Nature Boy: Remembering everyman’s friend Ernie

May 16, 2014


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A week ago, relatives and friends of the late Ernesto Fabella Pelaez, better known as Ernie to his legions of friends, fittingly gathered in Mapawa Nature Park in his memory.


Farewell Ernie


Speaking in behalf of The Plazans, media colleague Eddie Montalvan recalls how Ernie was fondly called “Migs” by the Plazans because it seems he was everybody’s “amigo”.


As Manny Valdehuesa recounted in his eulogy, “I think of Ernie, first and foremost, as a friend, warm, unassuming, obliging—no airs, dili hambugero. He was as modest as a Pelaez can be, I think.”


Indeed, such was my experience too with Ernie whom I first got to know when friends in Holcim invited me to interview him sometime in 2007 after his team became the Asia Pacific Silver Project Awardee for their project “Concrete Substrates for Accelerated Coral Restoration” in the inaugural cycle of the Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction in 2005.


The Prize Winning Acanthasia


The citation for the award reads:


“The success of this project lies in its innovative focus on the marine ecosystem. Of particular merit is the effort to regenerate an endangered environment, an environment upon which many small coastal communities depend for their livelihood and future development. Such effort yields not only a positive impact on the natural surroundings by providing an ecologically effective catalyst for coral growth, but also an ethically affirmative social impact by increasing the quantity and diversity of fish species for nearby fishing communities.




This project convincingly demonstrates the value of simple, yet intelligent tools that are affordable, require little technical expertise, and can be easily replicated in different contexts. Also to be commended is the adaptability of the structures to the varied needs of local communities. The project signals sensitivity to economic issues by promoting a low-cost, incremental infrastructure rather than costly large-scale investments. This entry displays ingenuity in tackling a highly complex issue while offering a modest, but aesthetically refined design solution to the challenges at hand.”



He had this dream about transplanting corals in concrete frames which would restore the country’s coral gardens to their former glory and stop global warming through carbon sequestration. I guess his work with Mapawa Nature Park and STEAG State Power Inc.’s carbon sequestration projects inspired him with a similar vision to restore the country’s forests through its coral gardens. With 17,500 kilometers of coastline, the potential to transform the Philippines’ coral reefs into “rainforests of the sea” as a significant mitigating factor against global warming is mind boggling.


He never got tired of describing his vision to anyone who would listen.


“Compared to forest carbon sinks, carbon sequestration in artificial reefs have a geometric growth progression, are safe from fire and usual threats faced by land-based forests, with most threats addressable by human intervention, offer permanent/longer carbon sequestration, and are adaptable to sand dunes or barren stretches of seabed, and make it easy to restore degraded coral atolls/reefs.”


Two year coral growths on the A Leg Beam


“In contrast, trees can only multiply arithmetically and face environment threats many of which cannot be mitigated by human intervention, and have a relatively short-span carbon sequestration period before they are cut down for lumber or fuel and the decay or burning releases carbon back into the air.”


Once adopted into the national integrated coastal management plan, Ernie envisioned his project would reduce human induced climate change by absorbing greenhouse gases, reduce immediate threats of declining water quality brought by land-use changes and pollution, and mass exploitation of fish biomass.


Yes, it was easy to catch the bug from Ernie. And of course, once you caught it, you were friends for life.


“Ernie’s work in Duka Bay began when its corrals were wiped out in the 90s by a great flood,” recalls his younger brother Eduardo, better known to friends as Bobong. “Ernie envisioned the replanting of corals. He built simple concrete structures to which the corals could be attached. Today the corals are thriving and Duka Bay is recognized globally as a successful coral rehabilitation project. In fact, it won a global award from Holcim.”

“Much of what Ernie did was very much a part of our concerns,” mused Manny V. in his eulogy. “His ideas, his initiatives, his dreams resembled our own. But he was different because he acted on them, so it is fitting that we remember and commemorate his life with us.”


Marine Biologist Lemuel Alfeche checks coral growths in the original acanthasia


“He was a true environmentalist. He pioneered in coral regeneration at Duka Bay, established the carbon sink forestation in Mapawa, used sound ranching practices, took part in the Cagayan de Oro River Basin Management Council, and staunchly supported the Gising Barangay Movement as a concerned citizen,” he added.  “Only last year, he was all over the place, planning arrangements with the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) to help develop Mapawa and environs into a regional hub for training and developing ecotourism professionals.”


 “Mapawa was largely Ernie’s vision,” Bobong recalls. “Upon Ernie’s return from Washington DC where he served as assistant to our father, then the Philippine ambassador to the US, the family’s pasture lease agreement on Mapawa was about to expire. This was all grazing land then. No trees, no forest cover. But Ernie envisioned it as an industrial tree forest, a source of timber and At the same time a nature haven that would promote the environment.”

“A plan was hatched to plant hectares of trees every year for 10 years. And on the strength of that vision our lease agreement was renewed. Today, over 1,000 hectares of trees have been planted. Our primary forest of 30 hectares has grown to 300 hectares. In turn, the new forests have become a home to over a hundred bird species and has become a Trekkers paradise. Mapawa is now also a source of water for Cagayan de Oro and the key component of STEAG’s carbon credit program.”

“Ernie never lacked for ideas and until his first hydrocephalus attack six months ago continued to have grand projects. Among his final wishes were to be laid to rest by the Dao tree, Cagayan de Oro’s heritage tree.”


“But typical in his life, this vision was tempered by his siblings who pointed out that this would not be allowed by the Catholic Church and that it would be an inconvenience for some of his loved ones to visit him there. He has been laid to rest in St James Church in Ayala Alabang together with our father and two other siblings. His memory however will be perpetuated in Mapawa, which will always be associated with him.”

“Somewhere up there he must be making an account to his father—whom he loved dearly and regretted not having been dedicated enough in early days,” Manny V. recalls. “In his honor, I suggest to the family that some part of nature in this God-given ecology should be named after him.”


“Much of what Ernie did was for his children,” Bobong noted. “Monte and Nicole, who grew up with Thailee and Ernie in Manila and Washington DC, and his seven year old Clarissa, whose mother is Dinna, Ernie’s partner and primary caregiver for the last six months.”


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