- In 1974, as head of the newly-established Silliman University Marine Laboratory in Dumaguete City, Dr. Angel Alcala began an experiment on a marine reserve concept in the island of Sumilon, off the northern tip of the island of Cebu, in an effort to save whatever was left of the country’s coral reefs.
- Alcala proved in Sumilon that the degradation of coral reefs was not irreversible. He also discovered that to sustain its success, the community members should be involved in the undertaking. In Apo island, off Dumaguete City, in Negros Oriental, Alcala reaffirmed his findings in Sumilon, thereby enabling him to develop a model for succeeding marine sanctuaries not only in the Philippines but throughout the world.
- Alcala’s advocacy was crowned with success in 1988, when the government of President Corazon Aquino declared the Tubbataha Reef complex in the Sulu Sea as the country’s first national marine park.
- When he became Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Alcala ensured the identification, protection, and management of all marine sanctuaries in the country.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his pioneering scientific leadership in rehabilitating the coral reefs of the Philippines and in sustaining for Filipinos the natural abundance of their country’s marine life.”
The warm shallow seas of island Southeast Asia host one of the planet’s most productive natural systems. Coral reefs are nurseries for sea life of an astonishing variety and abundance, providing livelihood for fisherfolk and food for millions. But humans have preyed too hard upon the reefs.
Today, in the Philippines, 70 percent have been damaged or destroyed by predatory exploitation and pollution, and none has escaped harm. We now know that we must save what can be saved; this requires prudent restraint. But how can we rehabilitate what has been badly damaged, and bring back to vitality what has very nearly been lost? This task requires the practical application of science and has been the life’s work of marine ecologist ANGEL C. ALCALA.
A child of the sea-bathed Visayan Islands, ALCALA marveled at the wonders of coral reefs long before he understood them. At Silliman University he took up biology and pursued it through a doctorate at Stanford University. Returning to the Philippines, he made his career at Silliman, advancing in 1991 to become the school’s president.
As a young scientist ALCALA taught zoology, anatomy and botany to Silliman’s students and explored the local rainforests for undiscovered varieties of reptiles and amphibians. In 1974 he established the Silliman University Marine Laboratory. Based here, and working in collaboration with his research colleagues and students, ALCALA embarked on pathbreaking research.
On the island of Sumilon, ALCALA established his country’s first marine sanctuary. Here he observed that a healthy coral reef can yield sea life six times greater than previously thought possible. Moreover, ALCALA’s research revealed that if just one fourth of a reef is protected, the rest can be used as a fishing zone, providing a sustainable livelihood for nearby coast dwellers. When Sumilon’s reef was badly plundered after losing its protected status, ALCALA learned another lesson: Involve local people! On Apo Island, Silliman’s team worked hand-in-hand with local fishing families from the beginning; today the university has withdrawn and the people manage the restored reef themselves. These hopeful findings are now being put into practice throughout the Philippines. “This is my vision,” says ALCALA, “a series of marine reserves in all the islands, all contributing to keeping the surrounding seas healthy.”
Keeping the seas healthy and bountiful for growing numbers of Filipinos has been the object of much of ALCALA’s research. He built the Philippines’ first artificial reef, now a model for dozens of others. He induced the near-extinct giant clam and Philippine crocodile to reproduce in captivity and developed breeding programs for other valuable sea animals. He monitored the health of fish, corals, seagrasses and mangroves throughout the central Visayas and taught coastal communities how to increase the productivity of precious shallow waters. He studied the effects of pollution on marine organisms. As he learned, he also spoke out.
ALCALA is a conservationist who gets the facts first. Based on thorough research, he defended Negros Island’s surviving patch of virgin rainforest from hydro-electric dams and tourism and helped to evict commercial seaweed producers from the unique Tubbataha reef–now the Philippines’ first national marine park. ALCALA’s forceful and reasoned public stand for the environment is unwelcome in some quarters. But this down-to-earth scientist who prefers the sea’s breezes to air conditioning carries on fearlessly nevertheless, mindful of the Bible’s teaching that, “We are the stewards of Creation.”
ln electing ANGEL C. ALCALA to receive the 1992 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his pioneering scientific leadership in rehabilitating the coral reefs of the Philippines and in sustaining for Filipinos the natural abundance of their country’s marine life.
There are wonderful surprises that come our way, at one time or another, in our life. And to me this prestigious award is the greatest and most wonderful surprise of all.
I wish to thank the officers of the Magsaysay Award Foundation, particularly those who even began to think of me as deserving of this award to honor the great Philippine president Ramon Magsaysay. I also thank my numerous colleagues, friends, admirers, fellow ecologists, and conservationists for their kind words of congratulations. In my many years of painstaking research—of going deep into our forests and undertaking marine life conservation—a prestigious award of this kind was way beyond my wildest dreams.
I also wish to thank my wife Naomi and our children, whose loving support and understanding allowed me to be away from home for lengths of time pursuing my love of field research, spearheading conservation projects, and attending gatherings of scholars around the world.
I am grateful to Silliman University and Stanford University, which have given me excellent training in my chosen field of biology. And, of course, I thank my many research colleagues and the funding agencies that have made possible what the Magsaysay Award Foundation has perceived to be my achievements.
I hope that the recognition of my life’s work by the foundation serves to boost the morale of many of my fellow biologists and researchers, as well as dedicated teachers who work in relative obscurity.
On this occasion, I think of the great Silliman motto: Via, Veritas, Vita, particularly the word Veritas. I like to think that I’ve been given this award because of my passionate search for biological Truth. Indeed, I think I’ve done this search for Truth the way the great biologist Thomas Huxley described serious study:
Sit down before a fact like a little child. Be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and whatever depths nature leads. Otherwise you shall learn nothing.
But I also like to think that while I have learned truth in abundance, I have also made it my preoccupation to do the truth, to pursue its practice, to apply what I have learned, particularly in the areas of environmental enrichment and conservation of our nation’s natural wealth.
Indeed, I am highly honored that I am awarded for trying to know and do the truth. At the same time, however, I wish to confess, on behalf of all sincere environmentalists and conservationists, that our endeavors have not been sufficient to stem the tide of human error that has caused such tragedies as Ormoc, the deterioration of our marine life, the denudation of our forest reserves, and the annihilation of what we possess in abundance. In short, the alarming and wanton destruction of our natural resources.
So on this occasion of honor and celebration, allow me to express a warning and a challenge to all of us, Filipinos and Asians: that unless we move fast to put a stop to the rape of our natural resources, we will remain poor, destitute, pitiful, and even becomeworse off. If the environmental destruction continues without letup, it will be our children and our children’s children who will reap the tragic consequences.
My friends, we now find ourselves at the crossroads between poverty and prosperity. Our future is only as good as what we make of the present.
When Porfirio Alcala, Sr., Angel C. Alcala’s father, graduated from high school during the high noon of the American colonial period in the Philippines, he immediately embarked upon a career in teaching. In the town of Cauayan, on Negros Island in central Philippines, he courted and married one of his students, Crescenciana Chua. Together they moved to the small village of Caliling, on the sea coast about fourteen kilometers south of Cauayan. Crescenciana’s mother, the wife (but not the First Wife) of a prosperous Chinese businessman, owned some property there and Porfirio took up a new line of work supplying fish fry to commercial fishpond operators in the northern towns of Negros Occidental. In time, Porfirio and Crescenciana had five daughters and five sons. Angel, their eldest child, was born on 1 March 1929.
The family home was simple. The roof was thatch and the floors, slatted bamboo. It had only two bedrooms; in one, as Angel Alcala remembers, the growing band of children slept “all lined up at night.” After sundown, light came from kerosene lamps. Food was fresh and abundant. The family shared three hectares of land with Crescenciana’s brothers, on which they grew rice, coconuts, and myriad other fruits and vegetables. Alcala’s father maintained fishponds that yielded a dependable supply of milkfish, or bangus. Moreover, the family home faced the Guimaras Strait. In the reef just offshore lived a cornucopia of sea life. When the sun set and the tide was low, Alcala and his father and younger brothers explored the shallows. Using torches made from bundled coconut fronds, they harvested buckets full of crabs, shrimp, shellfish, lobsters, otopuses, and fish. “We would go out,” he remembers, “and after a couple hours we’d come back and cook our food. And we would have a good supper and much more to spare for the next day.”
Aside from these natural bounties, the family had few luxuries. Alcala’s mother helped make ends meet by raising pigs and selling textiles to the local women. By assisting the neighbors in their rice harvests, she garnered for the family a small share of extra paddy. All the children had chores. As the family’s “assistant cook,” young Angel pounded the rice and prepared meals for his brothers and sisters when his parents were out.
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