In honor of Dr. Angel Alcala

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

Today, we celebrate and honor – as we must – the life and work of National Scientist Dr. Angel Alcala who passed on last Wednesday.

May his passing remind us of the importance of our marine sanctuaries, our coastal environment and how his work on marine protected areas (MPAs) helped change the laws governing marine resources in the Philippines.

And, more importantly, may his death remind us that Dr. Alcala’s work isn’t finished; that the harsh realities he spent most of his life striving to change are still ever present and even getting stronger.

Today, our marine resources continue to face threats from big businesses, land grabbers and land reclamation proponents.

As Dr. Alcala once said, “Everything in the world is reduced to business. The resources that are used for business will eventually be gone, extinct.”

Who is Dr. Alcala?

In 2017, I had the chance to sit down with Dr. Alcala who so generously shared with me his time, his story, which I wrote for STARweek magazine.

I am reposting it here so that we may all find inspiration in the work that he did, even if it sometimes means being lone voices in the wilderness or, in his case, under the sea.

This is his story, as told to me one afternoon many, many moons ago in a cafe in Makati:

As a young boy of seven, 88-year-old Dr. Angel Alcala, National Scientist, had the vast and unspoiled waters of Negros Occidental as the paradise of his childhood.

“I was always out in the sea. That was my playground,” he tells STARweek.

He swam and he swam deep. His father, a fish farmer, just let him be. The first time he saw life underwater, he was in awe of the kaleidoscope of colors in the deep blue sea.

Blue, red, yellow, white, green – there was a little of everything underwater, he recalls. Fishes of all shapes and sizes took his breath away.

“I was in awe with wonder. We were swimming in the sea and I saw various colors of coral reef and the fishes,” recalls Dr. Alcala, who grew up in Caliling, a coastal village in the province.

He swam as often as he could. He swam with friends, playmates, siblings or just by himself.

Alcala is the eldest of ten children, born to Porfirio and Crescenciana. They lived in a wooden and nipa hut with a thatch roof and floor slats made of bamboo.

Growing up in this coastal environment while helping his father take care of fishponds developed in him a deep love for marine life.

It’s no surprise then that he became a marine biologist and is now an authority on community ecology, biogeography and the life and systems of amphibians and reptiles, backed by more than 30 years of experience in tropical marine resource conservation.

A Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Public Service, Dr. Alcala served as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources from 1992 to 1995 and chairman of the Commission on Higher

Education from 1995 to 1999.

He has authored over 160 scientific papers as well as books on marine life and developed the first community-based program that created artificial coral reefs.

This program became the model for similar fisheries development programs in the Apo, Sumilon, Carbin and Pamilacan marine reserves around the country.

He obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in Biology, graduating magna cum laude from Silliman University in Dumaguete. He then went to Stanford University to complete his Master’s Degree nine years later.

More than the accolades, Dr. Alcala is proud of his pioneering establishment of no-take marine protected areas in the 1970s which became a national policy and which helped the Philippines increase and preserve marine diversity, including fisheries.

“Since 1974, we have been doing all the education, advocacy and actual work on setting up MPAs and we are the experts in Southeast Asia,” Dr. Alcala says.

That year, Dr. Alcala established the first working MPA in the country off southern Cebu, which is the Sumilon Marine Reserve.

In 1982, he established the Apo Marine Reserve off southern Negros and a dozen similar reserves in the southern Philippines, particularly in the Bohol Sea.

The Apo Marine Reserve became a template of community-based marine resource conservation in the world and is showcased at the famous Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

On June 6, 2014, then president Benigno Aquino III proclaimed Dr. Alcala a National Scientist of the Philippines in recognition of his research on ecology and diversity of Philippine amphibians and reptiles, marine biodiversity and marine-protected areas.

At present, he is the director of the Silliman University-Angelo King Center for Research and Environmental Studies and the Commission on Higher Education Zonal Research Center.

His life story is in the pages of a recently launched book, A Love Affair with Nature, authored by Bettina Rodriguez Olmedo and Amadis Ma. Guerrero.

These days, he continues to go around the country promoting the establishment of similar no-take MPAs.

At 88, there’s no stopping Dr. Alcala from continuing with his work which, at the end of the day, is all about caring for the environment. He still finds time to travel to different parts of the country as he provides consultancy work.

More importantly, he does not hesitate to share his knowledge when it comes to environmental protection.

And at times when work is done, he sits by the beach and gazes out to the sea, still with that same childlike awe and wonder he had as the young seven-year-old boy from Negros.

It is, indeed, a never-ending love affair with Mother Nature.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen on FB.


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