Top Story: November 28, 2013

Conservation Talks, Haiyan and Thanks

philippines, batangas, mabini, expedition, haiyan, terry gosliner

By Molly Michelson

“When you talk about the indomitable spirit of humanity, it’s more evident in the Filipino people than anywhere else in the world. They always look for the good and not the bad. It makes us look pretty pathetic in what we complain about here in the US. It’s really a good lesson—we should be thankful for all of the benefits we have in this country.”

That’s the Academy’s Terry Gosliner, talking about the Filipino people in general, but especially after the recent massive typhoon Haiyan.

He and Meg Burke, Director of Teacher and Youth Education at the Academy, left for the Philippines on November 10th, two days after the superstorm hit. Gosliner has visited the Philippines many times for research and conservation work. In 2011, he led a team of Academy researchers and Filipino scientists on a large expedition to survey biodiversity in and around the Batangas province there. A large part of that expedition included outreach, education, and discussion around conservation policy for one of the hottest biodiversity hotspots on the globe. Meg Burke also played a significant role in those conversations.

And they (the conversation and Burke and Gosliner) haven’t really stopped since.  In October, the Academy signed a MOU with Conservation International (CI) to mobilize the best and most current science in support of more science-based conservation outcomes. Based on the 2011 Philippines expedition, CI saw how well the Academy leveraged science to make quick conservation decisions. Not an easy task.

Building on those outcomes and the recent partnership, Gosliner and Burke headed back to Batangas to ease some of the concerns of the local villages, or baranguays. The Academy has worked hard with the local governments to conserve marine life, establishing new marine protected areas and expanding existing ones. Some leaders are concerned with some of the restrictions, so Burke and Gosliner discussed some of the more controversial areas of their recommendations.

They also met with the mayor of Mabini, a town in Batangas where the 2011 expedition was based. The mayor is excited to work with the Academy to establish an aquarium and education center.

Finally, Gosliner spoke to all of the Batangas provincial board members, “similar to California state legislators,” Gosliner explains. During a formal legislative session, Gosliner, Burke, and the board members had a two and a half hour discussion about marine protected areas and a coastal management plan for the province.

“In the context of a horrible typhoon, the government officials recognize that healthier ecosystems protect coastal towns from storm surge. They see that it’s time to take this protection seriously,” he says. “They asked a few questions and then voted unanimously to support a coastal management plan. They also asked us to help draft what it might look like.”

Gosliner is still amazed at the enthusiastic support. “Imagine getting a unanimous vote in the United States! Haiyan heightened peoples’ awareness of the issue and they felt this was something worthwhile—there was this sense of urgency.”

But the urgency should be felt beyond Batangas, Gosliner says. “Sadly, the Filipino coastal communities can effectively manage their local ecosystems, but global climate change will still create difficulties for their lives. Filipinos have very little control over CO2 emissions and have actually very little contribution to those emissions in the first place.”

In his decades of work in the Philippines has he seen storms get more frequent and stronger, such as Haiyan? “Absolutely more frequent and stronger.” Does he think climate change is responsible? “Absolutely. They are totally related in my mind, there’s very little doubt of that.”

In February, Gosliner and Burke will return to the Philippines to follow up with the Batangas legislature and keep the ball rolling on their coastal management plan. In April, Gosliner and fellow Academy researchers will return to the area on an expedition funded by the National Science Foundation. “We plan to expand surveys of the Verde Island Passage, because it is so rich, to better understand how that richness is distributed. We’ll also sequence the DNA of targeted species to get a better grasp on how genetic exchange works in the different areas. We’ll also have a team of scientists exploring the twilight zone there.”

In the meantime, Gosliner, Burke, and their colleagues are thankful. Grateful to work in an area so rich in biodiversity and rich in human spirit. When Gosliner returned from the Philippines earlier this month, the entire Institute of Biodiversity Science and Sustainability here decided to forego their annual holiday party and do something really worthwhile with the money they would’ve spent: they’re sending it to aid recovery efforts in the Philippines in the aftermath of Haiyan.

(You can help, too. The Academy suggests donating through Oxfam, Habitat for Humanity, or the International Rescue Committee.)

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