2018: The Year of Ignoring COS and Getting Back To Work

Wow, 2018 already?!  This year has been on my mind since I received my invitation to join Peace Corps nearly two years ago.

The year my time in the Philippines would come to close.

What would I learn by then?

How would this experience have changed me?

What would I do next?

I somewhat expected an all-knowing wave of enlightenment to wash over me as the clock struck midnight on January 1 and my COS year finally arrived.  That of course couldn’t be further from the truth.

I’ve learned a lot these past 19 months, and continue to learn more every day, but I’m still not sure what’s up next.  When I began this journey I had a neat little 5 year plan.  Now I’m lucky if 5 days go as expected!  The Philippines has taught me to focus on each day instead of the months, and years.  So, albeit wildly out of character, I’m going to put off thinking about post-COS life for just a bit longer and talk about what I’m doing here and now.

PCRAs: Participatory Coastal Resource Assessments

Participatory Coastal Resource Assessments (PCRA).  I’ve been working on this project for almost a year now, and I have mentioned it in my previous blog articles.

As a reminder a PCRA is an assessment of the barangay, municipality, or province’s coastal resources from various sources.  The more sources I gather from, the more accurate and helpful my report will be.  PCRA data is used to make a Coastal Environmental Profile for the entire municipality, and this document is used to create a Coastal Resource Management Plan.  This plan is then used to determine what projects should be started, and what the LGU and other government agencies can do to best help the community and the resources.  This collection of data should be done every 5 years in order to properly update the CRM Plan.

As part of this process we interview fisherfolk, hold focus group discussions, and conduct habitat assessments.  Right now, we’re holding focus group discussions and conducting habitat assessments in every one of our ten coastal barangays.

A PCRA can be done a number of different ways, but since my Municipality doesn’t have that many Coastal Barangays, my counterpart and I decided to do focus group discussions in every barangay.  We thought this would be the best way to get good information that would address the different needs of each barangay community.

Focus group discussions

So my counterpart and I have been chugging along on these focus group discussions, just the two of us.  We visit barangays almost every week, and we never really know what to expect.

Sometimes the barangay hall is full of people, sometimes my counterpart goes house to house yelling ‘Hain an parasira?! May meeting kita!’ (Translation: Where are the fisherfolk?! We have a meeting!), and perhaps my least favorite of all, showing up and hearing ‘Nalingawan ko!  Sa dagat sila, mamaya na lang.’ (Translation: I forgot! They [the fisherfolk] are at the sea, we’ll do it later).

When we eventually get the timing right, or my counterpart has successfully pulled the fisherfolk out of their homes, we get to discuss coastal resource management with the people directly interacting with the resources.

Discussions with fisherfolk about the timing and availability of the fish and other marine resources.

We use various activities to facilitate this conversation.  Activities that identify things like what resources are present, how people are using them, when people are using them, what time of year is most bountiful for fishing, what problems the fisherfolk of this barangay are experiencing, and what opportunities exist for alternative livelihoods?  Sometimes, if people aren’t too antsy to leave, we play a fishing game to exemplify why we need to properly manage our fisheries.

An easy fishing game to depict the need for proper fisheries management.

The game uses fish pieces of different sizes and different sized scoopers to act out what happens when people use destructive or otherwise illegal fishing methods.  It’s a competition of who can catch the most and let me tell you it can get pretty competitive, elbows fly.

Focus group discussions are just one piece of the data puzzle I’ve been putting together.  The other rather large piece would be the habitat assessments.

The Mangroves of Sorsogon Bay

There are 3 different types of habitat we’ve been trained to do assessments on; mangroves, seagrasses, and corals.  In my Municipality we only have mangroves.  I’m sure you’re thinking ‘oh Chelsea, ONLY mangroves! Only one of three habitats!  Assessments will be a breeze!’ Well YOU, have obviously never done a mangrove assessment.

Mangroves are known for living in both sandy and muddy areas.  They stand in-between the land, and the sea.  These sediments can be extremely fine making them like quicksand.

Imagine trying to measure the height and crown diameter of a tree while also being ‘Indiana Jones’ style sucked into the swamp.  It’s like the movie Toy Story when Buzz and Woody end up in ‘The Claw’ machine and all the little aliens grab on to them as they try to escape.  You can almost hear the trees chanting ‘one of us, one of us’ as you lose your tisnelas in the muck!

So long story short, these assessments are tough.

‘Then just don’t do them!  Who needs a MANGROVE anyway! Do we even have those in the United States?!’

…this guy

We DO have mangroves in The United States.

The United States has a mere 3 species out of the world’s 70+ discovered species of mangroves.

The Philippines has 46 (DENR.gov.ph).

In the United States these areas are drained for beach front property. In the Philippines they are drained and converted into fish ponds, or rice fields.  Whatever the reason for their removal, cutting down mangroves is bad news.

Another picture of the mangrove forests during mangrove forest assessments.

Mangroves are the coastal community’s first line of defense against typhoons, or even just flooding and rough seas.  I’ve seen communities where the mangroves have been cut down in order to make room for settlements and the roads in and out of the community become impassable during high tide every day.  Without the mangroves as protection they’ve also had to build a sea wall in front of their homes.  A sea wall isn’t as effective as a mangrove forest. A sea wall can only fulfill one of the many services a mangrove forest provides.

These forests act as a nursery for small fish, crustaceans, and gastropods, to grow up protected from the larger predators of the ocean.  Their tangled root systems act like a sieve, and catch large pieces of garbage before they end up in the ocean.  The roots hold the sediments in place and decrease the rate of erosion on the coastline, subsequently they also slow the rate of sedimentation into the body of water they border.  Mangroves are important!

A few of my trusty volunteers helping me to assess the mangrove habitats in our Municipality.

We need to assess these habitats in order to determine how well they can do their many jobs, and to evaluate how the people are treating them.  If there is one catch phrase I will never forget from my work here it’s that ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure’.  In order to determine what steps need to be taken in management, we need to establish a baseline.  Then we can measure how the status of the forest changes from that baseline.  Then we adapt our management plan, to address the needs of the resources and the community.

My municipality has extensive mangrove forests in the rural barangays, far too many for my counterpart and I to tackle assessing alone.

Luckily, back in November my office got about 30 on the job trainees (OJTs) from the local high school.  After seeing them sit around for a day or two it occurred to me that I had PLENTY of work for them to do!  So, I trained them on how to do mangrove assessments and the next day we were shin-deep in mangrove mud! Unfortunately, I only got this masipag (hardworking) group of students for two weeks and due to the impending rainy season, we weren’t able to get all of the assessments done.  But we’ve got some more OJTs from a nearby university coming next month so the assessments shall go on.

OJTs helping out with mangrove assessments

I’m really enjoying the PCRA process. We spend days going into these coastal communities, where I get to see things for myself.  I get to listen to fisherfolk, help them understand trends they may be observing, and brainstorm solutions.  Above all I love to listen, I love hearing passionate people talk about their livelihood.

So maybe, despite my efforts to stay present, I have identified an after Peace Corps direction…Perhaps I can find a way to do more environmental community organizing in my future. But of course as my close family and friends know, my plans for the future change almost daily. There’s so much to be done I just can’t make up my mind!

Either way, I’m soaking up each and every day as that looming figure of ’27 months’ boils down to fewer and fewer months, weeks, and days. Happy 2018 everyone, thanks for continuing to keep up with my Peace Corps journey.


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