On farming coral

"You know," I said to Gavin, "I've spent ten days around here, that's way more than I've spent almost anywhere else I've travelled to. I thought I'd get a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the place than if I'd just spent a few days."

"And did you?" he inquired.


Moalboal may not have hidden depths, but it is an interesting place. Or at least there are far more boring ones. For one thing, the geology is striking: the earth for many miles around this peninsula essentially consists of a vast coral atoll which rose above the sea millennia ago. You don't have to dig very far -- in fact, half the time you don't have to dig at all -- to come across the bedrock of dead coral; jagged, striated, fractally pockmarked, and extremely hard.

The result is a brittle and infertile land. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be coral farmers. There are virtually no actual fields within a five-kilometer walk of the midscale beachfront resort in which we stayed. In many places crops are planted within the little bowls of topsoil caught within what is essentially an outcrop of solid coral. In several places farmers have built waist-high lattices and grown cucumbers in the air rather than try to sow this coral soil.

As a result Moalboal is quite a poor corner of the Philippines, which otherwise feels reasonably wealthy, albeit with income inequality that makes America look like Sweden. The little rural villages, which dot the white-coral roads winding through the thin greenery, are still to a considerable extent made of wood with thatched roofs, though concrete is making inroads. Coconut palms have successfully colonized the coast (though oddly no one here seems to eat coconuts) and banana plantations have taken root, but almost no real trees of any size grow within 10 kilometers.

Everyone has a phone, of course, and cell towers dot the landscape; don't get me wrong, it's not that poor. But those phones are almost invariably old candy-bar Nokias.

They do raise livestock here. Chickens squawk across the road, using their wings to accelerate out of the way of oncoming motorbikes. Little tethered goats nibble at everything. Lone cows low mournfully at passersby. One family along my usual running route was raising a flock of turkeys, and on my drive today, in the hills, I saw an ostrich prance through a pasture in which a few cows also grazed contentedly. A "tricycle" -- a motorcycle with a sidecar, usually two tiny passenger seats mounted front-and-back, but sometimes a cage for cargo -- once rattled by with two full-size pigs pressed into its cage. Piglets sell for US$25, full-size pigs for $100 and up.

And then there are the semi-feral dogs, small and cautious, with fur patterned faintly like tigers, picking their way along the roads and through the scrub that manages to cling to the coral soil. Many are mangy and ridden by parasites. By night they seem to triple in number. There are a surprising number of frogs, too, which speaks to the general cleanliness of the environment; amphibians are the canaries of the coastal world, almost always the first to be decimated by pollution.

That environment supports two of the region's only three real economic activities: fishing and diving. (The third is transit; Moalboal proper, a town which basically consists of a few dusty and congested roads five kilometres east of the coast, is a minor nexus on the single highway that runs up the west side of Cebu Island.)

We were there in part for the diving, which I think used to be world-class. The reefs start from the beach -- in fact, with a couple of exceptions which I believe to be artificial, the reefs are the beach; no frolicking barefoot on the coastline here, not with sharp coral waiting to scar your feet with bloody cuts that take weeks to heal. Only a little ways out the coral drops almost vertically to a depth of fifty metres. The current sweeps along parallel to that cliff, so you don't even need to swim, you just drop down and drift. Better yet, a few kilometres offshore is the island of Pescador, an almost perfect circle of green, essentially a thin cap on a tall cylinder of coral, which again drops steeply and is perfect for drift dives.

But the reefs are dying. Oh, they're certainly not dead yet, don't get me wrong, and in the one marine reserve in the region they remain quite lively. On my very first dive I found myself in the midst of a dense flickering school of sardines the size of a small shopping mall. One group (not us) dived with a whale shark a few days later. We saw a half-dozen turtles, a sea snake, an amazingly alien-looking jellyfish, etc.

But, on Pescador in particular -- which looked, from the surface, like paradise for divers, and probably once was -- there were big holes in the coral that spoke of dynamite, and the reefs were battered and bleached out and dived out and fished out, pale and lifeless, and the clouds of fish which still surround it were all worryingly small. Gavin mentioned that while snorkelling he'd found a spearfisher with a stack of killed fish none of which were bigger than his hand.

Panagsama, the dive area west of Moalboal, is a classic dive town: a single coral street lined by a half-dozen dive shops and the lodges, bars, restaurants, convenience stores, and souvenir shops which go along with them. There are places like it in tropical coastal places all over the world, although they usually don't have quite the same thinly-veiled undercurrent of prostitution. (Yes, that's right, yet another little town in Southeast Asia where you see a whole lot of relatively-wealthy decrepit white dudes with poor young temporary girlfriends. Act surprised.) In "the season," which allegedly begins two weeks from now, all these establishments are allegedly packed. But if the reefs keep dying -- and worldwide, there's considerable evidence that all coral reefs are dying, as the oceans warm, even without the helping hand lent by the local fisherpeople here -- that whole stretch will turn into a ghost town, and Moalboal will get even poorer.

But, on the other hand, what are you going to do other than overfish, given that the alternatives consist of either farming coral, or moving to the desperately squalid shantytowns around Cebu City a hundred kilometers away? (If anyone says "teach them to code," I will personally drive to your house and slap you with a sea snake.)

It's such a pretty spot. But I don't see how it has a future.

I started wandering around the world way back in 1997, which means, according to The Economist, that my globetrotting has more or less corresponded with "the most dramatic, and disruptive, period of emerging-market growth the world has ever seen" -- which is now coming to a close. Sheer luck, for me, that I managed to witness so much of this change from the ground level.

It was change which has indisputably been immensely beneficial. China, India, and sub-Saharan Africa, to name three examples I've visited in person 2-3 times each over that period, are (as a whole) so much better off now than they were then that any comparison is almost comical. But now that great transformation is coming to an end. Is another one coming, propelled by technology? Can the transition from Nokia candybars to Android smartphones kickstart places like Moalboal?

I used to think maybe, but now, I don't see it. There'll be plenty of benefits, sure, and some will go to Moalboal too, but more and more I think our economic systems are set up such that most of the benefits of new technologies accrue to those who already have head starts. Capitalism rewards competitive advantages; but some places don't have any competitive advantages, or, like Moalboal, are seeing the ones they do have global-warmed and overfished (and/or automated) into extinction.

My ruminations on how development works from a couple of years ago ended with a likening of long-term progress/growth to "draining the sea." Sometimes, though, you drain the sea and all you find is infertile coral beneath. Maybe there'll be some way to make it bloom; but right now, I can't imagine what.


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