Ivy Marie Mangadlao

Published: February 19, 2024

Topic: #NextGen | Stories

An aerial view of Sitio Panlabuhan Floating Village in Agusan Marsh, Loreto, Agusan del Sur (File Photo Erwin Mascarinas)

LORETO, AGUSAN DEL SUR — When tourists visit Sitio Panlabuhan, a floating village in this town, they walk half a kilometer through a now-dried-up section of the Agusan Marsh. Manobo tour guide Marites Babanto vividly recounts to tourists that this area was once a massive body of water with a vibrant floating community there in the 1980s.

Babanto, 46, said that only about 36 households remain in their village, a significant decrease from the previous number of over 100, as residents are leaving their homes.

While some families are moving to the mainland for their children’s education, another reason is the impact of climate change, she said.
But climate change is not the only threat in the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary (AMWS). Siltation from illegal activities and invasive species also contribute to the destruction of one of the country’s most ecologically significant wetlands, and the disruption of the age-old way of life of the Manobo indigenous peoples who live there.

Siltation, deforestation

AMWS, a Ramsar Wetland site, is fed by the 390-kilometer-long Agusan River, the third-longest river in the country.

In Sitio Panlabuhan, life revolves around the water. Built on stilts and interconnected by endemic bangkal trees (Nauclea orientalis), homes, schools, and churches rise above the marsh when it fills up.

“I remember when this land used to be a vast body of water, like an ocean. However, over time, it gradually became shallower due to siltation caused by abusive individuals engaging in illegal activities in the upland,” said Babanto.

She said that climate change exacerbates the effects of illegal activities, accelerating the transformation of the marsh into land.
Jurgenne Primavera, an Agusan-born scientist and wetland expert, said in an interview that the flooding affecting the communities surrounding the Agusan Marsh, its river tributaries, and the Agusan River will worsen unless serious attention is given to the protection of the environment.

“Unfortunately, we took the forest surrounding the Agusan Marsh for granted. There was really no serious reforestation campaign by the government. So, the result is that when heavy rain falls into the watershed, since it has been heavily logged and deforested, there is nothing to hold the water, so it directly goes to the marsh,” Primavera stated.

Babanto also recalled that there used to be a pattern in the wet and dry seasons, but now the climate has become highly unpredictable.
Residents of the marsh, especially the indigenous peoples, are already experiencing climate change impacts such as changes in rain patterns, disrupting their planting cycles, according to a 2011 report by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
“The timing of the planting cycle in the marsh is very important because at certain times of the year, the whole area is inundated with water,” DENR stated.

Water hyacinth woes

Datu Boyet points to the water hyacinths covering the marsh waters in Sitio Panlabuhan, Loreto,Agusan del Sur. (Ivy Marie Mangadlao)

Tribal leader Remy Reyes, fondly known as Datu Boyet by the villagers, said that residents migrate to the mainland because of increasing difficulties in sustaining their livelihoods, particularly fishing. This is attributed to the extensive proliferation of water hyacinths (Eichhornia crassipes).

Their traditional way of fishing involves setting net traps in the lake and returning the next day to retrieve the catch. But when the wind blows, water hyacinths drift and entangle fishing nets.

To adapt, fishers now stay up all night guarding their nets, a departure from their customary practices and a challenge that not everyone can endure. Water hyacinths also obstruct fishing entrances, making it difficult to clear a path.

“Even when we manage to catch some fish by watching our nets overnight, our catch has diminished significantly due to the notable decline in fish,” he added.

A study suggests that climate change has profound effects on the distribution and location of water hyacinths. Rainfall and floods, carrying agricultural runoff and nutrient-rich sediment, may trigger outbreaks of water hyacinths.

In a study conducted in Agusan Marsh, the forest floor was observed to be flooded with deep water, particularly during high rainfall, leading to stagnant water. This results in the abundance of undergrowth dominated by thick water hyacinths.

Not mutually exclusive

“Climate change is just one of the many underlying issues that threaten Agusan Marsh. These issues are not mutually exclusive; they are interconnected problems and there’s a domino effect among them,” said Christian Yancy A. Yurong, an environmental management specialist at the Agusan Marsh Protected Area Management Office.

He noted that a portion of the marsh experiences consistent flooding, typically during the wet season between December and February. However, photographs taken in April showed there was still flooding.

“Even if they manage to plant, but suddenly a typhoon comes, their crops will be flooded again. To recover from their failure caused by flooding, and to regain what they lost, they need to clear another area to make their farms larger. This, in turn, contributes to the problem of agricultural expansion, which is also a threat to the Agusan Marsh,” Yurong said.

A final report of Agusan River Basin Integrated Water Resources Management Project conducted by the DENR and Asian Development Bank in 2011 suggested that Agusan Marsh, given its size and integrity, can adapt to increased rainfall and runoff due to climate change, albeit with changes in the distribution of some natural habitats.

However, the report also noted that the marsh will be “less able to adapt to climate change-induced hydrological patterns” if it is under pressure from other human activities such as drainage and conversion to agricultural and agro-forestry plantations.

In October 2022, the Department of Agriculture Caraga (DA-Caraga) established a plant nursery for a floating garden in Brgy. Sabang Gibong in Talacogon town to provide food and additional livelihood to marshland communities grappling with recurring floods. The agency is planning to replicate it in other marsh areas.

Ma. Angelita Salome D. Acopiado, chief of the Research and Development Support Unit of the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources of Agusan del Sur, said the provincial government has been empowering residents of Agusan Marsh to convert water hyacinth into various handcrafted products, such as slippers, baskets, and bags.

Acopiado added that ongoing initiatives include developing paper from water hyacinths.

Upholding heritage and integrity

A fisherfolk cruises along the waters of Agusan Marsh. (Ivy Marie Mangadlao)

Babanto emphasized the crucial importance of listening to marshland communities as they truly understand the dynamics of the area and possess knowledge about the methods of preserving the Agusan Marsh.

“If the village vanishes, it’s not merely livelihoods at stake; it’s the loss of a cultural treasure and a way of life that has been woven into the fabric of our community for generations,” Babanto said.

Despite the challenges they face and the worsening impacts of climate change, leaving Sitio Panlabuhan is not an option for Babanto and Datu Boyet. The marsh’s role in their heritage and identity makes it an integral part of their lives.
final report
“We are the best stewards of the marsh, as it is deeply ingrained in our culture,” he said.