Now, I am not a veteran snorkeler, but the underwater views I had last week were truly amazing. I was diving off a tiny (11 hectare) island in the Philippines where orange Finding-Nemo clown fish danced around my hands and the table coral must have been 10 feet in diameter. Cobalt blue starfish spread their arms across the spiky coral forests.

But this is not a post on a vacation, although the hour I was in the water felt like a holiday. No, snorkeling on the edge of the Gilutongan Marine Sanctuary was the highlight of a site visit to an integrated population, health, and environment program on this tiny island. We were a group of fifty invaders visiting Cebu City, the Philippines, for the 2nd National Conference on Population, Health, and Environment.

What had been just a marine-conservation program a few years ago has become a dynamic mix of efforts: children’s immunizations and pre-natal checkups, family-planning services, clean-water provision, and alternative-livelihood strategies including tourism and seaweed farming.

The fisherfolk in this poor community of 1,300 had told the NGO PATH/Philippines that they lived integrated lives, so they needed integrated programs. The help they needed had to be multi-dimensional to reflect that reality. From feedback like that the IPOPCORM (Integrated Population and Coastal Resources Management) program was born (Filipinos LOVE acronyms).

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The Marine Sanctuary is still central to the effort. It has succeeded because of changes in behavior and providing alternative livelihoods. Fishermen have stopped using dynamite and cyanide to fish — now they volunteer to patrol around the clock the 15-hectare Marine Sanctuary. The fish and the corals have recovered dramatically, increasing the catch just outside the Sanctuary and reaching 55% coverage of live coral. And just as impressive, the local communities are reaping the benefits of charging tourists for the privilege to take the plunge and view this colorful underwater world.

But the IPOPCORM program also works with the fisherfolk to substitute seaweed farming for unsustainable fishing. The small island was dotted with scraggly seaweed piles drying in the scorching sun. Tied into a global economy that demands seaweed overseas, the former fisherman are making more pesos for a comparable amount of time on, or in this case in, the water.

Our tour through the community was accompanied by small kids smiling and clowning for the camera with undying curiosity. Their parents were proud to show us the new clean-water distribution system in six-gallon cans, a new health clinic where a doctor now comes once every two months and a midwife is in every day, and how they sold condoms and birth control pills in the local Sari-Sari store (think of a dirt-floor 7-Eleven storefront with the name “Thing Thing store”).

As we’d gotten off our tiny outrigger boats onto the island that morning, we’d been greeted by a raucous group of youths dancing and blasting away on trumpets and drums. Turns out the band is comprised of community peer educators on population, health, and environment who come together for music and theater — putting on plays with messages about food shortages and how they relate to over-fishing and large families (women in the Philippines average 3.5 children, although coastal communities like the one we visited are typically between four and even five children apiece). As we left the island six hours later, the band was still playing, having moved the party to a nearby boat steadied by the ubiquitous outriggers.

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As we all climbed back aboard and stored our flippers and goggles, we gathered our soaked selves on deck to discuss what we had just seen on shore and under water. Staff from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, one of the funders of IPOPCORM and the National Conference, were on board eagerly listening to impressions of activists, scholars, practitioners, and government reps from at least half a dozen countries.

As we undulated gently up and down with the waves, we all agreed the community could charge foreign tourists at least ten times the $1 entry fee for snorkeling. Finding ways to increase income for the community was a primary concern as the Packard Foundation, a key supporter of this type of integrated work around the world, may be moving in new directions with its financial support. It would be a shame if they did, because the Foundation has demonstrated time and again that it understands that life is integrated across a myriad of concerns — and our responses to these challenges must embrace that complexity, not run away from it.

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