The Ecosystem Alliance is a five-year collaboration between IUCN National Committee of the Netherlands (IUCN NL), Both ENDS and Wetlands International. The Ecosystem Alliance, through its local partner NGOs, seeks to strengthen the livelihoods of local communities in a sustainable manner, defend their rights and influence stakeholders at national and international levels whose decisions affect the ecosystems on which the communities depend. In total, the programme encompasses over 100 projects in 16 countries in Asia, Africa and South-America. The alliance is sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

An example of a project supported by the alliance is in Taal Lake, a freshwater lake on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. It is the country's deepest (172 m), and third largest lake (234 km2). 37 tributaries drain into the lake and its only outlet is Pansipit River, which drains to Balayan Bay. Taal Lake is part of the Taal Volcano Protected Landscape (TVPL) as proclaimed in 1996 under the national protected areas law, the NIPAS Act.

At least four endemic fish species thrive in Taal Lake with the freshwater sardine Sardinella tawilis being the basis of subsistence fishery among the coastal populace and making up around 35% of fish production. It has been overtaken in recent years by invasive species. Users of Taal Lake and its environs include around 4,000 small scale fisherfolk engaged in catch fisheries, operators and contractors of fish cages (tilapia and milkfish), resort and tour operators and the local governments of nine towns and two cities on the lakeshore which derive income from taxes, business permits and fishing licenses. Another four towns and one city are in the basin but without a coastline. Tagaytay City up on the ridge and the volcano itself are popular tourism hotspots.

Under the NIPAS Act and the Fisheries Code of 1998, small and marginal fisherfolk enjoy preferential use rights over fisheries resources. It is thought that these resources, if properly managed, will provide continuous food supply for rural folks. This way the objectives of environmental laws are achieved while at the same time livelihoods are provided for the poor, in the form of food security and cash income. However, poor policy implementation and enforcement of environmental laws has led to illegal fishing and unregulated growth and overcrowding of fish cages, seriously affecting water quality resulting in massive fish kills. Pollution by hog farms, degradation of surrounding watersheds and invasive fish species are also affecting the lake. A decade ago, Sardinella tawilis catch had dropped by about 80%.

Since 2003, IUCN NL has been supporting Tanggol Kalikasan (TK) for its work in Taal Lake. TK is a Philippine NGO involved in public interest environmental lawyering. In partnership with another local NGO, TK has addressed the weak enforcement of environmental laws and policies. The project started off with the strengthening of the local fisherfolks federation. Grassroots support was mobilized, thereby broadening the constituency for lake conservation. 

The multi-stakeholder Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) of TVPL was reorganized and made aware of their functions under the NIPAS law. Unified rules and regulations on lake management and conservation were developed, and are being implemented. A provincial-led interagency task force was created, taking the lead in the dismantling of illegal fish cages. Pansipit River was cleared from illegal structures, allowing many species including the economically interesting trevally to migrate and breed again. Already in 2005, Sardinella tawilis was abundant again, and the PAMB is now contemplating a revision of rules to include further tawilis conservation measures. A ten-year management plan (2010-2019) for TVPL was approved in 2009, budget has recently been allocated for its implementation and intensive water quality monitoring is being undertaken.

All this has, in the past ten years, led to a substantial reduction of threats to catch fisheries and better regulation of fish cages in the area. Lake waters have become cleaner, fish catch increased and the local economy benefits from regulation against foreign ownership of cages. Challenges currently being tackled are pollution from land and invasive species.

The success of the project lies in the approach of Tanggol Kalikasan as a facilitative agent in lake management and institution building. The project resisted the urge to lobby the constituents on what needs to be done. Facilitation was a means used to create venues where stakeholders were provided with the right information, consulted and given a chance to be part of the decision making on issues and concerns relating to management of the lake. Proper facilitation was key for lead government agencies to take ownership and credit for the intervention, hence providing an atmosphere of collective learning and implementation. This was also true for local communities who, after they were consulted, had renewed faith in governance.

As a result, active participation in resource conservation among local stakeholders and revitalized attitude among agencies in their undertaking of mandates was eminent. This is empowerment in its truest sense. Additionally, soliciting local counterpart contributions, both in kind and in financial contributions, was believed crucial to ensure ownership of stakeholders in conservation efforts.

Maartje Hilterman is Programme Officer at the Ecosystem Alliance. Ipat Luna is Legal Consultant at Tanggol Kalikasan.

Photo: Fisherman on Taal Lake