Satellite Image coordinates: 14.492583, 120.981924 . At image center is the Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat, a (mostly) natural wetland and barrier island jutting out into Manila Bay. To its east is the Manila – Cavite Coastal Expressway and the cities of Las Piñas and Parañaque. To its north are the Asia World City and Aseana City land reclamation developments. For more on the reclamation projects see my previous post, Manila Bay A contentious Urban Waterfront. Source: Google Earth
An Ecological Diamond-in-the-Rough:
Both unique and largely unknown, the 175 hectare (432 acre) Las Pinas – Paranaque Critical Habitat Area is without precedent in the city of Manila. Not only is it the only natural preservation area within the metro area, but it is also contains the last bastion of mangrove forests on the eastern shore of Manila Bay, others having been destroyed through tree harvesting and land reclamation. It is believed that the bay once was bordered by as much as 54,000 hectares of mangroves, now reduced to 794. Declared as a Critical Habitat Area by presidential proclamation in 2007 (at the time the country’s first declared critical habitat), the wetland was also recognized that same year on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. Located along the the East Asian – Australasian Flyway, bird watchers have documented up to 84 different species of birds (47 which are migratory) and up to 5000 individual birds have been found to occupy the area at times, giving the islands further ecological value. The Critical Habitat Area consists of two islands, Freedom Island to the north and Long Island to the south. The islands have been connected to each other and to the mainland to allow vehicular access.
Viewed from an incoming flight into Ninoy Aquino (Manila) International Airport (image right), one can easily identify Freedom Island and Long Island comprising the currently protected Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat Area (1), the projected area of the proposed land reclamation adjacent to the habitat area (2), and completed reclamations into Manila Bay (3). Background photo source
Boundary and land cover map of the Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat Area. The areas in the darkest shade of green are representative of the 30 hectares (74 acres) of mangroves found in the habitat area. Source
Plans for Reclamation:
Reclaiming land from the Bay has been a common political and economic tactic in Manila since the 1970’s. The waters around the critical habitat area have actually been planned for reclamation for decades having been zoned off by the controversial Bay City Plan in 1977. From this plan proposed reclamations have fallen into place like dominoes heading south from the the city’s core and this area is slotted as the next to develop. Though multiple developers have proposed different schemes, the most recent scheme (pictured below) preserves the habitat area in plan, but undoubtedly alters its fundamental ecology by filling in around it and altering the hydrology of the estuary and the lagoons that make up the island and its mangroves. However environmentalists and residents from the neighboring cities of Las Pinas and Paranaque and across Manila have stunted the projects implementation and a series of legal and political battles have yet to resolve the habitats ultimate fate.
Master Development plan by Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) of the proposed 14 billion peso, 635 hectare mixed-use reclamation project. Following an initial public outcry against the infill of the wetlands in the original plan, this plan was modified to preserve the protected area’s existing footprint (though altering its shoreline, and ecological context.) Source
The View from the Ground:
Currently the Critical Habitat Area is only open to visitors that have acquired a DENR permit or are card-carrying bird watchers. Though there have been numerous volunteer clean-up efforts as well as tree planting programs the area has undergone only minor site improvements to accommodate visitors (perhaps due to the uncertainties of the preserves future). However, the investment in tree saplings and the labor of the volunteers who planted them are obvious throughout the site. The island’s western shore along Manila Bay consists of a shell and debris covered beachhead, the interior of the island a mix of endemic trees, and the eastern shore, which borders the Paranaque and Las Pinas River estuaries, is where the mangroves can be found. As of 2014, a series of trails head out from a central registry area on Freedom Island. Throughout the trek there are several designated bird watching areas as well as signs labeling the species of many of the trees and describing their historical uses in Filipino culture… hints of the islands educational potential.
In many ways, the Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat Area reminds me of New York City’s Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, also a favorite locale for bird watchers and once threatened by the reclamation and dredging projects affiliated with John F. Kennedy Airport. Though still under-threat from rising seas and erosion, the refuge could be a model for conservation, recreation, and education that Manila could follow.
The fork between Long Island and Freedom island. The beach-head of the latter can be seen to the right.
View of the beach on freedom island with trash deposited from the bay during high-tide. The construction of high-rises on the reclaimed land of Asia World city can be seen in the distance.
Since its inception as a habitat area, community groups have sponsored native tree plantings in areas that had been denuded, such as along the main road leading into the heart of Freedom Island. Another threat to the bird sanctuary is Manila’s main airport located nearby in Paranaque. Though politically contentious, airport officials have supported the destruction of the habitat area in the past citing the threat to planes that the birds pose (though few incidents have been recorded or verified).
Endangered Chinese Egrets, easily stirred by human activity, use the tree canopies for nesting.
Mudflats and ponds are scattered throughout the interior of the island. The Philippine Duck (Anas luzonica) can be seen at image top. The duck, a native of the Philippines, uses the island as breeding grounds and is listed as a vulnerable species.
Lacking significant underbrush the mangrove is dominated by tree stubs, trunks, and the lush green crowns of the trees.
Trash and refuse that is combed out of the estuary by the mangrove stubs following high tide events.
View of and over the mangroves of Freedom Island. In a city that has been consuming its natural hinterlands, it is a rare juxtaposition so close to the urban core.
Whose Bay is it?:
Ultimately, what makes the Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat area so valuable is that it is an endangered landscape and is thus both ecologically unique and symbolically powerful in the context of a mega city such as Manila. With few parks, these islands comprise one of the few spaces removed and untouched by the congestion of the city, while also acting as time capsule, a remnant of landscapes past, before the impacts of colonization and globalization swept across the archipelago. Likely the legacy of this landscape is what attracts birds for a stopover as they fly north and south as they have for millennia. However as the city has grown up around it, the island’s status as an enclave is also what is attracting developers… dreaming of creating another reclaimed edge city removed from the realities and struggles of the unchecked metropolis.
The debate around the Critical Habitat Area ultimately raises the age-old question of who is the city for. Barring an economic recession, the reclamation project will undoubtedly be profitable to the developers, politicians, and elite class of businessmen it is meant to attract and serve. However, if developed it is likely the ecosystem will be fundamentally altered, the birds will fly elsewhere, local fishermen and neighboring residents will loose thier access to the waterfront forever. In this contested space, do city officials not have an obligation to protect its natural and human assets… to recognize what was as much as profit on what can be?