A Philippines NGO project aimed to protect villages from typhoons: What went wrong?

A Philippines NGO project aimed to protect villages from typhoons: What went wrong?
  • Concepcion is a low-income fishing town in the central Philippines’ Iloilo province where Super Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, made its fifth landfall nearly a decade ago, destroying houses and fishing boats.
  • In 2015, the U.S.-based nonprofit Conservation International (CI) introduced so-called green-gray infrastructure to enhance the climate resilience of five Concepcion villages, employing a combination of nature-based and engineering solutions.
  • A little more than a year after the project ended, a Mongabay visit to Concepcion found most project components degraded or destroyed, leaving residents with little more protection than they had when Yolanda devastated their communities in 2013.
  • A CI official acknowledged the project’s challenges, expressing an organizational commitment to learn from the experience and attempt to secure new funding to sustain the initiative.

CONCEPCION, Philippines — The skies were overcast but intense heat from the sun permeated the salty air one June afternoon on Bagongon, a central Philippines island. As the tide receded, it revealed an eroding coastline dotted with outrigger fishing boats, their bows pointing inland toward a crumbling concrete pathway, houses with crumpled roofs and a village government hall all succumbing to the sea.

Lorene Gabayeron walked toward a seaward-growing patch of mangrove trees, under which he and other villagers had planted thousands of seedlings two years earlier. The fisherfolk leader’s brow furrowed as he gazed at the sparse collection of surviving seedlings. He touched their fragile stems and leaves, which swayed in sync with gusts of the southwest monsoon wind, while the relentless crash of seawater echoed in the background.

“Maybe the planting should be done in areas without disruptive waves,” the 53-year-old told Mongabay, “because when there are strong waves, after you plant the seedlings, by the time you wake up in the morning, they’re gone, uprooted.”

Such sheltered conditions don’t exist on Bagongon, part of Concepcion municipality in Iloilo province, about 450 kilometers (280 miles) southwest of Manila. This island lies along the country’s typhoon path, where storms made stronger and more frequent by climate change have become an unavoidable reality for its 500 households, most of whom are poor and rely on the sea for survival.

A fisher cleans his net in preparation for the following day’s fishing expedition off Bagongon Island in Iloilo province in the central Philippines. Image by Keith Anthony Fabro for Mongabay.

Like many other storm-battered island communities in this archipelagic nation of 115 million people, Bagongon must seek ways to cope and thrive. One is through the adoption of green-gray infrastructure (GGI), an approach that combines nature-based and engineering solutions, with help from the U.S.-based nonprofit Conservation International (CI).

Between November 2015 and June 2022, CI collaborated with local government and fisherfolk organizations to implement a 1.5 million-euro ($1.63 million) GGI project in Bagongon and four other coastal villages in Concepcion. The French Facility for Global Environment funded the project. With CI promoting the GGI approach as innovative and socially transformative, the project included planting mangrove seedlings, establishing marine protected areas, constructing breakwaters and bamboo wave-attenuation fences and providing alternative livelihoods and climate-impact awareness to enhance community resilience against typhoons.

But just 13 months after the project ended, Mongabay’s visit in June to four of the sites revealed that, apart from the breakwaters, all other components were degraded or destroyed. A CI official and the former employee in charge of the project acknowledged the problems and described the challenges leading to them in response to inquiries by Mongabay.

“It’s like nothing happened”

At noon on Nov. 8, 2013, Super Typhoon Yolanda (called Haiyan outside the Philippines) made its fifth landfall in Concepcion. When the most powerful storm ever recorded in Philippine history subsided, Bagongon lay in ruins, with shattered houses and boats, a debris-strewn coastline and a barren mountainscape. Gabayeron recalled the devastation of losing the home he and his wife shared. “It’s really sad, it’s really painful, as if you no longer want to keep going,” he said. Rebuilding took years.

In 2015, CI’s Philippines branch introduced the GGI project in Concepcion, enlisting the help of communities still recovering from Yolanda to build coastal defenses against future big storms. The first years were spent on community enterprise development, education and capacity building, leading residents to embrace mangroves for their role in nurturing marine life, absorbing carbon and protecting the land from wind and waves.

Between 2019 and 2021, the project hired local fishers to build the “gray” project components meters off the shore. In Bagongon, to protect the coast, they built two 75-meter- (446-foot-) long stone breakwaters, each standing 1.5 m (5 ft) tall, and eight wave-attenuation fences spanning a total of 1.15 km (0.7 mi). To promote landward sediment buildup, they built five sediment-trapping fences spanning a total of 895 m (2,900 ft). The mangrove seedlings would need at least 35 centimeters (14 inches) of sediment to take root.

For the fencing, they used locally sourced biodegradable materials like bamboo and tree branches. Rocks for the breakwaters were transported from a nearby quarry to the island’s coast via barge. During high tide, the men worked tirelessly under the scorching sun to lift and stack the rocks by hand.

An aerial view of Bagongon Island showing a submerged stone breakwater and bamboo wave attenuation fences constructed as part of the green-grey infrastructure project. Image courtesy of Keith Anthony Fabro for Mongabay.
Fisherfolk leader Lorene Gabayeron gazes upon the mangrove planting site
Fisherfolk leader Lorene Gabayeron gazes at the mangrove planting site on Bagongon Island, where numerous seedlings have died. Image by Keith Anthony Fabro for Mongabay.

“Even though other community members say the pay was low and the work was tough, I said it’s a help for us,” Gabayeron said. “Many hands were injured by rocks, our nails got damaged. But it’s all right, we’re just doing our job without complaints.”

Locals at four of the project sites whom Mongabay spoke with said the gray infrastructure served its purpose. However, they noted a limitation: When typhoons or monsoon-driven waves coincided with high tide, the structures provided little protection as the waves passed over them. They said increasing the height another 2 m (6.56 ft) and extending the length would greatly enhance effectiveness.

The infrastructure complete, residents then planted 110,363 mangrove seedlings across 11 hectares (27 acres) of Bagongon’s shoreline from April to July 2021.

“We conducted training sessions, covering everything from setting up the nursery to potting and bagging, and finally to the actual planting,” Jocel Pangilinan, who managed the project at CI, told Mongabay in a video interview. “We also ensured they were trained on monitoring, so it was not a mere haphazard undertaking.”

After the project concluded, the five sites initially reported thriving mangroves. But recent storms and monsoons wiped out most of the seedlings, residents said. In Bagongon, fishing boats seeking shelter among the mangrove stands hit the seedlings, while worm infestations further damaged the survivors. When Mongabay visited, only a few stragglers remained.

“That’s why I said it’s like nothing happened,” Gabayeron said despondently, sitting in a chair on the retreating sandy coast. A privately built seawall once stood before him, but powerful monsoon waves destroyed it in December 2022. With the bamboo fences deteriorating, locals anticipate even further seedling mortality.

Like the other GGI sites in Concepcion, Bagongon tried replacing dead mangrove seedlings multiple times but faced the same outcome, leading to growing frustration and waning participation among residents.

Residents planted 110,363 mangrove seedlings across 11 hectares (27 acres) of Bagongon’s shoreline from April to July 2021. Recent storms and monsoons wiped out most of them, residents said. Image by Keith Anthony Fabro for Mongabay.
The bamboo fences installed off Bagongon Island have deteriorated, offering minimal protection against waves and sediment accumulation at the mangrove planting site.
The bamboo fences installed off Bagongon Island have deteriorated, offering minimal protection against waves or sediment accumulation at the mangrove planting site. Image by Keith Anthony Fabro for Mongabay.

“Everything needed to be done by a certain date”

Concepcion’s municipal coastal resource management officer, Mark Rufino, whose office provided transportation and other logistical assistance to CI but was not involved in community planting, said officials observed a 30% survival rate for the 238,000 mangrove seedlings planted at the five GGI sites. To be sure, poor survival has been common at mangrove planting sites in the Philippines and beyond.

Besides challenging environmental conditions, he said community implementers rushed the planting process before enough sediment could accumulate behind the new gray infrastructure, contributing to poor survival.

“There was a shortcut taken that should not have happened,” Rufino told Mongabay. “They wanted to expedite the process and start in an area that is not suitable.”

At two mainland project sites, Lo-ong and Bacjawan Norte, some participants told Mongabay they had planted seedlings without waiting for breakwater construction or sediment accretion, rushing to receive financial incentives to support their families. Observers noted other adverse community practices, like planting species unsuited to the specific location or seedlings that weren’t ready.

A patch of surviving mangrove seedlings on the island of Tambaliza, at one of the sites included in the project. Image by Keith Anthony Fabro for Mongabay.

Pangilinan described the Concepcion project as a “test of concept” and said she and CI had been upfront with the funder and community partners about the uncertainty of its success. She described a suite of challenges that delayed construction of the gray infrastructure and contributed to the mangrove failure, including frequent storms, limited barge availability and high costs for transporting stone materials. Consequently, the mangrove seedlings outgrew the optimal planting size and had to be sourced from the mainland, and some areas had insufficient sediment buildup. She also acknowledged the possibility of reforestation protocol breaches despite the efforts to train community members.

“I was actually very honest that this project is not a bed of roses, it has actually a lot of challenges, it has a lot of failures, but failures people can learn from. It’s an expensive failure, but that’s how it is,” she said. “My only regret there is that we were tied to the project timeline, so everything needed to be done by a certain date.”

CI’s acting country director for the Philippines, Wilson John Barbon, told Mongabay in emailed statements that “extraordinarily difficult circumstances,” including challenges from the pandemic and a series of storms, were unforeseeable factors that significantly affected the GGI projects in Concepcion.

“As with all pilot projects, we expected to learn from them and use this information to adapt our approach to improve outcomes for current work and future efforts,” he told Mongabay via email. One of the learnings: The project timeline was too short.

More mishaps

The projects’ alternative livelihoods also dissipated. Beneficiaries said the community enterprises initially helped them earn during the pandemic’s onset, but they had difficulty tiding over when demand for their products dropped and raw-material costs soared.

Mysel Camaod, a 40-year-old mother of two, made virgin coconut oil and other coconut-based products like erosion-control nets and flower pots with other women in Bagongon. “The last time we worked on the products as a group was in November 2022; now we just rely only on our spouses because we don’t have buyers and materials,” she said.

Internal issues in the partner fisherfolk organizations, such as key personnel changes, managerial disputes over income and member inactivity due to perceived inequitable benefits, contributed to the enterprise halt, residents told Mongabay.

Helen Balajadia, chair of Concepcion’s Municipal Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council and president of the fisherfolk organization in her island village of Tambaliza, said she was grateful for CI’s help in establishing or reactivating community-based marine protected areas (MPAs) at four of the project sites. However, the 64-year-old said the communities have a hard time enforcing them: There’s not enough money to hire guards or acquire patrol boats and other equipment.

“It’s helpful to have a plan, but if there is no budget for implementation, it won’t work,” Balajadia told Mongabay. Storms destroyed the signage and marker buoys CI donated to create awareness about the MPA, which she said continually faces illegal fishing.

“Last month, I woke up at midnight and paddled alone into the sea just off my village,” she said. “I intercepted a boat engaged in fishing in our designated no-take zone.”

Helen Balajadia, chair of Concepcion’s fisheries council and president of the Tambaliza fisherfolk organization, said her community needs help to repair the deteriorating boardwalk donated through Conservation International’s green-gray infrastructure project. Image by Keith Anthony Fabro for Mongabay.

Moving forward

Once CI’s role in the GGI project ended in June 2022, management transferred to the municipal government and fisherfolk organizations through a signed conservation agreement. New challenges have arisen since then.

For Concepcion, a fishing town with an annual municipal revenue of $1-1.4 million, continuing CI’s initiatives “remains a challenge for the local government unit,” said Rufino. This year, his office received a budget of 1.5 million pesos ($27,000) to manage the municipality’s coastal resources, well short of the minimum 10 million pesos ($180,000) he estimates is necessary.

For 2023, Concepcion allocated 300,000 pesos ($5,400) for mangrove rehabilitation, including at the five CI sites. However, Rufino said future budget allocations to sustain the GGI initiative remain uncertain. Other government agencies promised to expand breakwaters and help with startup capital and product marketing to carry on the livelihood initiatives.

Barbon said CI is seeking additional funding to support local government and fisherfolk organizations in repairing and sustaining their GGI project infrastructure.

“We will continue to work in difficult and challenging environments in the global south. This is where global biodiversity and irreplaceable carbon reserves exist. This is where the need is,” Barbon said. “Overall, we will use our learnings from this project to strengthen future interventions to ensure the skills and resources are well embedded locally to deliver long-term stewardship.”

Despite the difficulties, CI is pressing on with a plan to undertake similar projects on a larger scale in 11 cities and municipalities across the Philippines.

Houses and fishing boats were destroyed Super Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, made its fifth landfall nearly a decade ago in Concepcion.
Super Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, made its fifth landfall nearly a decade ago in Concepcion, destroying houses and fishing boats. Image by Keith Anthony Fabro for Mongabay.

In Bagongon and other GGI sites, there’s a sense of coming full circle. Despite years of effort, residents have little more protection than they did when Yolanda wrecked their communities in 2013. So they rely on their own strength and unity to face the looming threat of extreme storms.

The Philippine state weather bureau predicts five to seven typhoons during the remainder of 2023.

“When there’s a storm, life becomes difficult because you can’t go out to sea,” said Gabayeron. “For two or three days, we have no income, no money and no food to sustain us. … If this climate change continues, all these houses will disappear because the sea is swelling, and the storms are becoming stronger.”

Banner image: Fisherfolk leader Lorene Gabayeron poses with two fish. Image by Keith Anthony Fabro for Mongabay.

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