Filipino Volunteers Breathe New Life into Calatagan Reef, an Ecotourism Sanctuary

7 August 2023

By MJ Blancaflor

The Calatagan Reef Patrollers or CAREPAS was founded in 2001 to restore a 75-hectare mangrove forest from illegal and unsustainable fishing into an eco-tourism paradise. Their ecological success has since attracted tourists and income to CAREPAS volunteers.

Jessie Delos Reyes, 47, is a proud resident of Calatagan municipality in Batangas province, Philippines. Whenever he strolls through his small village, his gaze is drawn to the picturesque scenery that embraces his hometown.

In this municipality — located approximately 110 kilometers south of the nation’s capital, Manila — nature takes center stage. 

Colorful birds gracefully flit among the branches of sprawling mangroves, while the rustling of leaves and occasional splashes of water create a serene symphony that soothes the soul. Floating houses, skillfully crafted from bamboo, glide across the water’s surface, providing a unique vantage point for visitors to savor each passing moment and revel in the breathtaking view of the village.

It’s almost unimaginable, Jessie says, that this sanctuary was previously plagued by wanton tree-cutting, coral destruction, and dynamite fishing from the 1980s until the early 2000s. But the city has transformed into a thriving ecological paradise. At the core of this drastic change stands the Calatagan Reef Patrollers (CAREPAS), a community-based non-profit volunteer group he co-founded.

A fisherman prepares his boat for a challenging day ahead. Skillfully painted on his boat is the word "Calataganda," a combination of the name of the municipality, Calatagan, with the local word for beautiful, "maganda." Photo courtesy of CAREPAS.

From Destruction to Conservation

Jessie vividly recalls a time when the village residents used to cut down trees for fuelwood, locally referred to as “panggatong.” He says dynamite fishing and coral destruction also used to be prevalent in the village, driven by a lack of understanding of its environmental impact.

As a young boy, Jessie even assisted his father in selling corals for profit. He says most families in the village then were poor and had to make ends meet. The obvious choice for them was to sell whatever they could gather from their surroundings.

His perspective changed when he left Calatagan for Manila to pursue a bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management. It was then he became aware of the negative consequences of these practices on the environment and communities.

“When I was studying, I realized that my community, my family, and I committed grave sins against the environment. We destroyed corals for personal use and profit. I deeply regret our actions,” he tells EcoCupid

Filipino eco-hero Jessie dives into action for coastal clean-ups, embodying the spirit of environmental stewardship and making a positive impact on our oceans. Photo courtesy of CAREPAS.

Jessie’s family is just one among thousands — if not millions — of Filipino families engaged in illegal environmental practices, which experts say became widespread due to the absence or lack of stable livelihood opportunities and educational programs focused on environmental protection, compounded by insufficient policies and law enforcement.

The Philippines placed 158th out of 180 countries in the 2022 edition of the biennial Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which ranks countries based on their progress toward improving environmental health, protecting ecosystem vitality, and mitigating climate change. The country got an overall EPI score of 28.9 points out of a possible 100.

Both the government and the private sector continue to strive against harmful environmental practices that contribute to the degradation of precious natural resources through stricter law enforcement, reforestation initiatives, and various management practices.

“I learned that my community and family were wrong on how we treated the environment and I have recognized the imperative to protect not just for our benefit but also for the well-being of future generations,” Jessie says. “Since then, I [have] committed to doing whatever it takes to protect and conserve our natural resources.”

Jessie returned to Calatagan in 2001. Feeling guilty and responsible for the tree-cutting, coral destruction, and dynamite fishing activities, he collaborated with friends and neighbors to spearhead the establishment of CAREPAS and initiate eco-projects in their village.

Inspiring Change

Since its inception two decades ago, the volunteer group has become a driving force in restoring Calatagan’s former glory through various initiatives. One of their most significant achievements is the restoration of mangroves, which were once destroyed and used for fuelwood. 

CAREPAS volunteers, many of whom are locals, began their rebuilding efforts with the help of the local government of Calatagan. They expanded their network with private firms and the academe. Together, they have planted 37 mangrove species, including Avicennia marina, across 75 hectares of land. The once barren and depleted areas gradually transformed into thriving habitats, teeming with rich and diverse flora and fauna.

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The dedicated volunteer group known as the Calatagan Reef Patrollers (CAREPAS) has emerged as a frontrunner in the conservation and protection of the municipality of Calatagan in Batangas province, Philippines. Their remarkable efforts include cultivating 37 distinct species of mangroves across an expansive area of 75 hectares. Photo courtesy of CAREPAS.

Healthy mangroves serve as natural barriers against coastal erosion, storms, and tsunamis. These also safeguard the village from damage and flooding.

In addition, mangroves are valuable carbon sinks, absorbing and storing significant amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide, thus mitigating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas concentrations.

Beyond their environmental significance, mangroves support remarkable biodiversity in the area since these serve as habitats for diverse plant and animal species, including fish, shellfish, and crustaceans. The dense foliage and abundant food sources also make mangroves a haven for birds seeking shelter, nesting sites, and abundant feeding grounds.

“You know, planting mangroves over 75 hectares seemed like a huge undertaking. We kept planting them year after year, and to be honest, we were just as amazed as everyone else when we finally reached that 75-hectare mark,” Jessie shares.

With the support of its partners, CAREPAS is also at the forefront of coastal and underwater clean-ups and patrol efforts in its community. Volunteers are also continuously working to educate the local fisherfolk and nearby communities about the importance of sustainable fishing practices and reducing waste to ensure the long-term impact of their efforts.

Jessie, fully aware of his role in environmental destruction, deeply values the importance of education in promoting environmental protection. “Education is the first step towards behavior change,” he says.

CAREPAS also collaborates with researchers and government officials in monitoring cases of coral bleaching off the coasts of Calatagan. Given the vital role of corals in maintaining healthy reefs that support fish populations, addressing stressors like changes in ocean temperature and ocean acidification becomes paramount. 

Jessie and his team also help release marine species caught by fishermen, such as whales and dolphins, back into the marine ecosystem.

CAREPAS leads in coastal and underwater clean-ups, patrols, and education for local fisherfolk on sustainable fishing practices and waste reduction in their community. Through collaboration with researchers and officials, they also monitor coral bleaching and release inadvertently caught marine species in their village, all for the betterment of the thriving marine ecosystem. Photo courtesy of CAREPAS.

The municipality’s conservation efforts have gained recognition from several groups, most notably from the Office of the Philippine President. For Jessie, CAREPAS will continue to be a force of good in their village.

CAREPAS invites volunteers to join their “Climate Camps” and coastal and underwater clean-up activities in Calatagan. Interested individuals can reach out to Jessie through his Facebook page.

Reaping Rewards

Their environmental efforts have revitalized the area’s natural beauty and attracted tourists seeking immersive experiences in nature. Companies and schools have begun to organize kayaking, birdwatching, and clean-up activities there.

Moreover, tourists flock to the village to join “Climate Camps” arranged by CAREPAS, where they learn about environmental awareness and sustainability through workshops and hands-on activities.

Taking advantage of his expertise as a professional scuba diver, Jessie has also ventured into the business of floating houses. These unique accommodations, with stunning views of the mangroves and tranquil waters, have become sought-after sanctuaries for those seeking refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life.

All of these activities allow tourists to forge a deeper appreciation for nature while contributing to ecosystem preservation. Jessie believes empowering tourists with knowledge and tools to tackle climate change issues through transformative experiences will inspire them to become proactive environmental advocates.

Calatagan residents also benefit from these activities. They earn money as tour guides during kayaking and birdwatching activities, and by serving guests who stay in the floating houses.

“These jobs engage all of us and empower us,” Jessie says. “Having sustainable sources of income helps us in fostering a sense of ownership and pride in our natural resources. We are more inspired to take care of our environment because we know we can earn more.”

Who would have thought that someone who used to sell corals would become a community organizer for such an important movement? 

The diligent efforts and unwavering commitment to marine conservation by the residents are yielding fruitful rewards. The municipality of Calatagan has transformed into a thriving sanctuary for diverse flora and fauna, serving as an example that even degraded villages can transform into environmental champions. Photo courtesy of CAREPAS.

For Jessie, people may change their perspectives, behaviors, and actions to contribute positively to environmental protection. 

“People can change for the better, yes, but this change is not always easy. People have to admit they were wrong,” he says. “Change requires self-reflection, humility, and a willingness to challenge long-held beliefs.”

His change of heart and the success of CAREPAS stand as a testament to the power of collective action, community involvement, and environmental stewardship. They have proven that degraded coastal areas can also transform into a thriving haven of biodiversity and sustainable ecotourism.

Jessie offers advice to communities seeking change: “Embrace a profound love for the environment and the act of volunteering. If we love the environment, it becomes our provider. It will protect us from harm. It will nurture our daily needs. It will give us peace and even healing.”

(Edited by Amanda Tolentino & Bryan Yong)

Our featured Eco-Hero

Calatagan Reef Patrollers, also known as CAREPAS is a coastal ecotourism project run by a former bomb fisherman. Based in the municipality of Calatagan in Batangas province, Philippines,CAREPAS focuses on mangrove planting, coastal and underwater clean-ups, patrols against illegal and unsustainable fishing practices, and coral bleaching monitoring. You can reach out to them at

This article was produced with support from YSEALI SEEDS for the Future grant 2023.

MJ Blancaflor

MJ Blancaflor works at the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. Her role involves developing communication materials on fisheries management and marine conservation. Additionally, she assists in the execution of public relations campaigns and capacity-building programs for fisherfolk communities. MJ enjoys self-help podcasts, Netflix shows, and working out with her carefree canine companion, Parky.

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