Early last year, the five barangays of Cabilao agreed to expand the two 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 impressive 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 from 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 placed 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 preserved, 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, thought 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 returned 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 ventilation, 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 the 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 Government 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, Emmie 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 supply 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, but 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 marked 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.