Conserving Mangrove Ecosystems in the Philippines: transcending disciplinary, institutional and geographic borders

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Conserving Mangrove Ecosystems in the Philippines: transcending disciplinary, institutional and geographic borders.
By Joshua Farleya*, David Batkerb, Isabel de la Torrec and Thomas Hudspetha
aUniversity of Vermont

bEarth Economics

cIndustrial Shrimp Action Network

*Corresponding author


Humans are rapidly depleting critical ecosystems and the life support functions they provide, increasing the urgency of developing effective conservation tools. To develop such tools, we must move beyond narrow disciplinary borders and see the whole conservation picture. Academics must move beyond the institutional borders of academia to work with government and civil society to turn research into action. We must learn to communicate effectively across disciplines and across institutions to convey our knowledge to people with the power and authority to act on it. We must also recognize that when facts are uncertain, stakes are high, decisions urgent and human values important, the conventional scientific method may no longer be appropriate. While the conservation and environmental management literature supports these assertions, there are few descriptions of approaches to conservation that meet this prescription. Using a case study of the conversion of mangrove ecosystems to shrimp aquaculture, the paper lays out such an approach. We worked in close collaboration with academics, non-government organizations, local government and local communities to organize a workshop in Puerto Princessa, Palawan, Philippines. The primary objectives of the workshop were: (1) to train participants in the basic principles of ecological economics and its goals of sustainable scale, just distribution and efficient allocation; (2) learn from the local participants and participating scientists about the problems surrounding conversion of mangrove ecosystems to shrimp aquaculture; and (3) draw on the skills and knowledge of all participants to develop potential solutions to the problem. We presented our results to the press and local government, which acted on them, shutting down the aquaculture ponds we studied to conserve the threatened ecosystem. Moving beyond narrow disciplinary and institutional borders played a critical role in achieving this outcome. We believe our approach is useful and replicable, but conclude that conservation efforts on the necessary scale will require effective international collaboration, moving beyond political borders as well.


Humans, like all species, depend for their survival on the life support functions of healthy ecosystems. Humans also depend for their survival on an economic system that transforms resources provided by nature into essential goods and services, but in the process diminishes ecosystem health and with it the capacity to sustain life. With the advent of the industrial revolution, economic production of non-essential goods and services began to catastrophically alter the global ecosystems that provide life support functions, thus threatening our species’ survival. New transdisciplinary fields such as complexity theory, environmental management, environmental history, political ecology, conservation biology, and ecological economics along with tools such as systems thinking and modeling have helped us to understand how ecosystems generate vital ecosystem services, how important such services are, and how humans interact with them. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) recently concluded that human activities are seriously degrading ecosystems that provide vital life support functions for humans and others species. The problem we face now is how to conserve the ecosystems on which we depend for our survival. The stakes are high, and the need to act is urgent. What are other key facets of this problem, and what can be done to address it?

The problem of conservation is wickedly complex, involving natural systems, social systems and human values (Ludwig, 2001; Berkes, 2004). In many cases, we are dealing with unique, evolving ecosystems, a sample size of one, affected by ever changing human technologies, making it very difficult or even impossible to reduce uncertainty (Faber and Proops, 1990).. Under such circumstances, the conventional scientific approach is inadequate (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993). We understand the general problem and know (to some extent) what to conserve, but we don’t know how to implement conservation and restoration in the real world on the scale necessary to preserve the life support functions on which we depend. In conservation science, research is of limited value if it can't be translated into action (Orr, 1994). We must transcend the boundaries between research and activism. While there is no single best solution, and no single best path to achieving a solution, there are a number of factors likely to contribute to acceptable solutions.

First, we must recognize that conservation is a multi-faceted problem. Humans are an integral part of ecosystems, and societies have co-evolved with them (Norgaard, 1994; Gowdy, 1994). Understanding the social-ecological system requires synthesis across the social and natural sciences (Berkes and Folke, 1998; Functowicz and Ravetz, 1993). there is a strong call for interdisciplinary research in the conservation science literature (see for example Sanchez-Azofeifa et al., 2005; Brewer, 2001; Czech, 2002; Mascia et al., 2003). Unfortunately, universities generally take a narrow, disciplinary approach to education. Analysis of textbooks and syllabi in conservation science shows little evidence of interdisciplinary training (Niesenbaum and Lewis, 2003), and interdisciplinary research continues to confront serious obstacles in academia (Campbell, 2005). Successful conservation efforts must develop frameworks for interdisciplinary research and training. The problem is that educators who have not conducted interdisciplinary research have a difficult time training students to do so, and students educated within narrow disciplinary boundaries have a difficult time communicating with experts in other disciplines and engaging in interdisciplinary research. Effective solutions demand that we transcend disciplinary boundaries.

Second, conservation requires inter-institutional collaboration: Viable conservation strategies require integrated effort from scientists, conservation professionals, community stakeholders, government, non-governmental organizations and the business sector (Farley, Erickson and Daly, 2005). When facts are uncertain and values matter, the local knowledge and values of the communities most closely linked to specific ecosystems must complements scientific expertise (Berkes and Folke, 1998; Functowicz and Ravetz, 1993). Similarly, inter-institutional alliances are necessary to muster the political resources necessary to challenge the dominant economic growth paradigm, for ultimately conservation cannot succeed in the face of continued growth in population and material economic production (Johns, 2003; Czech, 2003; Daly, 1997). Unfortunately, conservation scientists have largely failed to integrate their scientific knowledge into specific social, political and economic contexts so that it actually leads to conservation (Bawa et al., 2004). The recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report (2005), conservation groups and academics have all made a strong call for inter-institutional collaboration (Farnsworth, 2004): What is lacking is the dissemination of an effective framework for promoting it. Effective solutions demand that we transcend institutional boundaries.

Third, better communication skills are essential. Interdisciplinary research demands that scientists learn to communicate with each other, but unfortunately the dominant approach in academia is to train separate disciplines to use mutually unintelligible languages riddled with jargon (Farley, Erickson and Daly, 2005). Scientists must also learn to communicate to decision makers and the broader public (Farnsworth and Ellison, 1997), but public communication skills rarely are part of the scientific curriculum. Effective solutions demand effective communication.

Fourth, we must recognize the limitations of conventional science in the field of conservation. Even seemingly similar ecosystems often have unique characteristics, and conservationists often focus attention on ecosystems with large numbers of endemic species ore other special characteristis: it is there very uniqueness that makes them worth preserving. We often know little about the systems, lack baseline data for comparisons, and suffer from a sample size of one which makes statistically significant observations impossible. Under such conditions, uncertainty cannot be resolved, reducing uncertainty may take far more time than is available, and delaying conservation decisions while we gather more data can be an irreversible choice. Typically, the decision to conserve or not conserve an ecosystem has different impacts on different groups, including future generations, bringing up ethical questions of fairness, justice and attitudes towards risk. Under such conditions there can be no objective decision-making rule, and the scientific method must be expanded to integrate the knowledge and values of those most affected by the problem, even when it is anecdotal in nature—an approach that has been dubbed post-normal science (Ravetz and Functowicz, 1993), adaptive collaborative management, or adaptive management (Schelhas and others, 2001; Buck and others, 2001). Post normal science and its allied approaches provide a solid theoretical framework for for transcending disciplinary and institutional boundaries.

This paper presents the results from a transdisciplinary workshop/field-course in ecological economics (see Farley, this issue, for a brief description of the field) funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that took place in Palawan, the Philippines, from January 2-16, 2002. The immediate goal of the workshop was to learn from local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and communities about the problems presented by the conversion of mangrove ecosystems to shrimp and fish aquaculture, and to apply the principles of ecological economics to solving them. Our broader goal across the three workshops was to develop a framework for conservation efforts that: 1) transcends disciplinary and institutional boundaries; 2) stresses communication across disciplines, institutions and geographical regions; and 3) adopts the approach of post-normal science, in order to 4) translate academic and local knowledge and community goals into effective conservation projects. We believe this approach is necessary for solving complex problems and for training people to solve them. While our framework led to success in this specific case study, we recognize that it might prove inadequate in other circumstances because it fails to account for ecosystem values extending beyond local political jurisdictions. We therefore conclude with a call for tackling the more complicated task of transcending political boundaries in conservation efforts, which we believe is another prerequisite for successful conservation efforts on the scale required.

1 The Problem of Mangrove Conversion

The interaction between the human economy and mangrove ecosystems offers an excellent case study of a wickedly complex problem best addressed through a transdisciplinary participatory problem-solving approach.

Healthy mangrove ecosystems provide an abundance of goods and services of critical importance to humans and other species, examples of which are offered in table 1. In contrast to human made capital, these benefits are provided in perpetuity with no depreciation or maintenance costs, continually renewed by solar energy.

Ecosystem Service

Provision by Mangroves

Gas Regulation

Mangroves store CO2 and growing mangroves can create O2, forests can clean SO2 from the atmosphere.

Climate Regulation

Mangroves play an important role in global climate regulation through carbon sequestration. Mangrove litter falls into the ocean, where its carbon content is sequestered much more effectively than in terrestrial systems. As a result, mangroves sequester up to 1.5 tons of carbon/ha/year Ong, 1993). They also play a role in regional climate regulation through evapotranspiration and cloud formation, affecting both rainfall and transport of stored heat energy to other regions by wind. Microclimate is regulated through the impacts of shade and insulation on local humidity and temperature extremes.

Disturbance Regulation

Mangroves buffer the impacts of storms and even tsunamis on adjacent terrestrial communities and ecosystems (Kremmer, 2005). By slowing the rate of water flow and allowing silt to settle out, they may reduce the impact of flooding on adjacent marine ecosystems such as sea grass beds and coral reefs.

Supply of raw materials

Mangroves transform sunlight, carbon dioxide and organic matter into durable, water resistant timber for building and charcoal, some species have bark that can be used as a dye, and they provide habitat for a variety of food resources such as crabs and mangrove worms.

Water supply

Evapotranspiration can increase local rainfall.

Waste absorption capacity

In addition to their role in slowing water flow and allowing sediments to settle, mangroves can absorb large amounts of waste flowing from land, further protecting marine habitats.

Erosion control & sediment retention

Mangrove root systems stabilize land against the erosive forces of the sea, and retain sediment flowing from land.

Nutrient cycling

Mangroves capture and reuse nutrients that might otherwise pollute marine ecosystems.


Mangroves are fertilized by insects, bats and moths, thus helping support the wild populations of these highly valuable pollinators.

Biological control

Insect and bird species harbored by mangroves are likely to prey on insect pests

Refugia or habitat

Published estimates of commercial seafood species that depend on mangrove ecosystems for at least some stage of their life cycle range from 67% in eastern Australia (Untawale, 1986) to 80% in Florida (Hamilton and Snedacker, 1984), and nearly 100% of the shrimp catch in ASEAN countries (Singh et al., 1994, all cited in Ronnback, 1999). Mangroves provide vital habitat for a wide range of other species, and are a critical nesting site for hundreds of bird species. They create the conditions essential for the reproduction of many of the species they contain. Mangroves support a vast variety of marine life in complicated food webs supported by the detritus they generate.

Genetic resources

Mangroves contain many unique biological materials, many of which have medicinal uses.


Boating, birdwatching, fishing, etc.


Mangroves have aesthetic, artistic, educational, spiritual and scientific values

Table 1: Examples of ecosystem goods and services provided by mangroves.

Adapted from Costanza et. al., 1997 and la Torre and Barnhizer, 2003

In spite of the benefits they provide, mangrove ecosystems are being lost at an alarming rate. Once covering some three quarters of tropical and subtropical coastlines (Farnsworth and Ellison, 1997), today they cover perhaps one quarter of tropical coastlines (World Resources Institute, 1996), and about half of the remainder is in a degraded condition. An estimated 35% of global mangrove cover has been lost in the last 2 decades alone (Valiela et al., 2001). In the Philippines, some three quarters of mangroves have been lost since record keeping began in 1918 (Primavera, 2000).

One of the leading causes of mangrove loss currently is conversion to shrimp and fish aquaculture, in which coastal mangrove forests are cleared for ponds, seeded with shrimp larvae, and provided with fish meal feed in order to grow shrimp and fish to adult size at high densities. Aquaculture pollutes local waters with effluents and, by pumping vast amounts of fresh groundwater, often draws saltwater into coastal aquifers, damaging the water supply of local communities. Following 3-9 years of production, intensive shrimp aquaculture operations typically succumb to disease and pollution and are then abandoned (de la Torre and Barnhizer, 2003). Aquaculture is responsible for the loss of at least half of the Philippines’ mangroves (Primavera, 2000).

As a result, shrimp aquaculture has become highly controversial. For investors, the international demand for shrimp makes aquaculture a lucrative opportunity in spite of falling shrimp prices. For developing nations, shrimp aquaculture brings in export earnings and foreign exchange. Yet coastal communities in over 40 nations have come into sharp conflict with the shrimp aquaculture industry as wild fisheries and other ecosystem goods and services have declined and reduced the incomes of coastal communities as a result of shrimp aquaculture expansion (de la Torre and Barnhizer, 2003).

Our project focused on community conflict with shrimp aquaculture in the municipality of Puerto Princesa, Palawan, the Philippines (see figure 1). We worked on two specific case studies in small, remote and fairly poor communities adjacent to large mangrove areas. In the community of Tagabinet, an outside group (whose exact identity was difficult to ascertain) had recently re-established a previously abandoned aquaculture project and begun clearing old growth mangroves to expand it. In Babuyan, local community members were working to install shrimp farms in previously cleared mangrove ecosystems. Owing to space limitations, this article focuses primarily on the Tagabinet case study. Tagabinet is located on Ulugan Bay in the municipality of Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island (see figure 1). Ulugan Bay accounts for 15% of all mangrove forests in the Philippines (UNESCO, 2002). Tagabinet is a relatively isolated, poor rural community. The mangrove forest in question is pristine, old growth forest near the St. Paul Underground River National Park, a World Heritage Area—one of the best preserved ecosystems on one of the best preserved islands in the Philippines.

Figure 1: Palawan Island, The Philippines, showing the city of Puerto Princesa and a blow-up of the Ulugan Bay region, showing Tagabinet (UNESCO, 2002).

2 Methodology

The transdisciplinary approach to applied problem solving operates on the principle that the specific problem determines the appropriate theories and methodologies to apply. There is no generic blueprint for all conservation projects. To understand the problem of mangrove conversion and seek effective solutions, we developed an applied, problem solving workshop/field-course that blended elements of a “Scientific Atelier” with an ecological economic “skill-share”.

The Scientific Atelier is an adaptive, self-designing, collaborative problem-solving process pioneered by the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. This approach brings students and faculty from several disciplines together in problem-focused, adaptive, workshop settings. The courses focus on a particular research topic and produce academic journal articles with practical policy implications that represent a new transdisciplinary synthesis of the problem. The approach assumes “peer-to-peer” interactions among the participants, and all participants share the common goal of addressing the chosen research topic from their particular perspective and sharing and learning about other perspectives. Course organizers choose the research topic and assemble a number of component resources that are available for use during the course. These resources consist of lectures on specific topics, computer modeling hardware and software, reference data and literature, training in collaborative problem-solving, and library resources. Research is driven by the specific problem rather than a particular set of disciplinary theories and methods, but an effective workshop requires that appropriate disciplinary knowledge and tools be available.

The ecological economic skill-share is a similar process developed by the Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange in which ecological economists learn from activist organizations and community groups about the issues they are tackling, educate the activist organizations on the principles of ecological economics, then work together to apply principles to practice in order to solve specific problems. To a greater extent than the atelier, the skill-share addresses problems identified by the local community, stresses local community and stakeholder participation, and emphasizes implementation of solutions over publications. Adding to both approaches, our workshop integrated a web-based teaching module to provide participants with essential background information (

An interdisciplinary group of university professors from the University of Vermont Gund Institute for Ecological Economics (GIEE) collaborated with two international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange (APEX) and the Industrial Shrimp Action Network (ISANet), to organize an atelier/skill-share focused on the impact of industrial shrimp aquaculture on mangrove ecosystems, fisheries and local communities in South-East Asia, immediately establishing a transinstitutional approach. APEX and ISANet used their extensive contacts in the Philippines to arrange local partnerships with three other NGOs: the Philippines Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM, the largest NGO in the Philippines), the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), and Tambuyog (a Filipino NGO working on coastal resource management issues). These local partners identified the island of Palawan in the Philippines as an appropriate site for the workshop. The City of Puerto Princesa under Mayor Edward Hagedorn and the Palawan State Technical College also joined as organizers, co-sponsors and participants. ELAC identified the communities of Tagabinet and Babuyan, where it was already working, as appropriate case studies.

It is important to emphasize that while the GIEE, APEX and ISANET decided on the general focus of the workshop and the initial selection of local partners, it was our local partners who identified the specific problems, sites and ultimate goals. Our objective was not to parachute in to study a problem for two weeks, but rather to contribute our skills and resources to ongoing local NGO efforts, thus ensuring solid background preparation, community involvement, and continuity.

Selected through a competitive process, participants came from 6 continents (34 Filipinos, 20 internationals) and included students, professors, NGO staff, government officials, and lawyers. Collectively, these participants had expertise in fisheries, economics, ecology, environmental education, ecotourism, hydrology, tropical coastal biology, shrimp aquaculture, ecological restoration, systems modeling, GIS, law and communication. About 100 other people participated in portions of the workshop. Organizing the workshop consisted of identifying the primary issues, partners, format and background information which were made available on the Web. All participants were required to review the web-site to acquire essential background information. ELAC identified sites and key questions and built local commitment and participation.

Our approach emphasized analysis of the component parts of the problems, synthesis to understand how the parts interact to form a whole system, and communication of the results to each other, decision makers and the broader public. Through communication we also intended to make our results useful to other communities and decision-makers in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The primary objectives of the workshop were: (1) to train participants in the basic principles of ecological economics and its goals of sustainable scale, just distribution and efficient allocation; (2) learn from the local participants and participating scientists about the problems surrounding conversion of mangrove ecosystems to shrimp aquaculture; and (3) draw on the skills and knowledge of all participants to develop potential solutions to the problem.

3.1 Narrative of the project.

Participants began the workshop with an intensive three-day “immersion” in the issues. Presentations covered the impacts on local people affected by shrimp aquaculture, the perspective of the shrimp industry and government officials, global statistics and patterns of investment and trade in shrimp, the social and environmental impacts of shrimp aquaculture in other countries and regions of the Philippines, the ecology of Palawan’s mangroves, the natural and political history of Palawan, and a basic training in ecological economics. The immersion continued with two days of site visits in Palawan hosted by ELAC, Tambuyog and the City of Puerto Princessa to shrimp aquaculture sites (Tagabinet and Babuyan), old growth mangroves, local coastal communities, and St. Paul’s Underground River National Park, adjacent to Tagabinet.

With this transdisciplinary informational foundation, groups formed around specific aspects of the problems of primary concern to the Tagabinet and Babuyan communities. The initial task of each group was to analyze a specific component of the problem, such as the ecological impacts of conversion and a qualitative and quantitative valuation of services lost, community attitudes, the economic benefits and risks of shrimp aquaculture, the distribution of both economic and ecological costs and benefits, alternative means of earning a livelihood, legal issues, environmental education, ecotourism, mangrove restoration and so on. Groups encompassed the full diversity of participants and included group facilitators.

Under the circumstance of the project, stakeholder engagement was critical, particularly so in the absence of any objectively 'optimal' outcome. In addition, we hypothesized that the more that stakeholders were involved with the project, the more likely they were to find research results to be credible and act on them. However, we also had to be aware that the more involved stakeholders had more to gain or lose from any particular outcome. Information from disinterested stakeholders therefore carried considerable weight. As outsiders newly arrived in the region, it would have been difficult to establish a trusting relationship with community members and gather the necessary information, but by partnering with ELAC, we were able to use the data it had gathered and take advantage of the social capital it had built with the community.

Clearing of the mangrove and dike construction was taking place as we were studying the problem, threatening the irreversible loss of vast expanses of the ecosystem and all the services it provided. There was no time for sophisticated scientific assessments. If we did not come to concrete conclusions during the workshop and somehow implement them, it would be too late. Under such circumstances, a transdisciplinary, transinstitutional approach was essential, and if we failed to transcend the boundaries between research and activism, our knowledge acquired would only apply to a system no longer in existence. Adjusting to the urgency of the situation and the uncertain nature of the facts, we were forced to rely on anecdotal information provided by informal interviews with community members and local workshop partners. We supplemented local knowledge with the results of scientific research on similar systems elsewhere. We strove for optimal ignorance—gathering only the minimum information needed, as best we could judge, to assess the situation and propose a course of action. Because stakes were high, we sought to use triangulation wherever possible—when 3 or more separate sources or disciplinary perspectives agreed, information carried more weight (Farley, Erickson and Daly, 2005). We also sought to avoid irreversible outcomes, which in this case meant that arguments for inaction had to bear the burden of proof.

Analysis was interspersed with synthesis, understanding how the various parts of the system fit together in order to suggest policies that would promote a sustainable, just, and efficient use of the mangrove forest. Our approach was for all of the working groups to present their results to each other in the evenings following field work. Experts in systems modeling integrated the results into computer simulations of the ecological economic system that provided a clear picture of the whole system and helped us identify key feedback loops as well as places to intervene in the system to produce desirable outcomes.

3 Results and Discussion

Though we gathered considerable information, we report only on what proved most important to the project's concrete outcome. This includes the benefits derived from healthy mangroves as compared to those of shrimp aquaculture, to whom those benefits accrued, the legal status of the deforestation, and its irreversibility. As the nature of the problem forced us to integrate original but often anecdotal research with the published scientific literature, we present both here as results of the project.

Healthy mangroves provide both ecosystem goods (raw materials, or elements of ecosystem structure) and ecosystem services (those ecosystem functions of value to humans (Costanza and others, 1997; Daily, 1997). Community members depended directly on the mangrove ecosystem for small amounts of building materials, mud crabs, ‘mangrove worms’ – a local delicacy – and other resources. Additionally, a small indigenous community lived on the borders of the mangrove forest in question, and relied heavily on its resources. Mangroves provide fish indirectly by serving as nursery for most of the regions commercial fish species, and fishing is one of the main sources of income in Ulugan Bay. Mangroves also help sustain fisheries by capturing pollutants and sediments in water runoff, thus protecting coral reefs and other critical marine habitats. Though no specific studies were found for Ulugan Bay, Naylor and others (2001) estimate that for every kilo of shrimp harvested from shrimp ponds in Thailand, 446 grams are lost from near-shore fisheries alone. In the Philippines, 1.7 billion milkfish fry for stocking fishponds are captured annually in the wild, and an estimated 10 billion fry of other species are destroyed in the process. Recognizing that aquaculture ponds often have a short life expectancy, foul surrounding ecosystems with their waste, and frequently transmit diseases to wild populations, it is quite likely that intact mangrove ecosystems actually produce more seafood when intact than when converted to shrimp ponds—not to mention that shrimp are carnivores, and require on average nearly 3kilos of fishmeal to produce one kilo of shrimp (Naylor and others, 2001).

In addition to renewable production of ecosystem goods, mangroves provide the vital service of protecting nearby communities against storms, tsunamis and wave surges. The importance of this service was made transparent by the 2004 tsunami, where numerous studies showed that loss of life and property was significantly less in communities protected by mangroves (Dahdouh-Guebas and others, 2005; Danielsen and others, 2005). The Tagabinet mangroves also contributed to the spectacular beauty of the area, and hence played a role in a growing ecotourism industry. There is a current initiative to develop community-based sustainable tourism in the region (UNESCO, 2002).

Aside from direct benefits to the Tagabinet community, their mangrove ecosystem provided a number of regional and global services. Mangroves sequester large amounts of carbon, and provide vital habitat for a number of terrestrial and marine species, including many that are threatened. Balmford et al. (2002) found that if we account for these ecosystem services as well, the net present value of intact mangroves is approximately four times greater than shrimp aquaculture ponds.

Conversion of the mangroves to shrimp aquaculture directly threatened these values. Even though Philippine laws explicitly prohibit the cutting of mangroves, the Department of Agriculture in the Philippines leases coastal lands at very low rates to private owners who subsequently clear mangroves for aquaculture. (Personal communication, Gerthie Mayo-Anda, ELAC). A government lease for an existing shrimp and fishpond in the mangroves near Tagabinet expired in 1999, and was not renewed. The pond was abandoned. A group from outside the community purchased the fishpond, and then in 2002 began to expand it, illegally clearing 14 hectares of mangrove and constructing large dikes to create ponds, a process which threatened the remaining mangroves by disrupting hydrological flows. This high intensity aquaculture was profitable, but with a short life expectancy, and only employed a handful of local people (though building the dikes employed more people for a brief period). Virtually all aquaculture shrimp production was exported, earning foreign exchange income. From a short term economic perspective, aquaculture can seem very desirable.

Though intensive aquaculture is often short lived, mangrove destruction is not. A working group found that former mangrove forests that had been cleared 60 years earlier failed to recover even after decades of abandonment, evidence of changed hydrology and loss of essential substrates. In many cases, even mangrove restoration efforts showed little success—the rate of growth in one of these plots was so slow that Mayor Hagedorn referred to it as his bonsai mangrove forest.

Our task was to explain a puzzling dynamic: Healthy mangrove forests generated a sustainable flow of ecological, social and economic benefits indefinitely, constantly renewed by solar energy. In contrast, conversion to aquaculture was an unsustainable, short term enterprise that sacrificed ecological and social benefits in return for profits from seafood production, but over the long run failed to produce even as much seafood as the intact system. Why, then, did conversion occur?

We came to an interesting conclusion that directly contradicted some of the dominant theories in ecological economics and resource management. In his seminal work on the tragedy of the commons, Garret Hardin (1968) showed that when everyone has open access to a rival resource (i.e. one for which consumption by one individual precludes consumption by another: If I catch a fish or cut down a tree, it is no longer available for you to cut down), there is no incentive for individuals to conserve it, as the benefits of conservation would be shared by all, while the benefits of extraction are captured by the individual. Hardin suggested private property rights or ‘mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’ as the solution. However, the dynamic in the Tagabinet mangrove was entirely different. The mangrove had provided for the Tagabinet community for generations without private ownership. It was only when the mangrove became de facto private property that conversion occurred. On closer inspection, this dynamic makes perfect sense: If aquaculture ponds were not privately owned, anyone could take the shrimp they produce, and conversion to aquaculture would not occur.

The answer to this apparent paradox lies in the distribution of benefits. The benefits from ecosystem services accrue to the local, regional and global communities. The owners of the Tagabinet aquaculture ponds lived in Manila, and would scarcely notice the loss of these services. Even if healthy mangroves produce more seafood than aquaculture ponds, the seafood produced will be caught by hundreds of fishermen in the nearby coastal communities. In contrast, the returns to shrimp aquaculture are captured entirely by the owner of the ponds. In economic theory, a rational, profit maximizing individual will attempt to privatize benefits while ignoring social costs, and this is exactly what happened in Tagabinet’s mangroves. In contrast to the tragedy described by Hardin, shrimp aquaculture is an instance of the tragedy of the non-commons (Farley, this issue), defined as a situation in which private ownership leads to unsustainable, unjust and inefficient resource allocation.

There are two reasons this tragedy of the non-commons emerges in the case of mangroves. First, while it is possible to create private property rights to mangrove forests themselves, it is impossible to create such rights to most of the ecosystem services they generate. If benefits created by a resource cannot be owned, they cannot be sold in markets, and profit maximizing managers will ignore the benefit in question. The result in mangrove ecosystems is ecologically unsustainable rates of conversion to shrimp aquaculture. The second reason is that many of the critical resources produced by mangroves are non-rival. A non-rival resource is one for which use of the resource does not deplete it, so that use by one person does not affect use by another. For example, when one individual benefits from the role of the mangrove in protecting against storm surges, it in no way reduces the amount of protection left for another person. Though a fisherman harvesting fish reduces the amount of fish available for another fisherman to harvest, it has no impact on the capacity of the mangrove to serve as a nursery, or to purify water and protect the health of the coral reef. When additional use does not deplete the quantity of a resource or benefit available, then the resource is not scarce in economic terms: rationing through prices will result in inefficient levels of consumption, and market allocation (i.e. private ownership), even when possible, is inappropriate.

How then should mangrove ecosystems and their benefits be owned and allocated? Here we considered the just distribution of the resource. Mangrove forests are created by nature and not through the labor, capital investments, or entrepreneurial ability of any individual. The ecosystem services that mangroves provide are naturally distributed more or less equally to all individuals within the spatial range of the service in question. Markets, in contrast, allocate resources to those with the highest demand, where demand is preferences weighted by income. In other words, markets allocate according to the principle of one dollar one vote, but ecosystem services are more justly allocated according to the principle of one person, one vote. It would seem then that ecosystem services generated by mangroves should be allocated by means of a participatory democratic process rather than a plutocratic (market) process (Farley, this issue). In other words, it should be up to the Tagabinet community to decide on the macro-allocation problem: how much mangrove ecosystem should be conserved to provide non-market ecosystem services vital to the community, and how much should be converted to market uses.

4 Communication and Outcomes

No matter how brilliant the analysis and synthesis, it will do nothing if not effectively communicated to those with the power and authority to act. But this is not the only communication challenge faced by conservation scientists. Conservation is an interdisciplinary problem requiring collaboration between community members, scientists, non-government organizations, government agencies, and others. These sectors must similarly be able to communicate effectively in order to conduct research and implement solutions. Given the lack of resources for addressing conservation issues and the urgency and high stakes of decisions, the value of conservation work is greatly enhanced when key results can be communicated to groups in other locations tackling similar problems.

As discussed by Farley (this issue) , narrowly disciplinary training creates autistic academics, unable to effectively communicate across disciplines. Our experience suggests that this communication problem is best solved through transdisciplinary collaboration on real life problems. Transdisciplinary integration only works by studying a system as a whole. This approach gives everyone a shared understanding of a general problem. Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows that in the beginning, conversation is greatly facilitated when you are very familiar with the topic being discussed. You might not understand a specific word, but in context the meaning becomes obvious. Exactly the same principle applies in transdisciplinary integration: a team of conservation scientists from a variety of disciplines will be able to communicate much more effectively when they share basic knowledge about the system they are discussing, and can explain disciplinary jargon to others through examples drawn from shared knowledge. In the case of this workshop, for example, ecologists could readily explain how ecosystem structure generated function using concrete examples, and economists could explain that those functions of value to humans were ecosystem services, and the loss of these ecosystem services was an opportunity cost of conversion to aquaculture. Applied, problem-based conservation research helps transcend disciplinary borders.

As previously described, communication across sectors—academia, community, government and non-governmental organizations—is also critical. Just as with communication across disciplines, this is greatly facilitated by collaborating on a common problem. However, there can be serious cultural differences between sectors and nationalities. In general, and certainly in the case of this atelier-skillshare, non-governmental organizations working with communities affected by conservation issues can play a vital cross cultural communication link, as they will be familiar with the local community, government and academia. Above all, communication across sectors must be based on mutual respect and the recognition that all sectors have valuable information and skills, and effective solutions are unlikely without collaboration across these sectors.

One of the most important tasks of conservation science is to communicate results to those with the power and authority to act in a way that stimulates them to act. In the case of the Tagabinet study, this meant not only communicating to government officials, but also applying pressure. Here again the NGO partners proved particularly valuable owing to their experience in communicating with governments and media. Once we had satisfactorily synthesized the results of our analysis, our NGO partners arranged for a press conference. Both print and television media were invited on Friday afternoon, a slow time for news. We distributed carefully prepared press releases to accompany our presentations summarizing our findings, stressing the unsustainable, unjust, inefficient and illegal nature of the aquaculture ponds. Following the press conference, we gave a separate presentation to the Mayor, Palawan Province and City government staff, National Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Fisheries and Forestry Bureau staff, and enforcement officers.

Our presentations helped convince Mayor Hagedorn that something needed to be done to address the problem. The day following our presentations, he flew to Manila to get permission to destroy the illegal aquaculture ponds, solicited the help of the community in destroying the dikes, and arranged for buses to transport everyone to the site. While he was doing this, our NGO partners arranged for another press conference in Tagabinet, followed by one at the aquaculture site. Following the official end of the atelier/skillshare, the remaining participants accompanied the mayor to Tagabinet, where we again presented our results to the press. The mayor then led some 100 community members, local NGO staff and remaining participants to the aquaculture ponds. The mayor arrived first, with his bodyguards and the workshop organizers, and we were immediately threatened with violence by heavily armed gunmen at the site. However, as bus loads of villagers began to show up, along with television movie cameras, the gunmen were forced to back down. We all went to the site of the ponds themselves, where yet another press conference took place, this time involving representatives of the owners of the aquaculture ponds.

Following this conference, the mayor took the first ceremonial swing of a pick-axe before the rest of the community joined in to demolish the newest aquaculture ponds that were not yet in production, having decided to allow the owners to harvest from the functioning ponds. Within the next few days, however, the owners had drained the remaining ponds as well.

Halting one illegal aquaculture project among thousands, while satisfying, has negligible value by itself. However, the local television station presented a two hour program chronicling workshop findings and the destruction of the ponds. The event received local and national newspaper coverage, and the mayor was commended by the minister of the environment. With this widespread publicity, anyone else considering illegal aquaculture ponds must recognize an increased risk to their activities, which translates into a lower expected rate of return on investment, and presumably less investment. Without effective communication, this project would have been relatively insignificant. With communication, it may end up having an impact on the rate of mangrove conversion in the Philippines. We have also learned that the web-based teaching module has been used in university courses in the Philippines. Once it is updated with the results of our workshop, we hope it will prove a useful resource for other groups working on similar issues.

In addition to the dike destruction, a short list of other outcomes of the project included:

  1. A valuation study of mangrove ecosystems and shrimp aquaculture including distributional impacts and the non-monetary assessment of ecological impacts;

  2. Recommendations for a mangrove replanting/rehabilitation and monitoring plan for the City of Puerto Princessa, which were implemented by the City, resulting in 10,000 mangroves being planted five months after the workshop by school children.

  3. Adoption by participating NGOs of a framework to reform World Bank, bilateral, IMF and private lending for shrimp aquaculture.

  4. Agreement by NGOs and local government officials that subsidies for shrimp aquaculture should be removed.

  5. The unplanned confiscation of illegally cut mangroves by workshop participants under ELAC and local police supervision. The illegal cutters were criminally charged.

  6. A one-day training for 70 Palawan NGO, governmental and other officials on ecological economics hosted by ELAC.

  7. A proposal by Tambuyog to Oxfam organizations in Southeast Asia that the finance and trade in aquaculture shrimp be a primary issue, which was adopted.

As of July, 2004, no other shrimp aquaculture operations had been given lease agreements in Palawan. However, while our project experienced considerable success, it remains questionable whether these successes will endure. Three months after the workshop the Federal government reversed the decision to dismantle the aquaculture ponds and awarded a temporary permit to the shrimp pond operators to resume aquaculture operations. As this article goes to press, the local communities, NGOs and the local government in Puerto Princesa continue to contest this decision. Thus, our success on this project can only be considered partial.

5 Summary and conclusions

While not all conservation projects should expect such dramatic results as we achieved, we believe that much of our success was due to the approach we used, and that many elements of this approach could be replicated elsewhere. It is therefore worth summarizing the basic elements of our approach and identifying the reasons for their success. We must also point out the shortcomings of our approach, and present suggestions for how they might be resolved.

First, we believe that successful conservation projects demand an ability to transcend disciplinary and institutional/sectoral boundaries. The reason that this is necessary is because there is no one correct perspective in complex problems (Berkes, 2004), but if we look from many perspectives simultaneously, we get a much more complete picture. Currently, universities are structured to train students in the theory and framework of specific disciplines. Such a disciplinary approach can prove a powerful tool for analyzing specific components of problems. Real world problems, however, do not respect the boundaries of academic disciplines, and those who examine problems from within disciplinary boundaries will get a very incomplete picture. Rather than a disciplinary approach to the problem of conservation, our universities need to promote a problem-based approach that will stimulate synthesis across the disciplines and enable academics to draw the tools and insights necessary to solve a problem from any discipline. Successful outcomes demand that we understand how natural systems function, how human activities affect those functions, and how the forces within the existing economic, social and political systems drive human activities. Only then can we hope to alter the human system in a way that protects essential benefits provided by the natural system. This requires the integration of knowledge and effort between the natural and social sciences. Not only do real world problems require a transdisciplinary, trans-institutional approach, but using a problem-based approach to research is probably the best way transcend the borders between disciplines and institutions.

Second, successful conservation demands an emphasis on communication. Different disciplines must learn to communicate across artificial disciplinary borders, and academics, NGOs, governments and stakeholders must learn to communicate with each other in order to develop effective solutions. Again, problem- based projects that promote shared knowledge facilitate the learning of other disciplinary and institutional languages and approaches. Implementation of solutions demands in addition the ability to communicate with those with the authority and power to act. The dissemination of solutions demands the ability to communicate effectively with the media, and to communicate with other groups tackling similar problems. Communication with academic peers through journal articles can also play an important role in disseminating appropriate methodologies, which can then be implemented elsewhere and improved upon.

Third, we must adapt our conventional scientific methodologies to deal with problems where facts are uncertain, stakes are high, decisions are urgent, and values matter. The literature and practice of post-normal science, rapid rural appraisal and participatory action research have much to teach us in this regard. Above all, such problems demand stakeholder participation not only in providing information, but also in project design and implementation. When acting in the absence of complete information and in situations where values matter, participatory adaptive management is essential (Berkes, 2004).

In conclusion, the approach we laid out helps to resolve our inadequate understanding of ecological benefits relative to economic ones. But our project was not completely successful. We should learn from our failures, and allow these lessons to guide future research. The fact is that the politically powerful owners of the aquaculture ponds may yet regain permission to rebuild and expand. If the conversion of mangrove ecosystems to shrimp aquaculture appears to be so ecologically unsustainable, socially unjust and economically inefficient, then why is it at least tacitly supported by the Filipino government, and many governments elsewhere? We believe that there are two primary reasons. First, the economic benefits of conversion are well understood, visible, and easy to measure, while its ecological and social costs are often poorly understood by decision makers, intangible, and extremely difficult to quantify. Many people see mangrove forests as useless swamps. Compounding this problem, World Bank economists have long supported shrimp aquaculture, and their prestigious titles and incomes may increase their credibility. Second, mangrove forests, other tropical ecosystems and indeed almost all ecosystems provide services across a broad range of geographical areas that fail to respect political borders. Communities, be they citizens, politicians, or their advisers, are unlikely to care about benefits that extend beyond their borders such as carbon sequestration. Just as private owners of ecosystems may ignore the ecosystem services that benefit the local community, local communities are unlikely to make sacrifices to provide national benefits, and nations are unlikely to make sacrifices to provide global benefits. In the case of local and national benefits, institutions exist that can step in and ensure the provision of vital ecosystem services by either rewarding their provision or punishing their destruction. No such institutions exist on the global level, and even if they did, issues of national sovereignty would allow only rewards and not punishments. As it currently stands, the wealthy nations are free-riding on the provision of ecosystem services by the poorer nations.

It is a basic principle of ecological economics that solving problems demands institutions at the scale of the problem (Daly and Farley, 2003; Costanza and others, 1998). Until we develop global institutions through which the beneficiaries of global ecosystem services adequately compensate the providers, it is unlikely that such services will be provided at a globally desirable level. Conservation efforts must transcend international boundaries as well as disciplinary and institutional ones. How to do achieve this is a critical area for future research.

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