Angel Alcala: Nonpareil nature lover
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - June 19, 2017 - 4:00pm

Angel Chua Alcala’s story is no mere rags-to-riches story. He was born to hard-working parents who scrimped and saved to  make both ends meet in the sleepy sitio of Calaogao in the barrio of Caliling, Cauayan in Negros Occidental. But poverty was no obstacle to the eldest of 10 children’s  journey  to national and international fame. His  achievements are nonpareil; he is a recipient of the country’s top award as National Scientist and the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, considered the Nobel Prize of Asia.  The nation is grateful for his  contributing  to creating  an awareness of biodiversity in human development and in environmental conservation.

Understanding the creative genius  of Angel Alcala is provided by his biography written by Bettina Rodriguez-Olmedo and Amadis Ma. Guerrero, entitled A Love Affair with Mother Nature. A complementary prologue is given by Silliman University president Ben Malayang III, who worked closely with Dr. Alcala when he was secretary of the  Department of Environment and Natural Resources.            

Olmedo, a National Book of the Year awardee, traces the evolution of the  brilliant country boy who topped his elementary and high school education at the top of his class, obtained a  BS in biology at Silliman University in Dumaguete City  magna cum laude, and his master’s and Ph.D. in biological sciences at Stanford University in California  through a slew of  grants.  He received the Outstanding Silliman Alumnus Award in 1988, served as acting president of Silliman twice (1982-1983 and 1986 to 1987) and was appointed the institution’s ninth president for  only two years, from 1991   up  to 1992, when he was appointed by then President Fidel V. Ramos to head the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. 

After graduation, Angel taught biology in a small school in Marbel, South Cotabato, then upon the invitation of  Prof.  Dioscoro  S. Rabor, Silliman’s department of biology head known for his pioneering work with birds and mammals,  he moved to  his alma mater.  

At Silliman, he collaborated with a visiting professor , Dr. Walter C. Brown, on herpetological research and fieldwork, and published many papers about amphibians and reptiles, two groups of vertebrates in the country now expected to comprise about 400 species out of an estimated 1,100 vertebrate species in natural habitats of the country such as rainforests, mountain streams and coastal areas.

In search of amphibians and reptiles, Alcala and his team, which included his two younger brother, went on expeditions to virgin forests, and focused on frogs, lizards and snakes. According to Olmedo’s report, one of Alcala’s biggest achievements in this field is that he succeeded in discovering and describing some 40 species of frogs and lizards which were then entirely new to science.

Alcala’s team recorded their collection of frogs, accumulating a lot of natural history specimens, most of which were sent to museums in the US. The collection totaled 30,000 specimens. Alcala confides, “Modesty aside, that’s how I came to be known all over the world.” 

In the 1970s the endangered marine turtles known as pawikan engaged Alcala’s attention.  Using the capture-and-mark method , animals were captured, marked and then released back into their natural habitat so that their behavior and life history can be traced. Alcala also used the same method in his study of lizard populations.

Another breeding  program Alcala initiated involved the Philippine crocodile known by the scientific name Crocodylus mindorensis. He and his team got two  individual crocodiles – a male from the Zamboanga Peninsula in Mindanao and a female obtained from the Pagatban River in southern Negros. Some of the bred crocodiles were sent to the US and Australia, and the rest are  kept in Silliman.

A research program involved the documentation of the positive correlation between crocodiles and fisheries in collaboration with Cocodylus Porosus Philippines Inc. This finding , writes Ben Malayang, “emphasized the ecological importance of crocodiles in producing large amounts of nutrients that enhance fisheries in coastal areas. This finding is in stark contrast to the prevailing erroneous belief that crocodiles are harmful to people and should therefore be eliminated.”

In 1973-74, Alcala established the Silliman Marine Laboratory dedicated to research on marine species, including fishes, one of the main sources of protein. He also established the first working no-take  marine reserve in the country – the Sumilon Marine Reserve – and showed its effectiveness in building up fishery and biodiversity biomass and fishery sustainability. He also established several no-take marine resources in the Bohol Sea including the famous Apo Island, the first community-based reserve in the Philippines.

In recognition of his no-take marine reserves in sustaining marine fisheries and marine biodiversity,  he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay  Award for Public Service in 1992.  The National Academy of  Science and Technology followed suit by awarding him the title of Academician in 2001, and voting him member of the Order of National Scientist which was conferred on him by President Benigno Aquino in August 2014.

Former President Fidel V. Ramos, a scuba-diving buddy of Alcala, evidently convinced about the qualifications and vision of the scientist, appointed him DENR secretary in 1992.  Looking back to his experiences in the department, Alcala told Bettina Olmedo, that in spite of the many challenges that he had to hurdle, he  felt a sense of fulfilment “because he knew that his projects had led to the enactment of legislation which would ensure sustainable development for future generations of Filipinos.”

His first epic decision pertained to the proviso that paved the way for the enactment of the EPIRA, a major provision which mandates companies seeking approval for the operation of power plants to secure the so-called Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC), now a standard prerequisite for establishments seeking business permits. 

He was first to take up the cudgels against the use of leaded gasoline, resulting in the enactment of the Clean Air Act (CAA).

His department introduced the “total allowable trees to be cut” for all logging concessionaires in the country.  It was behind the enactment of the Indigenous People’s Republic Act of 1997 which gives indigenous people the right to determine the boundaries of their ancestral lands. It created the Coastal Environmental Program in 1993, designed to protect the coastal marine environment. Through this program, he espoused the Protected Area concept for the conservation of the marine ecosystem. As a result, many areas, including coral reefs and mangroves, are being  protected.

After his DENR stint, he was again appointed by President Ramos to head the newly created Commission on Higher Education in 1995. Among his accomplishments were financing the upgrading of the faculty  in 14 universities in Mindanao to enable them to work for their master’s and PhD degrees. He also gave financing for research work on biodiversity and to implement the concept of Center for Excellence for institutions.

Behind every man’s success is a woman, and behind Dr. Alcala’s is Naomi Lusoc-Alcala, his gentle and persevering wife of 65 years who Dr. Alcala loves dearly.  They have six children, 17 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

Bettina Olmedo writes that Alcala is  “a Christian nationalist who wants to conserve the environment as a legacy to future generations of Filipinos who have the basic right to enjoy the resources which God has entrusted to mankind, as responsible stewards of His creation.”

The book’s publisher is Atty. Cristine C. Remollo, whose husband is the mayor of Dumaguete City and a big fan of Dr. Alcala.

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