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Amid the ruins, a view of Marawi’s rich environment

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(This speech was delivered by Howie Severino at the National Museum of Natural History, May 22, 2018, on International Day for Biological Diversity)

When I walked into the fabulous lobby of this museum, it was hard to believe I was in the Philippines. Then I saw Lolong.

I always thought only other countries had museums of natural history like this. Museums reflect what society believes are important, so this kind of museum did not seem to be a priority. I’m happy today to be wrong.

This is a cause for joy for a change. Having covered the Philippine environment now for the past 30 years, it’s been a lot of heartache. The main story has been destruction and injustice.

But seeing the displays here reminds me that the story has also been of amazing natural wealth and diversity.

I just came from Marawi last night, to produce stories in time for the first anniversary of the start of the Marawi conflict, which lasted for five months, the worst crisis to hit Mindanao in four decades.

The photos and videos that you see on television do not capture the shock of the devastation, especially if you imagine that in those bombed out ruins thrived, just a year ago, communities and families not unlike many around the Philippines.

But from any high vantage point in Marawi, one can see immediately what makes Marawi unique, for just beyond the rubble lie the deep and tranquil waters of Lake Lanao, said to be one of the world’s few ancient lakes, defined as a lake that has consistently carried water for at least one million years.

Thinking about this event today made me perceive Marawi in terms other than war. Marawi, and many of the towns in the region, exist because of the natural bounty of Lake Lanao, the second largest in the Philippines. The proud and entrepreneurial people there in fact are called the Maranao, or people of the lake.

The massive trees in the lake’s watershed, or dipterocarps like the great lauan and apitong, became ornate dugout boats on the lake called awang, and the famed torogan houses of royalty that graced its shores.

The fish in its waters have fed generations, and are staples of Maranao cuisine.  Even the sarimanok of legend, which has become a symbol of the Philippines and not just of Moro culture, has its origins in nature, although there is some debate as to what the original model was for ancient artists – was it the wild jungle fowl or labuyo,… or the lake kingfisher, which could explain why many sarimanok images include fish hanging from the beaks? We should also remember that the lake was once home to the spot-billed pelican, now extinct, and still harbor several species of endemic ducks, water birds that could have also inspired the sarimanok.

There is sparse scientific research about the natural history of the lake and Lanao region in general. But the little there is does not show good trends.

The lake used to be home to 18 species of carp or karpa, scientifically called cyprinids, a freshwater food fish that are among the most valuable and delectable in the world. Those 18 endemic Lake Lanao species of carp are now down to two species. But some of the extinct species are still known by native names like the manalak, katolo, and palata; and occupy fond places in local memories.

There is much more to be said about the diversity of the lake, much of it hidden in its waters. The threats to the lake, however, tend to be more visible. Logging is rampant in the surrounding forested mountains, causing heavy erosion. Hydroelectric projects have altered its delicate balance. Invasive fish species have devastated endemics like the native carps.

Like nearly all of our water bodies, and especially rivers and lakes, Lake Lanao serves as a sewer of communities and industries near and far. For some reason, perhaps because these are the least sexy, glamorous and visible of all infrastructure projects, sewerage systems and wastewater treatment are a last priority, and certainly far behind gleaming roads and even basketball courts. But sewage is not a matter of improving convenience and providing recreation; the neglect of sewage can kill any of us very easily.

Marawi and the people of that region are at a crossroads, with thousands still in evacuation centers and temporary homes; their communities are still in ruins seven months after the end of the crisis.

War can be said to be an unwanted opportunity, but it is an opportunity nonetheless, an opportunity to build back better. The most devastated areas of Marawi are those along the lake shore which suffered the longest and heaviest bombardment.

The government together with the local communities need to decide how to build back better. But what is that better? Some envision large commercialized areas and real estate projects, with heavy investment from China.

But talking to residents of Marawi, I’m inclined to believe that many just want their old Marawi back, the family-oriented, tradition-bound city with no malls and a beautiful climate.

No matter what the final outcome of rehabilitation will be, we need to hope that the protection of the environment will be a priority.

The planners of the future could do no better than to start with a visit to this museum. — LA, GMA News

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