The following article is written by journalist Khrysta Imperial Rara and originally posted at her Animalspeak column for GMA News Online. The above picture was taken at Freedom Island just right after a coastal clean-up activity.
On certain weekends, a bedimpled mestiza in her 50’s leans back in her portable beach chair, pops open a chilled beer, munches on snacks, and focuses her binoculars on a flock of black-crowned night herons flying in formation to their watery feeding ground.
Together with friends from the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP), Gina Mapua admires the sun as it sets in the bay, providing a stunning backdrop to trees lit up by hundreds of dancing fireflies.
Despite the stench of garbage, the mesmerizing view and the presence of varied species of birds lure the group several times a year to this place, known as the Las Piñas-Paranaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA), a 175-hectare site that includes Freedom and Long Islands as well as mangroves, mudflats and various ecosystems.
“It stinks terribly of piss and shit and rotting seaweed and garbage,” avers Mapua, who is president of the WBCP. “The nose just gets accustomed to it eventually.”
Mapua has now taken a back seat in the club’s regular cleanups since she moved to Batangas. But recently her friends and WBCP members joined thousands of other volunteers here and abroad in combing coastlines, shores and riverbanks for the International Coastal Clean-Up effort.
Last September, over 648,000 volunteers in 92 countries gathered some 12.3 million pounds of trash, according to the website of Ocean Conservancy, the group that began the cleanup effort 28 years ago.
In the Philippines, the cleanup takes place yearly on Freedom Island, one of three artificial islands formed when the coastal road to Cavite was built in 1973. Collectively, they are known as Freedom Islands. The smallest island has since been excavated to build the road that connects the other two.
Several groups regularly join the effort, too. This year, the organizers decided to clean up over two weekends. Last week, more than 50 organizations and at least 550 people scoured the beachline to load trash into waiting garbage trucks.
In addition, companies now send their employees to the clean-ups to boost their corporate social responsibility profile.
“The garbage that pollutes our seas is a compelling issue that Filipinos should unite against. Pollution of our seas is very alarming, especially with the country being an archipelago and home to numerous marine wildlife species,” says Karl Ramirez, campaigns officer of Earth Island Institute (EII).
EII, which works to save marine mammals all over the world, is one of the groups leading the cleanup.
“There are alarming reports of dolphins and whales swallowing plastic bags, mistaking them for prey,” adds Ramirez, who cites the case of a 10-meter sperm whale washed ashore in Spain in 2012 that was found to have 59 different plastic items in its stomach.
The birds suffer the same fate, too. Pelagic species dive into the water to seize what they believe to be fish or jellyfish. But often their beaks get caught in floating plastic items. Or the ingested plastics block their intestines and prevent them from feeding, causing a slow and painful death.
Mapua is amazed at the amount of plastic that washes up the island shores. “We have seen wrappers of chips covered in barnacles! This means this stuff has been in the waters for a long time to acquire barnacles,” she exclaims in disbelief. “There must be gazillions of food wrappers in the bay!”
In an effort to clean up the sanctuary, the birders come to pick up discarded shoes, slippers, toys, leather and plastic bags, bottles, drinking straws and all sorts of household wastes. They have also found shelves, a guitar, dead dogs and cats.
In LPPCHEA, birdwatchers have documented around 8,000 birds from over 80 different species during migration season. Among the local birds are the white-collared kingfisher, barred rails, pied fantails, cinnamon bitterns, zebra doves, Pacific swallows, yellow-vented bulbuls, chestnut munias and the occasional osprey.
Even the endangered Philippine duck has found a haven on Freedom Island.
The regulars include shore birds like plovers, sandpipers, terns and egrets. Last April, WBCP members spotted a pied avocet among a flock of black-winged stilts feeding in the area.
From September to April, thousands of migratory birds escaping the harsh winter in Northern Asia all the way up to Siberia take up temporary residence in the LPPCHEA.
Among the winged visitors are the endangered Chinese egret and the black-winged stilt, an endangered species in the United States.
The LLPCHEA was established in 2007 by then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo based on evidence of the presence of various migratory and resident birds.
The goal was to preserve the bird sanctuary, mangroves, mudflats and various ecosystems there.
Last year, LLPCHEA made it to the Ramsar list of Wetlands of International Importance. This means the Philippine government must commit to maintaining the site in good condition.
But Mapua, an avid birder, laments the government’s planned reclamation of portions of Manila Bay around LPPCHEA to turn them into a commercial enterprise.
So far, more than 300,000 residents of Las Piñas have signed a petition against the reclamation project. Led by Senator Cynthia Villar, who is also a birdwatcher, opponents to the reclamation cite impending environmental hazards—like increased flooding and destruction of ecosystems and fish supplies—as more than enough reason to scrap the planned reclamation.
For Mapua and the birders, tampering with nature would be a serious risk not worth taking. It would spell a huge ecological disaster not only to the birds, but to the residents of Metro Manila, too.