Saving Naujan Lake

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Biodiversity advocates on Mindoro Island are pushing for the enactment of a law that will strengthen the protection of the Naujan Lake National Park (NLNP), one of the first national parks in the Philippines.

The Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc. (MBCFI) is working closely with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in support of the move to have the NLNP declared a full-pledged protected area under Republic Act 7586, or the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act of 1992, and its amended version, RA 11038, or the Expanded Nipas Act that was signed by President Duterte on June 22.

As part of its 10th founding anniversary celebration on July 13, the MBCFI, led by its Executive Director Grace Diamante, turned over relevant documents to the NLNP Protected Area Management Board (PAMB). This include the Protected Area Sustainability Assessment, Initial Protected Area Plan, draft presidential proclamation, draft bill and documentation.

In a telephone interview on July 12, Diamante underscored the importance of declaring the NLNP a full-pledged component of Nipas and E-Nipas.

“Once proclaimed, the NLNP would be the first protected area in Oriental Mindoro to become a full component of E-Nipas,” Diamante told the BusinessMirror.

Henry Adornado, the regional director of the DENR for Mimaropa, confirmed during a telephone interview on July 16 that the DENR has received the documents from the MBCFI.

“Naujan has an existing proclamation, but it is only as an initial component. The documentary requirement leading to the enactment of a law has just been completed and will be forwarded to higher office,” he said.

Situated in the municipality of Naujan in Oriental Mindoro province, at the heart of the NLNP is Naujan Lake, the fifth-largest freshwater lake in the country, and perhaps one of the most important lakes in the Philippines.

It is critical to the completion of the link of the migration pathways for migratory bird species passing the East-Asian Australasian Flyway.

Protected area

Naujan Lake is a wetland of international importance and is listed as a Ramsar Site since 1999 because of its strategic location. A Ramsar Site is a wetland designated of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and came into force in 1975.

The lake is an important wintering area for an assortment of species of migratory birds passing through the Philippines during the migration period, usually between the months of September and April.

Recognizing its rich biological diversity, then-President Ramon Magsaysay signed Presidential Proclamation 282 on March 27, 1956, making the NLNP among the very first protected areas in the Philippines long before the Nipas Act became a law in 1992.

The NLNP covers a total of 21,655 hectares, including the Naujan Lake, which has a total of 8,125 hectares surface area.

The lake is shared by a total of 24 barangays in the towns of Naujan, Victoria, Socorro and Pola in Oriental Mindoro.

Economic importance

A source of income and livelihood of communities, the Naujan Lake is a growth driver in Oriental Mindoro.

Besides providing food, mainly several species of migratory and native fish, the lake also provides the raw water supply to the communities for domestic use and irrigation.

It also facilitates the fastest means of transportation through the use of motorized boats so the people could bring their produce from one barangay or town to another across the lake.

Threatened

Although already a protected area, the Naujan Lake remains highly vulnerable to the rapid growth and development being experienced in Oriental Mindoro, particularly owing to the encroachment of human population around the lake.

Like most protected areas, the NLNP—being rich in natural resources—is prone to abuse.

The lake is experiencing environmental degradation because of the poor management and enforcement of environmental laws, and the unchecked farm practices that poison the lake’s water with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Vast watershed

The watershed in which the Naujan Lake exists covers about 30,000 hectares.

It is fed by the Macatoc, Borbocolon, Malayas, Malabo, Maambog, Malbog and Cusay Creeks in the East; by Bambang, Tigbao and Tagbakin Creeks in the West; and Subaan and Singulan Rivers in the South, according to the NLNP profile prepared by the DENR-Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB).

Besides providing water for domestic use and irrigation, and food, like freshwater fish, lakes are important in providing communities with a natural defense against climate change’s worst impacts—flood.

Lakes, like marshes and, most especially, peats, help prevent flash floods and can mitigate climate-change effects, like sea-level rise and flood brought about by storm surge.

Unique wetland

The NLP is a unique wetland because it harbors numerous unique flora and fauna in various habitats—from terrestrial, freshwater and coastal to the marine ecosystem. It hosts several island-endemic species—those found only in Mindoro and nowhere else in the world.

A prominent land cover in NLNP is marshland, which measures about 585 hectares, or 3 percent of NLNP, and a portion of it is peatland.

In such habitat, 16 species of migratory birds are found in the park, including the threatened Philippine duck.

Trees and plants

Because of its river systems, lakes, marshes and peats, Naujan Lake supports the rich biological diversity that thrives within the NLNP.

According to the DENR-BMB, while only 15 percent of the total area of the park is classified as forestland, its vegetation is impressive—because it is covered with a mixture of forests, shrubs and grassland.

It is home to 443 indigenous and 74 native species of trees and plants, many of which are, however, threatened or potentially endangered.

According to the DENR-BMB, terrestrial and aquatic wildlife also thrive in the NLNP.

Birds, mammals, reptiles

It has 105 species of birds, 21 species of mammals and 33 species of reptiles and amphibians.

These include the endemic and threatened Philippine duck and the globally significant population of tufted ducks, as well as other migratory water birds, such as terns, herons, egrets, bitterns and stilts.

Endemic and threatened birds, such as the Mindoro imperial pigeon, Mindoro bleeding-heart pigeon, black-hooded coucal and Mindoro hornbill, are also found in the area. The endemic Philippine freshwater crocodile was discovered in the NLNP.

Native, endemic fish

The Naujan Lake is known for having a good number of native fish, including the endemic goby fish, or biya.

The DENR-BMB said a total of 30 fish species have been recorded in the lake, including 11 migratory fish species, making it an important breeding, nursing and feeding ground for migratory fish, as well.

Meanwhile, 18 of the fish species recorded in NLNP are of economic importance. Two of them are classified as globally threatened—the pait (vulnerable) and common sawfish, also known as barakan or pakangan (critically endangered) in Bicol—on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Not part of E-Nipas

Unfortunately, despite the NLNP’s rich biological diversity, it is not included in the 94 protected areas that received stronger protection with the signing of the E-Nipas Act in June.

Kathy Lene S. Cielo, Conservation Awareness Raising and Education (CARE) program manager of MBCFI, told the BusinessMirror that the exclusion of NLNP from the E-Nipas may have been due to its not being considered a priority because of the concerns on population density around the lake.

Nevertheless, she said the exclusion may be a blessing in disguise to allow lawmakers pass a separate law on NLNP.

“The enactment of a law will prevent destructive development projects within the NLNP. Just recently, a geothermal project was approved. There is also human encroachment which we need to stop,” she said in a telephone interview on July 15.

E-Nipas coverage

E-nipas basically expanded the coverage of RA 7586 and provided a stricter penalty and higher fines to violators, which include the local officials who may be slapped with criminal and administrative charges that could lead to perpetual disqualification from public office.

There are 240 protected areas across the country. However, most are considered as a mere initial component of E-Nipas because of lack of legislation to back their declaration.

Of the 94 protected areas classified as national parks under E-Nipas, only five are in Mimaropa region that is composed of the provinces of Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan.

These are the Marinduque Wildlife Sanctuary, Apo Reef Natural Park, Mount Calavite Wildlife Sanctuary, Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park and Mount Guiting Guiting Natural Park.

With E-Nipas, there are now a total of 107 protected areas and national parks that are backed by legislation.

Threatened wildlife

The DENR-BMP document revealed that many species within NLNP are threatened with extinction. Three species are classified as critically endangered, one endangered, six vulnerable and two are restricted-range species. Twelve species are known as congregatory species.

Some of the threatened species in the NLNP are the critically endangered black-hooded coucal, the endangered Mindoro variable-backed frog that is only found in Mindoro, the vulnerable Philippine-hawk eagle, Philippine duck, ashy ground-trush and the Philippine sailfin lizard.

Protection needed

A large number of ducks and waterfowl occur in the NLNP, and the lake supports numerous fish fauna.

Errol Gatumbato, technical advisor of MBCFI, told the BusinessMirror through e-mail that it is necessary to protect the entire NLNP because the Naujan Lake supports a good number of waterfowls and several terrestrial endemic species due to diverse habitats in the area.

This is to ensure the existence of habitats and their associated species, some of which are already threatened by extinction.

Fishing ground

According to Gatumbato, the lake itself is a major freshwater fishing ground in Mindoro Island.

“Numerous lakeshore communities are dependent on the lake for livelihood,” he said.

On the terrestrial side, the remaining forest patches in the NLNP are part and parcel of the watershed that supply freshwater to its four municipalities—Naujan, Socorro, Pola and Victoria.

Act of Congress needed

Gatumbato noted that since the NLNP is only an initial component of the then-Nipas Act, it requires a new presidential proclamation and an act of Congress for the NLNP to become a fully fledged national park under the E-Nipas Act.

“Such proclamation by both the President and Congress will ensure the permanency of the NLNP’s boundaries and management regime, including site-specific provisions that would address issues and challenges in the area. The funding may also be made available, as well as the provision of regular personnel to handle day-to-day activities in the protected area. These are some of the reasons why it is being proposed that the NLNP shall be declared [a full component protected area],” he said.

He said if NLNP is declared as a full component of Nipas and E-Nipas, it will reduce, if not eliminate, all forms of threats, which include illegal fishing, pollution, and encroachment for settlement and agricultural development, and excessive or overfishing in the area.

Increasing number of people

“On the other hand, the increasing [human] population in the terrestrial side of the protected area is creating more pressures in the remaining natural forest that is already fragmented and mostly comprised of secondary forest. The governments, both national and local, should provide investment for the protection of the NLNP, including funds for sustainable livelihood of communities,” he said.

The Philippine Congress and the DENR should allocate sufficient funds for the effective management of the protected area, while ensuring that protection efforts are being implemented in the area, he said.

More important, the local government units, in particular, should engage communities in the development of sustainable livelihood, especially ecotourism, while other stakeholders, like nongovernment organizations, should participate in activities related to community organizing and development, and conservation awareness and education, he said.

For her part, Diamante believes that the degradation of the NLNP means losing one of Mindoro’s national treasures.

“It would likely lead to habitat destruction and subsequent extinction of species. The productivity of the different ecosystems found in the protected area will also diminish, thereby reducing the ecological and economic values they provide to the people,” Diamante noted.

Image credits: MBFCI

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