By Charlie Agatep (The Philippine Star) Updated October 03, 2010
An aerial view of the Agusan Marsh. (Courtesy of Michael Licup)
MANILA, Philippines – In 2008, 34 international companies joined an initiative of the Conference of Parties to the UN-Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and committed to implement corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects that would contribute to the 2010 goal of reducing biodiversity loss.
The business and biodiversity initiative encourages CSR on biodiversity conservation, sustainable use of biodiversity, and access to and benefits sharing of genetic resources.
The growing awareness on biodiversity conservation and the role that businesses and the private sector can play in this endeavor brings me to the subject of the Agusan Marsh.
I just came from an ecotour of Agusan Marsh and I must say that I was enchanted by the wildlife, the swamp forests and the numerous shallow lakes and ponds. The marsh is indeed lovely beyond any singing of it, to paraphrase Alan Paton in Cry, The Beloved Country.
The marsh did not disappoint. She was a beauty to behold, even more exotic and colorful than all the postcard photographs and video footages that friends had shown me earlier.
To get to the marsh from Butuan City, we spent one and a half hours by jeep to Talacogon, three hours by pump boat from Talacogon to Gibong, and one half hour by banca to the marsh. Despite the long travel, the escapade was exciting.
Agusan Marsh is a vast complex of freshwater swamp forests covering 110,000 hectares with declared protected area of some 44,000 hectares. The marsh acts like a giant sponge that soaks up rain water flowing from the mountains, rivers, creeks and streams of Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur and Compostela Valley, protecting downstream towns and Butuan City from catastrophic floods.
The marsh is one of the most ecologically significant wetland ecosystems in the Philippines. In view of its aesthetic, ecological and economic importance, and to further strengthen its status as a protected area, it is being considered for nomination by the government to the UNESCO as a World Natural Heritage.
Probably the largest wetland in Asia, Agusan Marsh is a wildlife sanctuary with great natural beauty. According to Dr. Jurgenne H. Primavera, scientist emerita and a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation under the US-based Pew Environment Group, it is home to a diverse ecosystem of rare flowering plants and vegetation, more than 17 fish species, and some 200 species of endemic, threatened and migratory birds. Thousands of birds like the purple heron migrate from Japan, China and Russia and come to the Marsh to escape winter in those regions.
But there are human activities that threaten the ecological balance of the marsh. Foremost are the small scale miners in Diwalwal, Compostela Valley, who use mercury to separate gold from the mined ore. Some 300,000 tons of mine tailings are reportedly discharged annually from the creeks around Diwalwal and flow onto the Agusan river, leading to mercury pollution in the marsh.
There are also small settlers in the marsh who continue to drain marginal areas for conversion to rice fields, fruit orchards and palm oil plantations. And there are illegal logging operations by small scale companies who cut trees outside their legally approved areas.
Invasive species of fish, such as the janitor fish and golden apple snail, are being introduced deliberately or accidentally by the Manobo tribes who rely on fish production for food and income. These maybe displacing native marsh species such as the African catfish, Nile tilapia, and the common carp.
The Aquino government should enforce its protected status in view of these threats to the marsh ecosystem. In the words of Dr. Primavera, development projects and existing exploitation permits in the area should be reviewed by concerned national and local government agencies considering the impact of these activities on this natural heritage.