Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The province of Dinagat and its potential for agriculture

#PCCP #Philippineagriculture #DinagatIsland #Caragaagri #CaratExpo

Dinagat Island is the last province of the Philippines.  In the 1930’s, President Manuel Quezon declared the entire land area of Dinagat Islands (then a part of #Surigao) as a mineral preserve.  Since that time, about 25% of the land area has been removed from this designation for agriculture and other purposes.

Today, locals are starting to realize that if people are to live and thrive on these islands, there is a need for clean, fresh water, and that this entails protecting the watersheds from which fresh water flows.  As we all know, open cast mining and protected watersheds do not go well together.  So now, despite the diversity of mineral resources on the island, there is a further call to remove more land from the mineral preserve designation.  People have come to realize that you can’t drink dirty water and that fish don’t grow in silt and mine tailings. 

Dinagat is dotted with stunning landscapes and views.  Its provincial capitol administrative center is located about a 10-minute drive up a mountain from the hilly port city of San Jose.  Recently, I attended the 2nd Provincial Business Conference or ProBizCon on Dinagat Island with the theme “Accelerating Business Development, Stimulating Economic Growth”.  I participated as the Keynote Speaker.

Many of the attendees were part of Chambers of Commerce in the Caraga Region.  The Philippine Cold Chain Project is tapping the Chambers to help develop an increased awareness of the potentials for marketing of various products that originate in the Region.  In doing so, PCCP supported the development of a “Regional Logo” to help people identify Caraga with a specific product or symbol.  In this case, we have chosen the tiger lobster as our logo.  The reason for this is that this lobster is cage-raised in this area and is a product that, while not unique to the place, is one that no other region closely identifies with, is a high value product that is widely-raised and has a market range that goes far beyond the boundaries of the Philippines. 

The CARAT Expo or Caraga Agricultural Trade and Marketing Expo will be held November 7 to 13, 2016 at Robinson Place in Butuan City.  We have so far seen a lot of enthusiastic participation and support from government and the private sector in order to promote and facilitate this event.  It has the potential to be a very successful first of its kind activity for Caraga that will ultimately raise the level of interest and promote the region and its products, especially specialty products like lobster and mud crab.

Wood mining
We took the early morning trip to Dinagat from Surigao City on a boat called ‘the Sea Horse’ and arrived on the island at around 7 am.  The boat is a large outrigger boat that has the capacity of about 140 people combined with a variety of cargo.  We made our way up the hill to the Provincial Guest Center in San Jose.  Of course, overnight it had rained which seems to be the norm every time I come to the place.
Dinagat Island has an interesting recent history which features the Ecleo clan.  A rather imposing Disneyland style “castle” can be seen from miles away when approaching San Jose.  I see the way forward for business development in Dinagat as involving several aspects of development.  First and foremost, what Dinagat has to “sell” is the scenic beauty of the place.  Hilly islands, beaches, seafood, clear ocean waters all add to the ambiance of the place. 

Dinagat is mostly unexplored by tourists except a few hardy backpacker types and members of a local “fraternal” order started by the Ecleo patriarch.  Like 99% of the Philippines, Dinagat has suffered from removal of its original forests and these forests have been supplanted by coconuts, cogon grass, scrub brush and mining areas.  This has had a negative effect on streams, wildlife, and general sustainability of local living conditions.  I once visited a similar area in Agusan del Sur in the mountains where PCCP had a commercial gardening demonstration project.  A fellow was walking around the garden with a shovel and an ax.  I asked one of our partners what this fellow was doing and the response was that he was “wood mining.”  Now this is a term that was new to me so I asked for further clarification.  It seems that the only thing remaining of most of the old hardwood forests are the stumps and roots of the trees that were cut.  Since these types of wood are mostly rot resistant and very hard, they remain in the ground long after the tree had been cut down.  There is a market for this wood for various types of woodworking or charcoal making, even though it may be illegal to harvest.  So it is common for people to dig out or “mine” remaining wood removing even the last vestiges of old hardwood forest evidence.

Here in Dinagat, a few of these stumps of old hardwood type trees can still be seen.  It is a real tragedy however  as,  even if only 10 % of this forest was left intact as a preserve, I can imagine that the economic returns from forest products, tourism and wildlife promotion could provide far more profits than  any other economic activity on this land, even mining!

But we have to bear the burden of shortsightedness and greed when it comes to the environment.  On this land that was once a forest 30 to 50 years ago, PCCP is presently working with Producer Groups (PGs) to grow vegetables.  Off in the distance, it is easy to see the scars from an abandoned mine.  People of my generation could recount when there was still a forest surrounding the island and when streams were full of fish and it was easy to see roaming monkeys and other wildlife.  This is now all pretty much a faded memory and something totally unfamiliar to current day school children.

Selective development
So we are promoting commercial vegetable products.  But this too has its own challenges.  The first is, once the product is harvested, where can it be sold?  Secondly, how can each group establish a regular production cycle that can provide market demand with a regular supply of product?  Then there are the factors of developing good water use practices and conservation of soil and water.  At the end of the day, people in Dinagat can and should be self-sufficient in vegetable production for the entire island.  However a lot of the current practice for vegetable sellers at the local market in San Jose involves making twice weekly trips to the vegetable wholesale market in Surigao and then bringing the produce back to be sold in the island.  This is a practice that could be halted if vegetable producing groups and wholesalers become organized so they can guarantee regular supplies to the local market retailers. 

Another important aspect of development for Dinagat Island that should be considered is what I call “selective development.”  What do I mean by this?  Looking at the case of development of Boracay Island, a banana shaped island with a long stretch of west-facing white sand beach just near Panay Island in the Visayas--in 1981 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the area, Boracay remained a sleepy but stunning tourist destination.  The lodging on the island then was mostly of bamboo and thatch construction.  The shower water was brackish, and electricity was provided by generator sets if at all.  Local seafood was abundant and there were big stretches of beach and bush between groups of bungalows.  Contrast that with what has become of Boracay today.  Once local land owners and politicians solved the problem of electricity--by installing an underwater cable from the mainland--and solved the water problem by installation of an underwater pipeline, it was off to the development races of filling up every little bit of vacant and non- vacant space with tourist type infrastructure.  However, this “greedevelopment” free-for-all neglected to look at the long term of what makes the island a destination in the first place--clean water and white sand beaches.  So hotels were built almost on top of each other, roads became jam packed with traffic never imagined 20 years earlier, flooding of poorly planned areas and streets with no drainage became common, substandard housing for all local employees went up where ever possible and most deleterious of all, a general lack of sewage treatment infrastructure has yet to be put in place.  So where does all the “crap” go?  Out into the ocean to be “diluted.” 

Not a pleasant thought for sure and Dinagat needs to learn from this. It has to be careful and selective on what it wants to develop. Improving the environment with planting of diversified tree species and mangroves is always a plus.  Cleaning up ocean litter and beach trash is easy enough to do with the right sensitization programs in place.  A certain vision to maintain the things that make this place unique must also be sustained; things like vehicle regulation, maintenance of food quality, cold storage and iceplant capacity, and an educated populace that understands what visitors and tourists will pay for and enjoy doing.  Touring mining sites does not fit in with this selection of activities.

Aqua tourism
Dinagat has a great potential for developing “aqua tourism” activities.  Several times, I have had the opportunity to visit lobster-raising projects here.  Once we took a pump boat to Gaboc Whirlpool channel.  This area is notable for a swift tidal current that creates whirlpools as waters push into or out of the channel.  Locals attest that when it is low tide on the west side of the island you can drive across to the Gaboc Channel and see that it is high tide on the east side of the island!

Lobster raising areas are in the mangroves out in the ocean.  One takes a pump boat into the mangroves to find the areas where people live in the mangroves and raise lobsters in cages below and beside their houses.  Here, the ocean water is clear and live corals can be seen, even if some appear to be covered with some siltation.  Locals used to cut mangroves for wood.  Mangrove wood was especially ideal for bakeries as it had a high BtU content and gave off very little smoke.  This practice has, for the most part, stopped as a result of community-awareness raising.  Communities also practice weekly or monthly clean up days to remove floating garbage from their areas of production. 

While visiting these areas, it is normal to plan a lunch activity.  While lobsters are not consumed for lunch since these are for income, the community does provide varied lunch fare that consists of a variety of local seafoods, rice, boiled root crops and some vegetables.   Each time I go on one of these visits, I get the feeling that the lobster farmers could make as much or more by farming tourists (aqua tourism) if the opportunity was understood and promoted.  The visit always feels like a National Geographic type experience…unique, and experientially rich in content. 

One only has to look to the north to the island of Bohol to understand how selective development can help to sustain an island economy.  Bohol has taken its chocolate hills, water resources and tarsier (tiny monkey) to make tourism a sustainable source for locals’ opportunities.  Gaboc channel, great sea food and vegetables, lobsters and aqua tourism should be mainstays to drive the economy upward on Dinagat.  Also the business leaders should develop selectivity in their approach.  By highlighting and marketing Dinagat as a “mystical” island, and keeping tourist numbers at a reasonable level, Dinagat can avoid the circus like disorganized and greedy development that characterizes Boracay today.  Selectively advertise for adventure tourists, provide a great experience and great food but charge accordingly…if that can be the mantra,  Dinagat’s reputation as a prime destination for high quality food and adventure tourism will prosper and so will its people and environment.