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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2009

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The Sea around the Philippines: Governance and Management for a Complex Coastal Ecosystem

Spin a globe and plant a finger on it, and it will likely land in an ocean—no area of which remains entirely unaffected by human influence. Indeed, recent research has found that multiple anthropogenic drivers of generally damaging change strongly affect 41 percent of the world’s oceans. Fishing plays a prominent role in all marine systems, although we know most about its effects on coastal marine ecosystems, where overfishing has proven to be the most significant factor in marine species extinctions and 90 percent of predatory fish communities have vanished since the advent of industrial fishing. In the Pacific Ocean, for example, fisheries have diminished biomass and the average size of tuna and other top predator species. In many ways, the archipelago of the Philippines represents a microcosm of these problems: the waters around its central islands host the most biodiverse marine ecosystem in the world, and yet overfishing and environmental degradation place it among the most threatened.

Around the world, as fish communities collapse along with the fisheries that harvest them, and popular edible species disappear from the grocery shelves, difficult challenges face us with ever more insistence: What sort of governance will lead us out of this crisis? How we can reliably implement management rules that must accompany proper governance?

No panacea can restore and maintain the world’s tremendously complex coastal marine ecosystems, for the diverse challenges they face entail unique solutions. And tailored responses require better understanding of nature-society connections and outcomes and thus a holistic and interactive view of people and their coastal areas. Such integrative thinking achieves much more when tempered with a cautious, tentative stance rather than quick-fix attempts to control people and their environment. With the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro brought integrative thinking and the precautionary principle into the overarching sustainable development concept of joining economic development to environmental conservation and social equity. In the Philippines, the agricultural sector has long been aware of the merits of pursuing sustainable development through bottom-up or participatory mechanisms and promoting fair trade at the international level (for example, by eradicating national subsidies and enhancing the capacity of local producers).

Integrative thinking opens the door to important concerns and deliberations about which goals should take priority; what resources policymakers, managers, and local people should deploy to achieve them; and on whom these goals should focus. Local people hold invaluable perspectives on coastal problems, and deliberations should include their input—they live on the coast, after all, and are most familiar with problems that occur there.

Complex socioecological problems necessitate good governance—the collective effort of governments, businesses, civil society, local communities, places of worship, political parties, universities, and the mass media. An interactive network of actors, governance relies more on participatory approaches—shared power, relationships among institutions, and accountability—than does a top-down system. Management, on the other hand, takes a more methodological approach, focusing on achieving objectives.

The 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines and the sea surrounding them illustrate the complexity of framing a governance system and management strategies for diverse coasts. Coastal governance and management structures throughout the islands have changed in the last three decades in ways that reflect some of these concepts, although the results have left a great deal of room for improvement. But the multilayered Philippine experience is best viewed in context.

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