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Saving Cebu City’s Last Coastal Reef

The general assumption is that whatever reef structures existed in the waters of Cebu City in the past is now no longer there.The general assumption is that whatever reef structures existed in the waters of Cebu City in the past is now no longer there.The general assumption is that whatever reef structures existed in the waters off Cebu City in the past, it is now no longer there.

Fair; given the generations of anthropogenic activities in the city’s coastline–which fronts an active shipping lane, the 300-hectare reclamation project built there in the ‘90s, and the ongoing construction of a 145-meter-high and 8,500-meter-long bridge.

But local fisherfolk claim that there is still a patch of Cebu City’s coast where one can hook a modest-sized catch. 

Likewise, a map that can be bought from the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority shows a “Campanario Shoal” within the city’s coastal water. However, it does not provide a definite outline of a structure.

So, in the early morning of Dec. 5, 2020, a group of local scuba divers from the Knight-Stewards of the Sea, Inc. (a church-inspired non-government organization) jumped into low-visibility waters to survey the sea floor and search for Cebu City’s last remaining viable reef structure.

They found it. With some debris, yes, but in viable shape.

Joed Caballero, a marine biologist from the Cebu Technological University’s Integrated Coastal Resource Management Center, took part in the dive. He noted 21 species of corals belonging to 11 families, 12 species of fish, 4 species of invertebrates, and 4 species of algae in an initial report.

Inspired to preserve what could very well be Cebu City’s last coral reef, Ed Karlon Rama, another one of the participating divers and, coincidentally, a City Hall employee, looked for ways to secure local government support. 

He studied local legislation and found out that on Feb 4, 2004, the Cebu City Council passed an ordinance creating a Coastline Management Board. The board was granted an annual budget of Php 1,000,000 and even provided honoraria for members.

The ordinance declared it “a policy of the City of Cebu to ensure the preservation of the ecosystem and the environment, as well as the protection of it’s the inhabitants, and the promotion of peace and order, sanitation, and the general welfare of its constituents along the coastal areas.”

The composition of the board, which is “headed by the city mayor or his authorized representative,” included the chairperson of the committees on public services, environmental protection, and ecology.

The village chiefs of all coastal barangays, the city health officer, the heads of City Hall departments that take charge of skills training, public services, social welfare, and housing and settlements are also represented. Likewise included were law enforcement agencies, including anti-narcotics and national line agencies.

The ordinance had twice been amended to provide additional seats. However, the board had not been convened for the last four years.

At his level, Ed Karlon began speaking to colleagues, asking favors from friends, and approaching superiors to push for policy that would convene the Board. 

Sometime after the initial Dec. 5, 2020 dive, upon noting that the annual fluvial parade would be canceled, he approached Vice Mayor Michael Rama and suggested that a dawn solemn mass be held somewhere in the coastline of the South Road Properties, followed by a second underwater cleanup.

The vice mayor took the suggestion and, in lieu of the canceled fest, funded the operation from his own pocket, and even attended the mass.  

The results of the cleanup, which was done on Jan. 18, 2021, were made public to the administrators running Mayor Edgar Labella’s Facebook Page who then wrote a post mentioning it. 

The mention created awareness of the shoal’s existence within the mayor’s Facebook followers, which included other city officials. The post earned 1,427 reactions, 72 comments, and 73 views.

Following the recognition by the Mayor, a third cleanup at the reef was included in the list of official activities during the 1st Cebu Citywide Coastal Cleanup 2021 last March 20.

Being included in the list of official activities meant city-owned assets, like a huge motorized banca assigned to the Cebu City Bantay Dagat Commission for their patrols, could now be used for dives.

The result of the third dive was again made public and earned another mention in the Mayor’s Facebook page.

Finally, on March 25, 2021, just five days from the third dive, the mayor issued a memorandum convening the Cebu City Coastline Management Board. 

In his issuance, Mayor Labella said this is in line with the government’s mandate to preserve the local ecosystem and the environment. 

He tasked the Board to “come up with a Coastline Management Plan” that will become “basis for programs that the City Government will implement to address issues in coastal areas.”

On April 21, 2021, the board was finally reconvened. A strategic planning session is now in the works to establish the board’s processes and systems and move on to the creation of a coastal management plan.

Discussions were also made on lobbying for an ordinance that will create the Cebu City Coastal Management Department to ensure continuity in the implementation, monitoring, evaluation, and revision of the coastal management plan

Further discussions cited the need for formalizing partnerships with academic institutions. Such institutions will be expected to conduct research that support sustained data-driven interventions on the coastal reef.

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Ed Karlon Rama is part of the first cohort of the Development Entrepreneurship Mentoring Program.  The program aims to help development leaders identify and pursue reforms more effectively, using the principles of Development Entrepreneurship.  It is part of the Coalitions for Change partnership of The Asia Foundation and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Australian Embassy in the Philippines.