The sun makes its entrance bright and early on Danjugan, slowly rising up behind the mountains that border the Occidental and Oriental sides of Negros, shedding light on the turquoise waters that surround the island, slowly rousing its inhabitants from sleep.
These days, those inhabitants might include a group of young students and their teachers from one of the nearby municipalities, participants of a marine and wildlife conservation camp now regularly held there. If the skies are clear and they are lucky, a white-breasted sea eagle might swoop into the lagoon where the camp is set up, soaring just above the tree line where the sea wind is blowing, adjusting its wings in flight as if to greet everyone, “Good morning!”
But days haven’t always been this calm or peaceful for Danjugan. The island has seen some very dark days, and underneath the seeming resplendence of nature lies a unique and very fragile ecosystem still struggling to survive.
ALL THAT WAS LEFT WAS RUBBLE
Danjugan’s story begins in the 1970s. The island had been a popular spot for scuba diving and spearfishing, particularly because the nearby reefs were teeming with the abundance of rich and healthy coral and large schools of pelagic fishes, like tuna and trevally, were a common occurrence.
Unfortunately, the next decade would not be so kind. In the mid-80s, two strong typhoons destroyed almost all of the coral reefs in the shallow waters of the island and in the surrounding shores of the nearby municipalities of Cauayan, Sipalay, and Hinobaan. The Maricalum Mining Corporation (MMC) shut down its operations in the region, leaving many workers displaced. Desperate to make a living, the workers turned to illegal and destructive fishing practices.
A group of scuba divers who had been frequenting Danjugan for hunting started to notice that their catches were getting smaller, and even worse, the large schools of fish so often seen around the island were starting to disappear. Evidence of destructive fishing were seen everywhere. All that was left was mostly coral rubble. They decided to take action.
FROM HUNTERS TO CONSERVATIONALISTS
The group decided to lease out what is now known as Typhoon Beach and held the first wildlife conservation and awareness camp there in 1990. It was attended by their children and the children of friends and relatives. In later years, the camps would include youth of the neighboring village of Bulata.
In 1994, the owners of Danjugan decided to sell the majestic Dungon tree that was then home to a nesting pair of white breasted sea eagles, and one of the tallest and oldest trees on the island. This provoked the group to offer to buy the island in order to protect it from further destruction.
With the help of the World Land Trust (WLT) and Coral Cay Conservation (CCC), the group was able to borrow the money needed to purchase Danjugan Island, and in 1994, the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, Inc. were born.
The Foundation and its trustees, along with a dedicated team of staff and volunteers, manage what are now the Danjugan Island Marine Reserves and Sanctuary (DIMRS). There are three specially- managed areas around the island that were granted Protected Area status in 2000, and DIMRS was awarded as the Philippines’ Best Managed Reef in 2002.
Its flagship education program, called The Danjugan Island Environment Education Program (DEEP), continues the youth marine and wildlife camps pioneered in 1990, and through a generous grant from the Foundation of the Philippine Environment (FPE), has been able to reach out to more than 800 students from the 16 coastal barangays in Southern Negros Occidental. The program has also trained teachers and partnered with the Department of Education in Region VI for the lobbying and active integration of environmental education into the formal school curriculum.
Despite these successes, the waters surrounding Danjugan Island are still subject to poaching. The continued use of unsustainable fishing practices outside protected areas threatens the fragile health of the coral reefs; and, despite being prohibited by Philippine law, commercial fishing vessels also persist in encroaching on the 15 kilometer shoreline boundary reserved for municipal fishers, thus robbing the latter of decent and potential livelihood.
At the root of these problems, perhaps, is the reluctance of the local community and the local government to support conservation efforts, with some members of the local government even suspected of being in partnerships with commercial fishing companies.
The Foundation, through DEEP, hopes to be able to address these issues by strengthening and empowering people’s organizations to enforce local fisheries and biodiversity laws, and by continuing to educate the youth through exposure to the wonders of Danjugan Island, above and under water.
In essence, the future of Danjugan Island lies in the hands of the youth who are right now maybe just sitting down to lunch after a morning of trekking through mangrove forests to collect trash, and who are getting ready for an afternoon of learning how and why it is important that they understand the material and nutrient cycles of the earth.
And Danjugan’s story, too, shall come full circle one day, when they who have seen and appreciated its natural beauty and become leaders and stewards of creation in their own communities, and inspire and move others to do the same.