Friday, May 20, 2011

A New Light at the Edge of Cabilao

Early last year, the five barangays of Cabilao agreed to expand the cabilao_island_mpa_relationship_communities copytwo Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) of the island from a combined total of 21.8 hectares to 41.8 hectares in exchange for Seacology’s assistance in the renovation and conversion of their lighthouse into a Tourist Information Center. Once regarded as an abandoned and decaying ruin, by and large appreciated only as a marker for a nearby dive site, the Cabilao Lighthouse at Baluarte Point, Barangay Pantudlan is now an P3270031impressive structure at a picturesque lookout ready to house the best of products that the island can offer. What a difference a year makes.

Cabilao, apart from scuba diving, is also known for the colorful and intricate mats and bags that its womenfolk produce from the romblon plant. The weeklong process starts from the harvest and removal of the thorny midribs and blades. Leaves are then cut into long strips, hung until dry, softened, dyed, and woven. It is a laborious craft passed P3270032from one generation to the next. The home-based industry complements what their husbands get from farming or fishing. To improve traction on the market, the womenfolk organized themselves and formed the Cabilao Romblon Weavers Network or CROWN, making quality control and collective transaction possible. But despite these strides in the earning capacity of their households, Barangays Talisay, Cambaquiz, Cabacungan, Looc and Pantudlan have longed for a strategically P3270006placed structure where their weavers can showcase their wares. They saw the answer in the lighthouse ruin at the northwestern edge of the island.

The Cabilao Lighthouse is one of 55 lighthouses constructed during the Spanish occupation, this one classified as a faro de los proyectos. Sea vessels depended on lighthouses such as this to serve as stationary points for navigators, guides to port entrances and harbors, and warnings against shallow reefs. These reefs that surround Cabilao are also some of the country’s best DSC00374preserved, attracting hordes of scuba divers annually – a largely untapped market for the island’s products.

Previous attempts to renovate the abandoned lighthouse were unwieldy. A coating of cement with lines drawn to mimic construction blocks not only made it look like a very new sham edifice much like those seen in theme parks, but it also unwittingly covered the mute history of the structure as suggested by the original material used by its builders. Even the Coast Guard, under whose jurisdiction lighthouses fall, DSC00268thought it better to construct a new solar powered lighthouse nearby rather than upgrade the old structure. A proper renovation, one that will accent its Spanish colonial roots and island flavor, was needed. For this, the island’s villagers turned to Architect German Torero of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. With further assistance from Seacology’s partners, Process Bohol and the Local Government of Loon, the makeover that began mid-July last year was completed towards the end of April this year. As with my first visit last year, Emmie Roslinda, Executive Director of Process Bohol, and Rey Monreal of the Loon Municipal Tourism Office were with me when I DSC00270returned to the lighthouse last Wednesday, May 18.

The renovated building that greeted us prominently displayed its meter thick coral stone walls, now with a red tile roofing. Emmie tells me that the most difficult part of the renovation was the careful chipping away of the cement coating so that there would be very minimal damage to the original wall. With windows all around allowing the sea breeze in for DSC00274ventilation, it was pretty cool within despite the high humidity and the 35˚C (95˚F) outside temperature. Beaming with pride borne by a sense of accomplishment, Barangay Pantudlan’s village chief, Kapitan Maximiliano Lapez, showed us around, from the spacious washroom and toilet, to the walls on which sheets of blue paper were taped to indicate the items being prepared to be displayed on it.

Luxuriously thick soft grass covering the promontory on which DSC00327the lighthouse was built, combined with a view of the crystal blue sea so clear one can see the harlequin-patterned reef disappear into the deep, is enough to make anyone wax poetic. Or at least try anyway. Leaving poetry to real poets, the potential of the lighthouse as an income-generating venue for social events, such as weddings, is something the village should probably consider too.

Later some of the officers and members of the Fisherfolk Federation and CROWN joined us inside the lighthouse. In the local dialect, gratitude for Seacology, Process Bohol, and the Loon Municipal DSC00311Government was expressed all around, though any credit should really be to the villagers themselves, for having the vision to preserve their natural resource and adapt to more sustainable modes of livelihood.

Reef guard duties for the two MPAs rotate among the members of the Fisherfolk Federation. Their president, Felix Molina, reports that the boundaries of the MPAs remain respected through their vigilance. However, while their operations are supposed to be supported by a portion of the user fee collected by the Protected Area Management Board from each tourist, they are having difficulties in securing the release of funds. In this, DSC00316Emmie assured them of assistance in making the proper paper work to facilitate the process.

The romblon weavers have an altogether different issue. Orders for bags and mats keep coming, but CROWN president Leonila Mulato laments that one order for 3,500 bags was not met because they overestimated their production capability. Another lesson in DSC00332supply and demand economics from Hardknocks University. But they have learned their lesson well and have begun a survey of output of each member in terms of number of mats and bags per week.

In taking the high road toward sustainable resource management, the villagers of Cabilao are encountering their share of problems, DSC00341but these are neither insurmountable nor enough to weaken their resolve. No enterprise has ever been trouble free, and they are not expecting theirs to be exceptions.

On our way back to the main island of Bohol, we passed by the two MPAs that are the subject of the covenant between Seacology and the island’s five villages. White buoys DSC00360marked the perimeter of the no-take zones. The water was so clear I could see the bluish green hard corals from the boat like fruits in a gelatin dessert despite depths of approximately 40 feet. I got to scuba dive on these MPAs last year, but not this time. Maybe I will again if and when I get to come back. If the villagers will let me, that is.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Palawan On Fire

Often called the Philippines’ last ecological frontier, Palawan’s rich biodiversity is very impressive but also so very fragile. Yet for the DSC_0001month of April this year alone, in northern Palawan alone, the burning of swathes of mountain slopes was a near daily occurrence. Plumes of smoke could be seen from surrounding mountains signaling slash and burn activity. It was as if a concerted effort to destroy the island’s capacity to support life is being waged.

Travelling toward the DSC_0008eastern side of El Nido, we passed quite a few blackened areas, tell-tale signs of swidden farming or kaingin. Meriam Arzaga of the El Nido Foundation provides an interesting observation: that incidences of kaingin increase after a tag-hirap year – a year when crops fall short of what is needed. It is a method farmers seem to resort to, to augment harvests from their regular rice fields.

Swidden farming, or kaingin, is most obvious during the dry months when plots are prepared by burning vegetation therein, awaiting the first DSC_0009rains before planting. It has been in practice for generations in many parts of the world, benignly, even favorably, viewed in such literature as Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) and NVM Gonzales’ Children of the Ash-Covered Loam (1954). It is a method developed over the centuries as a means to reduce pests and facilitate the migration of biological control agents, such as insect parasites and predators, from the surrounding forests.

For the system to be sustainable (myopically ignoring its impact on DSC_0004global warming and ocean siltation, that is), a plot, after being used for a few years, must be allowed to fallow for about 20 years before beginning the cycle again. In this period, the soil is allowed to rest and regain the nutrients that only time left alone can provide. But when the number of people the land has to support becomes so great that the fallow periods are drastically reduced, productivity declines and the system becomes destructive, eventually working its way into new areas in the forest.

When a farmer begins cutting the fringes of public land in mangrove forest from Sibaltan extending to nearby barangayspreparation for burning, Meriam explains, no one else but the farmer who torched it gets to plant on it when the rains come. It is a tradition of respect among kaingin farmers that has been observed for as long as anyone can remember.

But if kaingin activity is that plain to see and the culprits so easily identifiable, why isn’t anyone doing anything to apprehend the offenders? To be sure, unauthorized burning of forest and grazing New  Ibajay mangroveland is illegal under the Revised Forestry Reform Code. Moreover, a 1998 presidential proclamation declared all of El Nido and Taytay, its adjacent municipality, as a Protected Area, putting it under the supervision of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, with its own Protected Area Superintendent. Whether it is for lack of political will or simple bureaucratic laziness, solutions, for now at least, do not seem to be forthcoming from any government enforcement effort.

It isn’t that the farmers are not aware of the illegality of kaingin or its implications; often, they do it because they feel they need Mgt planning Mabini 11-13-08 (15)to. Apparently, if farmers have to choose between putting food on the table and obeying some law, the former will always win hands-down. The answer must lie in providing an alternative to kaingin.

At the eastern villages of Mabini, New Ibajay, Sibaltan and Villa Paz, Seacology provided cashew production equipment, among others, as an alternative livelihood enterprise in exchange for the establishment of a 470-acre marine protected area and 2,408-acre mangrove protected area. In this project, the villagers have DSC_0076committed themselves to actively protect these resources, with the municipal government and DENR relegated to a supporting role. Even the local parish priest, Fr. Ed Parino, has taken an active role in the enforcement of the protected areas, and has been instrumental in the apprehension of poachers from out-of-town. And as alternative livelihoods go, the brisk sales of their cashews at the upscale resorts of El Nido are certainly encouraging.

There is still much to appreciate in northern Palawan in terms of rich packaged cashewnatural resources. But to preserve it, the focus has to shift from what the communities should not do, to what they can do instead.