by ACB

Giants of biodiversity

A belly full of ecosystems

This story starts with an adventurous walk through a lush, dense and wild mangrove forest, full of humming birds in the canopy and thriving with fish around the flooded roots. Arriving at the coast, one can see fishermen at work – bringing in the daily catch of shrimps from the sheltering mangroves, and colorful fish from coral reefs close by. Kids playing cheerfully in the shallow water, a whale passes in the distance. But hang on a moment – what is this chewing noise? Slowly turning around, a gigantic colossus comes into sight, munching its way through the mangrove forest, filling its enormous belly with trees, shrimps and fish, leaving nothing behind but destruction and misery.

With a sigh of relief, you  find out that this giant is not a danger to you, since it is made of papier-mâché and its belly is full of papier-mâché shrimps and fish.

To fully understand this colorful story of mangroves, their function, their services to humans and their deterioration, the papier-mâché giants tell, let us track back a little.

The Art of Papier-mâché in the Philippines

Some centuries ago, long before the destruction of marine and coastal ecosystems became a heavily debated issue, the Philippines were still a Spanish colony. Along Laguna de Bay many haciendas could be found, where the hacienda owners prohibited the townspeople from holding any celebrations. Aside from the costly preparations, they also wanted to restrict pagan festivities and allowed only one annual celebration. The townspeople took advantage of this sole festivity, prepared lots of food, wore colorful costumes, and held a big procession featuring big papier-mâché caricatures of their Spanish landlords – an art form imported from Mexico by Spanish friars. These multi-colored, humongous, comical and sometimes scary 12-footers were called “Higantes” or giants. First, only two or three higantes were made, representing a “mag-anak” (family), but the tradition soon diversified into many motives.

The heads of the higantes were, and are still made of papier-mâché, using a wooden mould, newspapers and starch, and painted with the details of the face. Bamboo strips or yantok are used as the skeleton frame for the body, which is then covered with yards of cloth resembling their characters. The head is attached to the body and a person can go inside and carry the higante around.

Apart from the Higantes Festival, also known as the Feast of San Clemente, in honor of the patron saint of the fishermen, which is celebrated every November 23 in the town of Angono, Rizal, the art of paper-mâché is also an unbroken 400-year tradition of Paete, Laguna. Nowadays the 30,000 inhabitants of Paete base their livelihoods mainly on woodcarvings and papier-mâché, next to tourism, farming and fishing.

Marine Biodiversity for Sustaining Life and Livelihoods

This close connection of the Higantes to fishing, paintings of Marc Chagall and old lithographic prints inspired the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and GIZ through the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP) to create a papier-mâché exhibit for the Go4BioDiv International Youth Forum being conducted from 6-19 October 2012 in Hyderabad, India in parallel to the 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The exhibit entitled Mother Nature and the Mangrove Garden is all about ‘conserving coastal and marine biodiversity for sustaining life and livelihoods’, which is also the theme for COP11 and Go4BioDiv 2012.

Mother Nature and the Mangrove Garden is a circular 16 square meter set up of giant papier-mâché human, marine plant and animal sculptures delicately crafted by a team of artisans from Paete, Laguna under the helm of BCCP Consultant, Ms. Yvette Co. It aims to encourage people to take on the responsibility of conserving what Mother Nature has provided us.

Endangered Beauty of our Oceans

This is direly necessary as marine biodiversity is globally at peril. Also known as variability among living organisms and their habitats, it includes the diversity within species, between species and within ecosystems. Biodiversity is essential for human well-being, as it provides valuable services, such as food, medicines or clean air. At the same time, it is under threat from exposure to environmental degradation, pollution and unsustainable resource exploitation, like overfishing. Climate change poses a new challenge as it often exacerbates the impacts of other pressures.

Experts agree that under current scenarios 90% of coral reefs will have dramatically changed or disappeared by mid-century. At the same time, over a billion people rely on marine ecosystems as a source of food and over half a billion people are dependent on oceans and coasts for their livelihoods. Ocean biodiversity is also of utter most importance for the resilience and stability of ecosystems

In Particular, the ASEAN region, featuring the coral triangle, is mega-diverse: It supports 75% of global coral species, 6 of the world’s 7 marine turtle species and 51 of the 70 mangrove species worldwide, with many species endemic to the region. The annual estimated value of ecosystem services from coral reefs comes to $112.5 Billion, mangroves account for $ 5.1 Billion. At the same time the region is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, in combination with other human activities, leaving e.g. 98% of Philippine coral reefs at risk.

In response to this threat, ACB as a regional intergovernmental organization, coordinates national and regional efforts on biodiversity conservation and sustainable management in South East Asia. Since September 2010 the GIZ through the BCCP supports the institutionalization of ACB’s core program on biodiversity and its nexus with climate change.

The future lies not only in the conservation of marine biodiversity, but also in the restoration of what has been thriving and healthy in the past. Walk around the Mangrove Garden and see how a perfectly functional mangrove forest can deteriorate with human use and abuse. Moving along, view some examples of how we can do our share in restoring our mangrove forests. Mother Nature has one more reason to smile if we could stop the greedy giant from eating his way through all our ecosystems, the ecosystems we all depend on.

First published on Saturday, 13 October 2012 19:03 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror