Conservation and calamities

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

Damaged coconut trees.  Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

Damaged coconut trees. Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

I spend a lot of time writing grants. It’s a fundamental part of conservation work to have the funds to do it. I know how easy it is to slip into the jargon of grant writing, using buzzwords and phrases like ‘building resilience’, ‘improving food security’ and ‘securing ecosystem services for future generations’. The last few months have taught me that it’s not just the future we need to worry about, it’s the here and now. Last weekend I visited our project sites in northern Panay, Philippines, that were hit by Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda).

It’s quite extraordinary driving north through the centre of the island which looks completely undisturbed until you reach the area where the typhoon hit on 8 November 2013. From that point, the leaves of the coconut trees are bent to one side, like they are permanently trapped in the storm’s wrath. Shiny new tin roofs glint in the sunshine, blue tarpaulin is dominant, and mangled homes and buildings are everywhere. The sound of chainsaws and hammering rings out as people work to recover their homes and lives.

Devastated homes.  Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

Devastated homes. Photo: Heather Koldewey/ZSL

Project Seahorse and ZSL-Philippines have, collectively, worked in the Central Philippines for over 20 years. The ZSL-Philippines team has been working with local communities for the last six to protect and restore their mangrove forests, well-known to be nature’s own mechanism for coastal protection. In the last 18 months, we’ve been expanding our marine protected areas (MPAs) to include mangroves, helping to connect vital habitats and increase coastal protection. We visit two of these partner communities – Buntod and Balaring – to deliver further aid, raised from donations through our website appeal following the disasters and from local donations. Having liaised closely with the local government and village officials, we’ve identified that these communities need building materials to reconstruct their homes and repair their boats.

There’s still no water supply, so the ZSL vehicle is piled high with containers so people can store water when the supply truck organised by the local government next comes through. We’ve also organised two trucks, one laden with 1,000 bamboo poles which will help reconstruct oyster farms washed away by the typhoon, rebuilding an important livelihood for these communities and the other carrying sheets of plywood and wriggly tin, plus nails and mastic.

Heather & wonderful old lady with jingle bells hat!  Photo: ZSL

Heather & wonderful old lady with jingle bells hat! Photo: ZSL

I’m shocked as we drive through these familiar places which have been devastated in a single day. I can hardly imagine as people tell me of the terror of trying to survive over five hours of winds of 315 km/hour. Every house in these two villages was damaged and most were completely destroyed. I am relieved to hear of the international response that brought in medical support for the first month and undoubtedly prevented major disease outbreaks. However, there is little help reaching these sites now.

In Buntod, Unicef is providing vitally important sanitation and clean water, but in Balaring it’s down to Project Seahorse, ZSL, and a few private donations. One wonderful old lady, wearing a jaunty bobble hat with ‘jingle bells’ written on it, tells me that her house completely collapsed but she is still living in it, crawling in to get some kind of shelter each night. She leaves ecstatic with sheets of plywood and tin to help her rebuild a better shelter. I feel totally inadequate and want to run after her and help her build it.

As always in the Philippines, we are met with warmth, smiles and laughter, but with terrible memories and so many daily worries, many have tears in their eyes as they share their stories. Incredibly, three of our staff; Jo, Gene and Rodney were the very first people to get to these communities after the typhoon, navigating fallen trees, electricity cables and debris. We were the first to get food and water packs to them too. And now we’re continuing to support them to rebuild as best we can. It was great to see the team keeping environmental sustainability at the core, even when there is a huge urge to help people in any way possible.

New home ready to go.  Photo: ZSL

New home ready to go. Photo: ZSL

For example, we are careful not to increase the capacity of the fishing boats and ensure the recipients of the help are part of the community groups we work with on mangroves and MPAs.

As I took a moment and walked away from the hubbub of the aid distribution, being carefully co-ordinated and documented by Rodney, I looked out to the sea. There, most of the mangroves that we’d planted with the community over the last six years still stood strong, even some of the youngest seedlings. And right in front of me, on the beach, were newly bagged mangroves ready to restart the community nursery. You don’t need to be a scientist to know the value of mangroves – these communities are prioritising restoring their forests as much as they are rebuilding their homes. So, I will write in the next grant that we will build resilience for coastal communities without worrying about jargon, because that’s exactly what we’re doing.

For more Project Seahorse coverage of Typhoon Haiyan and last October's earthquake in Bohol Province, Philippines, click here and here

Dr. Heather Koldewey is Project Seahorse's Co-Founder and Field Conservation Manager, and Head of Global Programmes at the Zoological Society of London.