‘Highest marine priority area on Earth’

A Washington-based environmental group, whose partners include major US companies, considers the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas as probably “the highest marine priority area on Earth,” according to the group’s co-founder.

Peter Seligmann, chair and CEO of Conservation International, gave this assessment as he welcomed the government’s recent calls to protect the Verde Island Passage, a teeming marine ecosystem within the Philippine side of the Sulu-Sulawesi waters that are also shared by Malaysia and Indonesia.

He noted, though, that the donor community that the group can tap for the Verde Passage would expect the Philippines to “deliver” on its initial plans.

He also said potential funders would like to know if the recipient country had a long-term strategy to combine conservation with job creation and ensure that “extractive industries” would not sap natural resources dry.

“There has to be government commitment. We have to be convinced that the solutions developed in the Philippines are going to work. Once you define that, I don’t think there’s going to be difficulty finding financial resources,” said Seligmann, who met with local partners in Manila last month and personally saw Verde’s treasures on a diving trip.

CI is a partner in a two-year-old, private sector initiative with power producer First Gen Corp. and the First Philippine Conservation Inc. to protect Verde from destructive practices and promote it for eco-tourism.

He said CI had been telling donor companies that Sulu-Sulawesi “is one of the highest, if not the highest marine (conservation) priority area on Earth.”

Among the philanthropists supporting the effort was the Walton family, owner of the retail giant Wal-Mart, he said.

“So for the Philippines, it’s now a matter of whether it can deliver,” he said in an interview with the Inquirer.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued last Nov. 8 an executive order declaring the Verde Passage, a sea lane between the provinces of Batangas and Mindoro, a national protected area.

The order came days after the release of a three-year biodiversity study by the World Conservation Union showing that Verde’s waters host up to 1,736 overlapping marine species in a span of just over 10 kilometers.

This earned Verde the record of having the highest concentration of marine life in the world, according to the study titled “The Center of Marine Shorefish Biodiversity: The Philippine Islands.”