to do something to bring back the beauty of the environment as I imagined it was in the past. I started doing my share for conservation during my college days by implementing an environmental restoration project. At that time, I was the first female governor of the student body organisation and I introduced a reforestation project near to our college.
What was your first role in conservation?
When I graduated from my forestry course, I was employed as a Community Organizer with Plan International, who were implementing one of the biggest conservation and development projects in the Philippines at that time. The project was funded by the Dutch government and focussed on the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park. My work was focused on organization and training for development-focused organizations and the provision of alternative livelihood options to local farmers. But it was during this time that we rediscovered the existence of the Philippine Crocodile.
What was it that drew you towards the crocodile?
In 1999, when I was working as a community organiser in San Mariano in Isabela province, a fisherman brought a Philippine crocodile to our team.
It was the first time that I had seen a real Philippine crocodile. That was when I first learned how special this species is: it is only found in the Philippines and is Critically Endangered. I realised that if we did not do something to save it, it would go extinct.
Plan International, who I was working for at that time, started doing some research into the species. However, when that project ended in 2003, the Mabuwaya Foundation was established so that research and conservation work on the Philippine crocodile could continue.
In 2004, I was hired by the Mabuwaya Foundation as a Community organizer, because they understood the need to involve the community if we were to protect this species and save it from extinction. I knew that I was well-suited to that aspect of conservation work. Up to now, we are still working with the communities to conserve the species and its habitat. We also work with local governments, universities and village leaders.
What difficulties and challenges did you face in your efforts to conserve the Philippine crocodile?
In the Philippines, these crocodiles have an image problem! Most people have very negative perceptions of them – crocodiles are viewed as man-eaters, devils and are even associated with corrupt politicians.
When we started the conservation project, we used to hear comments like “These people (referring to Mabuwaya staff) are crazy, why do they work for the conservation of an animal that eats people?” and you would hear them laugh.
But others were more enthusiastic about it, even cooperating with the crocodile surveys. Even so, there are still some people who are quite hostile about it, especially people from outside San Mariano.
How did other people react to you wanting to protect the Philippine crocodile?
At the start, it was really very hard to convince people to protect the crocodile. But with continuous communication and education campaigns, the attitude slowly changed from being very negative to being more cooperative.
How does conserving the crocodile benefit the environment more generally?
Conserving the crocodile also means conserving their habitat, which consists of freshwater wetlands and the banks of rivers and lakes. Conserving wetlands will conserve fish and other wetland and riparian biodiversity. People also need clean water and fish and other wetland resources.
How does it benefit the community?
The community benefits from crocodile habitat conservation because of those same environmental benefits I have mentioned. They have more and cleaner water, less erosion and more wetland resources such as fish. Conserving the crocodiles did not initially provide direct and immediate benefits to the communities. But, as the success of our crocodile conservation is dependent on having the communities on board, the Mabuwaya Foundation has come up with ways to deliver direct benefits to people. For example, we provide pump wells to communities to give them clean water and limit interactions with the crocodiles. We also provide communities with fruit and forest trees that are planted within the buffer zones of the crocodile sanctuaries. People benefit from the fruit, while the forest trees serves as soil erosion control on eroded river banks. We give cash incentives for the communities that are actively protecting their crocodiles based on the number of crocodiles counted in each community every year. These cash incentives are often used for community projects, such as repairing school buildings, creating paved corn-drying areas, repairing chapels and road maintenance.
We also have a CROCS (Crocodiles in the River and Our Children in the School) programme where we provide school supplies and information packs to children living near crocodile areas. This programme involves giving lectures and putting on puppet shows in schools.
What are your hopes for conservation in the Philippines in future?
We started conserving crocodiles with just 20 individuals in 2001. The population is slowly recovering with about 100 crocodiles now. We must continue to work with communities, involving them in everything we do, train more sanctuary guards, improve environmental law enforcement and continue our awareness campaigns.
Our experience has shown that we can bring back a species from the brink of extinction to have a more hopeful future, and this species is a crocodile – one of the most maligned and least appreciated of Philippine wildlife species! If we can conserve the Philippine crocodile, we can conserve any species. I hope more and more Filipinos will become aware of the beauty of the biodiversity we have here and our ecosystems and the importance of conserving them.
What do you think other conservation organisations in the Philippines can learn from your experience with the Philippine crocodile?
I think the most effective experience we have is in the way we work with the communities and involve them in all phases of the project: from planning to implementation and monitoring. The research component is also vital as this provides a scientific basis for all the conservation initiatives of the Foundation. Collaboration with several partners, from local to national and international to share expertise is another important factor in our success. Communication, education and public awareness programmes also play a very important role in our project and should in any conservation project. Having a local organization with sustained, long-term funding is vital for the sustainability of the conservation work.
How has support from Synchronicity Earth helped Mabuwaya?
Synchronicity Earth is funding an important component of our ongoing long-term wetland conservation programme in San Mariano. Funding by Synchronicity Earth enables us to carry out communication campaigns, continue increasing the effectiveness of the management of wetland sanctuaries and continue working to increase the effectiveness of environmental law enforcement. It also allows us to (partly) pay the salaries of the Mabuwaya staff who are implementing these activities and who often visit the partner communities and municipal government.
Mabuwaya is a small NGO running a complex programme of wetland conservation in a dynamic and unstable social and natural environment in San Mariano (immigration, poverty, social unrest, lawlessness, competing politicians, communist rebels, typhoons etc.) It is essential that long-term funding is available, without too many bureaucratic demands, if we want to continue the challenge of saving the last wild population of Philippine crocodiles on Luzon from extinction while promoting sustainable local livelihoods. Funding from Synchronicity Earth is an important part of this work.
What sets Synchronicity Earth apart from other funding partners is their genuine interest in the programme, their trust in our staff and the lack of complicated bureaucratic procedures to obtain funding and implement the proposed programme, leaving more time for us to carry out vital field activities.