The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) recently hosted a first-of-its-kind forum highlighting the importance of preserving the country's caves and karst systems, which are home to great biodiversity and a vital source of potable water.

Held on November 9 and 10 at the National Museum of History Auditorium in Manila, the forum has brought together representatives from national government agencies, local government units (LGUs) and the academe, as well as cave experts and stakeholders to tackle the latest practices in managing caves and karst systems.

The two-day conference was organized by the Caves, Wetlands and other Ecosystems Division or CAWED of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB), an attached agency of the DENR, and the National Cave Committee (NCC).

With the theme, "Understanding the Interactions Between People and Caves," participants were able to exchange knowledge on caves and promote their protection and conservation.

"Our mission is to raise awareness and understanding on caves and its resources to address the threats that endanger this ecosystem," said BMB Assistant Director Antonio Manila, who spoke on behalf of BMB Director Theresa Mundita Lim at the opening of the forum.

Manila shared that the DENR has already taken steps to protect caves and karst systems in the country through its Cave Management and Conservation Program.

The program is administered by the NCC, which is chaired by the BMB. The committee members include the Department of Tourism (DOT), National Museum, National Institute for Geological Sciences of the University of the Philippines, National Historical Commission of the Philippines, Mines and Geosciences Bureau, Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, Department of the Interior and Local Government, Leagues of Cities, Municipalities and Provinces of the Philippines, and the GAIA Exploration Club.

The forum discussed the value of caves to human well-being as it tried to build interest in the research and study of caves in the country.

Five topics were discussed during the forum, namely: cave geology, cave biology, cultural and historical value of caves, cave ecotourism, and governance and management of caves.

Research papers and reports about caves and karst systems were presented by invited resource speakers, including Dr. Fernando Siringan of the UP Marine Science Institute.

Siringan, in his presentation regarding the Accretion Rates and Paleoclimate Records of Philippine Stalagmites, noted that climate change could directly affect stalagmite formation since the decrease in the amount of rainfall slows down its accretion rate.

Stalagmites are important to caves because they provide shelter to cave-dwelling animals like bats. Together with stalactites, they fuse to form a column or pillar that helps support the roof of the cave.

Marc Metens of the Zamboanga Peninsula Cavers Association discussed the basic safety for cave researchers and enthusiasts.

Metens emphasized the importance of planning caving trips, the potential dangers in caves including those that are nature-related like sudden flooding and collapses, and man-related such as over and under estimation of caves and visitor capabilities, wrong techniques, and equipment failure.

He said that physical and technical training are also vital to anyone who plans to explore a cave.

Elizabeth Maclang, manager of the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR) Program, talked about the challenges in the management of PPUR as one of the Seven Wonders of Nature.

According to Maclang, while ecotourism generates a sizeable income to the community, the river's carrying capacity should also be taken into consideration.

Closing the forum, Maritess Agayatin of the BMB-CAWED called on everyone to work together and help each other for the preservation of Philippine caves.

"Let us not be sectoral. Let us have collaborative and concerted efforts in the conservation and management of our caves," Agayatin said.

"With this forum, we have widened our networking. I hope we continue our vision for our caves," she added.

The protection and conservation of caves is mandated under Republic Act No. 9072, or the National Caves and Cave Resources Management Protection Act.

The law mandates the DENR to formulate, develop and implement a national program for the management, protection and conservation of caves and cave resources, in coordination with the DOT, the National Museum, the National Historical Commission of the Philippines and concerned LGUs. ###