Taal, a lake within a volcano within a lake, is one of the Philippines’ prime tourist spots and, more importantly, a source of livelihood for more than 160,000 people who live in its periphery.
Declared as a protected landscape, Taal has come under threat due to the heavy clogging and silting of the Pansipit River, the lake’s only outlet to Balayan Bay. Illegal fish cages constructed along Pansipit River by big businessmen and small-scale fisher folk cause the blockage. Earlier successful efforts of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the now-defunct Presidential Commission on Tagaytay-Taal to address the problem proved short-lived. After the agencies cleared the Pansipit River in 1997 of 95% of the fish cages, the structures were back in place merely a year later.
Alarm bells were sounded when rising fish kills, a declining number of migratory fish particularly the “maliputo” species, poor water quality, and flooding in the areas around Taal were noted. If the Taal Volcano suddenly unleashes its fury, lava flow into the sea would be jammed.
Recognizing the potential crisis, the provincial government tapped the Provincial Government-Environment and Natural Resources Office (PG-ENRO) to lead the coordination work. PG-ENRO sought the help of various government agencies and the Taal Lake Integrated Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council, an organization of fisherfolk from Taal Lake. Their mission was clear: fully dismantle fish cages and ensure that Pansipit River remains free from obstruction.
Along with a massive information campaign, dialogues were held with big-time fish cage operators and fishermen for the voluntary removal of their structures.
“We were talking of a greater good…so everybody had to sacrifice because millions are involved and a national protected resource is involved. We are standing on sacred ground here,” says Batangas Governor Hermilando I. Mandanas.
Opting not to use force in dismantling the cages, the dialogues with the fish-trap owners proved a harder task than clearing the 9.7-kilometer Pansipit River. While the fisher folk appreciated the program, they also needed to earn a living. It took a year before the cages were dismantled as the fisher folk pleaded for permission to harvest their fish crop before removing the traps.
The program does not stop with the clean-up operations. Alternative livelihood programs such as cattle-raising were drawn up and continuous monitoring was put in place to ensure the problem will not recur.
Pansipit River is now being developed into a tourist destination. Governor Mandanas says it took political will and cooperation to implement what seemed a rather difficult task. A major factor in the success of the program was making the people appreciate the value of Pansipit River and Taal Lake.
“It’s not just a source of livelihood, nor for tourism, but (it stands for) the cultural and historical values that we in Batangas have.”