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AITOpinion, Alethea Bravo, Community, Mae Valdez, Paolo Abellanosa, Travel Stories

Birds of paradise: The “dagat ng basura” as a sanctuary


Along the ghastly coast of Manila Bay (the last place you would think to host migratory birds, or even life itself) a number of bird species claim the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area, more popularly known as the Las Piñas Coastal Lagoon, as their paradise.  Salimbay joined the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) for a weekend of birdwatching (also called birding) to understand the avian Eden and its importance to tourism practitioners.

It is rare to find a wide variety of birds in an urban setting such as Metro Manila but despite the murky seawater and shoreline of trash, the Coastal Lagoon is home to 24 bird species and a destination or stopover of around 37 or more species seasonally. The Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) claim that the Costal Lagoon, a 175-hectare wetland that connects two small islands in Manila Bay, is the “last green frontier in Manila.”

Located on the western side of the Aguinaldo Highway, the Las Piñas Coastal Lagoon, according to Department of Environmental and Natural Resources’ (DENR) website, is the first and only critical habitat in the Philippines,.

By virtue of Proclamation No. 1412, signed by former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2007, the area consisting of two islands was created to “[1.] Recognize the importance of the coastal wetland of Manila Bay that houses more than 20 species of residents and migratory birds, [2.] identify as ‘one of the key biodiversity sites for conservation and sustainable development’, [and 3.] ensure that any reclamation in the periphery of the LPPCHEA shall not impede the ecological function of the lagoon and its small islands’ mangrove, salt marches and tidal areas as breeding, feeding and roosting place for marine and terrestrial wildlife.”

It is also protected by International Convention on the Conservation of Wetlands, which is the same international agreement that defends the famed underground river of Puerto Princesa.

Searching for beauty

With a rusty old gate separating the protected area from the Aguinaldo Highway – where smoke-belching Cavite buses are kings of the road – a spontaneous tourist would find accessibility unwelcoming. We ourselves walked through a dozen-meter road of pebbles, under the scorching heat, to reach the gate.

A few meters away from the gate was a small collapsed shelter of what used to be a facility for visitors that could not have contained more than four people. Cars arrived and parked in front of the derelict structure and our birding began from here, with the WBCP hosting the tour.

Founded in 2003, the WBCP has been creating opportunities to inform the public about the abundance of bird species and biodiversity in the country, and why they should thrive in their natural habitat. The club defines birdwatching as “seeing birds in their natural habitat.”

After a short briefing conducted by the WBCP president, Mike Lu, binoculars were distributed for rent to the participating birders. While high-powered telescopes owned by club members were also put out.

First-timers—including some of us from Salimbay—were excited by the prospect of seeing their “spark bird” or the bird that will ignite their inner fire to pursue birdwatching as an interest and perhaps even an activity of passion.

The first bird we encountered was a Little Egret which, despite our being equipped with binoculars, we struggled to catch sight of from a distance, as the layers of plastic and trash completely covered the shoreline where the Egret was searching for its food.

The expert birders on the other hand, spotted a species that got everyone excited. “A Common Sand Piper!” noted Jayson, and suddenly all binoculars and telescopes shifted toward the end of the shore, sharply pinpointing the bird’s location.

The Salimbay team saw nothing, everyone seemed equally perplexed.  We wondered: what exactly should we be looking at?

All that the panorama offered was a beach-load of garbage, three dogs, a handful of children swimming, and fishermen – the birds’ best camouflage environment.

Thriving life

Despite our failed attempts to see the Sand Piper, our binoculars caught sight of other amazing birds.

Particularly interesting were the magnificent Commong Kingfisher with its very detailed plumage, which we caught red-handed (or red-winged) enjoying a sea cockroach, and the Pacific Swallow boasting its sunset-colored chest and black feathers.

As the sun began to set, it signaled the Black-Crowned Night Herons to begin wandering about in the sky, and we couldn’t help but wonder how much these migratory birds had been affected by the toxicity of their habitat. One thing is for sure though, “Definitely, they are affected,” said Ivan, a bird photographer, “but this is better for the birds than having none at all.”

An issue that smells

The Coastal Lagoon would’ve been part of a greater reclaimed land during the 1960s that stretched from today’s CCP area to Cavite. The area where the SM Mall of Asia now stands and other adjacent lands are the direct result of this reclamation development, but because funds became insufficient, the development stopped kilometers away from the Coastal Lagoon where residential homes and towers now stand.

This last bastion of migratory birds in Manila was a hot topic since last year because of DENR’s issuance of an Environmental Compliance Certificate to Alltech Contractors, Inc., a construction company that requested to reclaim the land within the bird sanctuary.

Indeed, the Coastal Lagoon has a lot of potential in terms of real estate development. This reclamation project in particular was supposed to be part of the Entertainment City Manila development, a casino and tourism complex worth more than USD 4 billion, envisioning a mini-metropolis that will be the new Las Vegas of Asia.

Realizing the immense economic value of the land, the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) once again has its eye on the Coastal Lagoon. If any development plans are pursued, the area will give rise to retirement homes, central business districts, sports complex, medical and research center and other commercial establishments.

PRA has clarified that the Reclamation Plan will cover only the front of the coastal area and will preserve the lagoon, but environmentalists and WBCP insist, “Destroying the front side of the Coastal Lagoon will likewise do harm to the protected area itself.”

Fortunately, there are people who appreciate the importance of avifauna in the ecosystem. The WBCP was among other environmentalist groups who lobbied against reclamation projects that would deprive birds of their home.

Potential for tourism

WBCP is using tourism as a means to protect the Coastal Lagoon, but this strategy may require a lot more effort—or even rethinking. There are no regular tours in the area and it seems that a spontaneous birder cannot easily pass through the gate without a permit or some form of communication.

While the Department of Tourism has tapped the club’s assistance in a number of tours, the agency lacks any concrete support to develop the critical habitat as an attraction.

The location of the Coastal Lagoon itself is a stigma. Manila Bay’s shoreline poses sanitary problems. There are no facilities in sight. Inevitably, an ordinary tourist would be turned off with the sight of the decades-worth of accumulated wastes.

As tourism students, our initial idea was for the Coastal Lagoon to have a very specific target market. Otherwise, promotions, branding, and ultimately sales would be a marketing nightmare. Because there are people like us and visitors like our companions during the birding weekend, who are prepared to explore the worst for something new and life-changing, we decided on this as a possible start.

We in Salimbay are still debating on whether or not to endorse the development of the Coastal Lagoon as a destination, having been made aware of the mountain of challenges it is currently facing in terms of alternative potential (enemies of the cause who would propose to look at the economic benefits of Entertainment City), investment (who would want to invest in a tabi ng dagat ng basura? Or must we even think of infra development?), marketing (positioning and getting the right clientele), returns (is tourism generally a profitable venture in the area?) and related facets.

But after taking such a unique tour along Manila Bay, we find that the Coastal Lagoon hints potential for any tourism developer. The beauty of the place lies with the fact that it is not at all beautiful; reminiscent of why poverty tourism is an actual industry in India.

The story behind the Coastal Lagoon is a micro-vantage point: where birds and other living things struggle to live in an environment that seems unsuitable for life. The eye-opening impression it leaves on tourists therefore leads them to ask: what have we done?

This is precisely what some of us have asked. And we can start from here. From this simple yet complex question which may lead to the birth of a tourism that faces the realities that is at times as bad and foul and melodramatic as Manila Bay, and to shift the way we think for change. – Mae Valdez, Alethea Bravo and Paolo Abellanosa

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About aitsalimbay

The official newsletter of the UP Asian Institute of Tourism.

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