Changing Mindsets in Protecting the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary: Sharing the Burden of Management

The key stakeholders in the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary increasingly involve Indigenous Peoples in conflict sensitive natural resource management, Spearheaded by the Province of Agusan del Sur, collaborative mechanisms among all stakeholders have been fostered.

We now know that collaboration is a lot better than each of us working on our own. We know that it is important to bring the Indigenous Peoples into the management of natural resources. If they fully feel that conservation works for them, if their  management of the resources vital for their futures is respected, if their lives change for the better, our work in the  government, including conservation of biodiversity, will be a lot easier and we will be more effective in reducing poverty while  achieving sustainable development”. 

Adolph Edward O. Plaza
Governor of Agusan del Sur


Responding to the Needs on the Ground 

@ GIZ / Wilfried Gebhardt

The Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary has been a declared protected area and one of the most important wetlands in the Philippines and internationally certified by the Ramsar Convention (1999). However, the management of the Agusan Marsh is governed by conflicting mandates and jurisdictions as well as power struggles and the lack of collaboration.

To illustrate the conflicting mandates and jurisdictions, according to the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992, the management of the Marsh is under the responsibility of the multi-stakeholder Protected Area Management Board (PAMB). However, pursuant to Republic Act 7160 of 1991, the Provincial Government through the Provincial Environment and Natural Resource Officer is responsible for the sustainable management of the natural resources within the Province. Furthermore, to ensure the protection and conservation of the environment, particularly the Agusan Marsh, the Provincial Government of Agusan del Sur (PGAS) enacted the Provincial Environment Code in 2007. Tasked to oversee the implementation of the code is the Agusan del Sur Environment and Sustainable Development Council (ASESDC), another multi-stakeholder body.

In addition to its ecological importance, the Agusan Marsh (or Danao as more commonly known by the local people) is the home of the Manobo Indigenous Peoples (IP). The Manobo claim their Certificate Ancestral Domain Titles according to the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA, 1997) for large portions of the protected area and have therefore clearly defined rights when it comes to management decisions.

With the management of the Agusan Marsh governed by conflicting mandates and jurisdictions, power struggles and lack of collaboration, the Conflict Sensitive Resource and Asset Management (COSERAM) Program supported by the Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), initiated the creation of a technical working group (TWG) at the regional level.

As active members of the TWG, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) agreed on addressing the conflicting mandates by harmonizing the protected area management plans, the plans formulated by the Indigenous Peoples, and the mandated local government plans.

It was essential then to translate the harmonization process to the local level by strengthening the Indigenous Peoples (IPs) and the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) in jointly managing the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary.

With COSERAM’s support, the Provincial Government seeks for cooperation mechanisms and a platform of convergence in the management of the Agusan Marsh. The key stakeholders in this process are the mandated multi-stakeholder entities, PAMB and the Agusan del Sur Environment and Sustainable Development Council (ASESDC), the municipalities, barangays and most importantly the indigenous communities.

Initiating change

Technical, advisory and financial support were provided to the Provincial Government of Agusan del Sur by the COSERAM Program in strengthening capacities, raising awareness and finding convergence for the management of the Agusan Marsh.

Initially, the Provincial Government of Agusan del Sur followed top-down approaches, distributing standardized equipment and providing blueprint trainings. After acknowledging that the equipment was standing around unused, it became clear that a shift in mindset is inevitable.



@ GIZ / Wilfried Gebhardt

“When interventions fail, it is easier to blame the beneficiaries for not doing enough but we realized that our approach did not only create undesirable results but also diminished the trust between the government and the community. We realized we did not listen enough to their needs and develop solutions with them. Though a participatory approach is a tedious process, requiring time, effort and resources; we believe that listening to the people and working with them is more appropriate and sustainable in a long term…” 

Salome Acopiado
Environmental Specialist
Provincial Government of Agusan del Sur


Through the cooperation with COSERAM Program, a change in mindset from choosing top-down approaches to a more needs-based approach was observed. Discussions on the ground, an exchange of understanding and listening to the people have become the basis of its work, which have already proven to be helpful in creating convergence mechanisms for the management of the Agusan Marsh.


“In the management of (the) Agusan Marsh, everyone claims jurisdiction but in the end, very little is being done at the ground. Management based on a division of tasks or mandates is outdated. The most efficient approach today is convergence and by doing this, we surprise ourselves on how much we can achieve together, effectively and more sustainably”. 

Ronulfo Paler
PENRO,  Agusan del Sur


On the level of convergence between the different mandated entities, providing opportunities for multi-stakeholder dialogue has been a fruitful approach to level off knowledge, attitudes and perspectives of the different key stakeholders. For the PAMB these exchanges have, for example, led to the eye-opening insight that the burden of management is reduced if shared. The people on the ground become ideal management allies. Consequentially, IPs are increasingly considered as main decision makers, and indigenous practices and local plans such as Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plans are recognized by mandated authorities.

The beneficiaries of the cooperation have been both the management authorities as well as the indigenous communities, whose stake in management has clearly been strengthened. As a result, conflicting mandates have become less prevalent, leaving space for collaboration and understanding for one another.


“Kami ang gakabasol sa gakahitabo sa Danao pero halus tanan nga mga kalihukan diri wala niagi sa amo. Karun, nalipay  kaayo mi sa kay apil na mi nila sa pagplanu, gapangutan-on na mi, gapaminawun Mas mayo gyud nga uban mi arun makabalo mi asa ni padulong ug arun mulahutay gyud”. 

“We are blamed for what happened to the Marsh but all this did not go through us. Now we are happy because we are included in the planning; we are asked and they listen to us. It is really important that we are included so we will know where it is going and so it will last)”.                        

IP leader in Talacogon


Reflecting on the Lessons learned  

In general, the power struggle over the management of Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary can positively be interpreted as a large interest in the conservation of the area. During a first reflection, the Provincial Government of Agusan del Sur considered the existence of the various actors as an enabling factor for inclusive management, as long as mandates and roles are clear. This has been achieved through the cooperation. Changing mindsets have been a key to success.

However, to guarantee sustainability, the tested convergence mechanisms, stating clear roles and commitment of each stakeholder, still need to be institutionalized. It is equally important to bear in mind that LGUs can provide important contributions to the management of the Agusan Marsh through assured budget allocations for joint management activities, long-term programs and adequate conservation structures.

In conclusion, overlapping protected areas with ancestral domains implicate not only challenges but also bring about strong potentials for convergence through various stakeholders. Nevertheless, harmonizing the NIPAS Act, IPRA and Local Government Code must still be operationalized and put into practice.

Notwithstanding, the stepping stones to confront this challenge have been laid through the cooperation of the indigenous communities, the Provincial Government of Agusan del Sur, the municipal LGUs and GIZ COSERAM.

@ GIZ / Wilfried Gebhardt


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