MANILA, Philippines—It's a marshland surrounded by both mystique and alarming human activity, where tales of seven-meter crocodiles, pythons as big as tree trunks and exotic flower species are as real as stories of indiscriminate logging and invasive mining.
But much is yet unknown about the Agusan Marsh, the sprawling flood plain at the Agusan River Basin that conservationists say is now threatened by abuse and enterprise, from small- to commercial-scale logging and water runoff from mining operations in Compostela Valley's Mt. Diwalwal.
A London-based NGO has partnered with local organizations to launch a comprehensive study of biodiversity and threats to flora and fauna within the 44,000-hectare protected area—the first attempt to put together extensive baseline data about the marsh.
“This study we have in mind is not something like many research projects that gathers dust in libraries, in headquarters of organizations but it's research that can be used by the community, by all the stakeholders, that's actionable,” said marine scientiest Jurgenne Primavera, a Butuanon and conservationist recognized by Time Magazine as a Hero of the Environment in 2008.
Primavera is working with the Haribon Foundation, the Butuan Global Forum (BGF) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to jumpstart the ambitious study touted to catalog plant and animal species thriving within the marshland, declared a protected site in 1994 but still vulnerable to abuse.
The study also hopes to track down threats to the Agusan Marsh biodiversity, which Primavera said has one of the richest in the world. Besides endemic species, the marsh is known to provide winter habitat for birds from Japan and Siberia.
“The marsh itself is exploding in terms of the scale of what we don't know about it … It proves what an incredible place it is and we've only just touched the surface of what we need to know. The second thing is the scale of threats that are kind of exploding as well,” said Heather Koldewey, ZSL Senior Curator of Aquariums.
Koldewey has been traveling to the Philippines for the last 12 years to work with local organizations and scientists on conservation projects, among them Project Seahorse, an international marine conservation effort.
The idea is to bring together Filipino and international scientists in an integrated study of the Agusan Marsh to inform a conservation management plan for the area.
“One of the things we were talking about were the more integrated biodiversity assessment, a kind of hit squad of researchers who would spend time in the marsh and have bird people, fish people, frog people, bat people, tree people to do studies,” Koldewey said over a four-hour meeting with marsh conservationists on Monday.
Such study is critical in pushing for better enforcement of environmental regulations, said the groups, as they noted that logging by both locals and commercial firms have encroached in the protected area.
“Frameworks do exist and Philippine laws are quite progressive globally. The fact that when done right, it's all there, if you just followed the law then the problems of Agusan marsh will pretty much be solved in many ways. But it's implementation that's always the problem,” Koldewey said.
BGF president Laurice Guillen, renowned Butuan-born film director and, said such a study would eventually serve as the literature of reference in policy-making in relation to the marsh.
“I mean any funding that we have, any policy decision that have to be made as far as government is concerned will always be based on this baseline data,” she said.
BGF has pledged to provide thesis grants to local students about to undertake required research in related courses. Local researchers will also partner with international experts to facilitate knowledge transfer, Primavera said.
The coalition is set to put together a study proposal to be submitted to international organizations for funding organizations. If awarded a grant, the Agusan Marsh study may begin in the middle of next year, Koldewey said.
“The funding environment is tough at the moment, particularly with European countries. But we'd hoped we'd be looking to start in the middle of next year, all being successful. That's in the best situation,” she said.