Monday, February 24, 2014

Walking the Walk on the San Vicente Boardwalk



Brutally struck by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake on October 15, 2013 and drenched by incessant torrential rain from super-typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) just three weeks later, the island of Bohol was all but devastated.

20140221_060616816_iOSIt must have seemed cataclysmic in the biblical sense, enough for anyone to question his faith. Concrete houses and buildings, including the centuries-old parish church of the Municipality of Maribojoc, where Barangay San Vicente belongs, crumbled to the ground in a matter of minutes. Yet the first thing the villagers did after extracting a relatively unscathed 400-year-old wooden icon of the Virgin Mary from the church rubble was to hold an impromptu religious procession.

Faith runs deep within many Boholanos. The province has produced 20140221_053953074_iOSmore Catholic priests than any other province in the country. Even the current mayor of Maribojoc is a former man of the cloth who went underground during the years of the Marcos dictatorship. This enduring religiosity is perhaps the quality that gives them the means to overcome the most trying of situations.

20140221_014600513_iOSOver a year before, Barangay San Vicente asked for Seacology’s help in reconstructing their dilapidated 500-meter mangrove boardwalk and extending it to 800 meters. Maribojoc’s mangroves, covering 922.683 hectares, are some of the province’s thickest, and the barangay itself has a diverse mangrove forest with 25 different species of mangrove trees as identified in a 1997 Silliman University study. Some of the dominant families are Palmae, Acanthaceae, Aegicerataceae, Rhizoporaceae, Avecenniaceae, and Sonneratiaceae. The 1997 research, which was spurred by increasing complaints from local fisherfolk of declining catches, was conducted to assess the effectiveness of their mangrove's natural function as a fish nursery.

Upon learning that the increasing number of fish traps and indiscriminate cutting within the mangrove were adversely affecting 20140221_032854126_iOSthe fish stock of nearby traditional fishing grounds, the community decided to take steps to preserve the resource. Using the mangroves as source for firewood, charcoal, building and fencing materials was banned, and fish traps were allowed only within well-defined areas beyond the mangrove forest’s core. The village then formed the San Vicente Mangrove Forest Association (SAVIMA), and applied for and acquired in 1999 from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources a 25-year Community-based Forest Management Agreement covering 56.25 hectares of mangrove forest. Through the assistance of a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer and modest funds from the Department of Labor and Employment, the village was able to DSC00955construct a 500-meter bamboo boardwalk and eco-tourism information center, which has since become their alternative source of income and an impetus for the mangrove's protection and conservation. Their “Mangrove Adventure Tour” achieved some success, initially attracting tourists near and far. However, the number of visitors began to decrease since its peak around 2006 mainly because the boardwalk was becoming dilapidated and less attractive.DSC01009

Seacology’s partner, PROCESS Bohol supervised the boardwalk construction. Technical personnel, as well as cement mixers and other machines, were lent by the Municipality of Maribojoc. By extending the boardwalk a further 300 meters, they were able to connect to nearby Tintinan Island, increasing the boardwalk’s potential many times over. But just when the boardwalk was nearly done, the earthquake struck.

20140221_031906085_iOSAbout two weeks ago, Emmie Roslinda of PROCESS Bohol informed me that the SAVIMA Boardwalk was to be inaugurated on February 21, to coincide with Bohol Governor Edgar Chatto’s birthday. I must confess that my mind was still running on images fueled by post earthquake and typhoon news reports and photos so the thrill I normally feel on learning of a Seacology project’s completion had a mix of apprehension. Totally unjustified, it turned out. At the Tagbilaran Airport, the porters, guards, transportation people, and even the vendors outside were… cheerful! The phrase ‘business as usual’ does not quite capture it.

The following day, en route to San Vicente from the capital, Tagbilaran City, Emmie occasionally pointed out some landslides 20140221_033107780_iOScaused by the earthquake. Our ride was fairly smooth considering that there was a lot of roadwork still going on. It is hard to believe that four months ago huge cracks on the island’s road network and collapsed bridges rendered Maribojoc and many other parts of Bohol inaccessible.

Maribojoc’s affable Vice Mayor, Jun Redulla, met us at the site. His house, like most whose houses were made of concrete or brick, was destroyed by the earthquake, but no trace of his misfortune can be found in his demeanor. Apparently, houses made of indigenous housing materials like lumber, bamboo, sawali, amakan and nipa better withstood the tremblor. There goes our cherished childhood lesson from The Three Little Pigs.

20140221_015331505_iOSThe vice mayor showed us a fissure on the road leading to the boardwalk, and pointed to a distant landslide on the side of a mountain. And in praise of his province-mates, he mentioned a word I have lately been hearing often to describe the earthquake and typhoon survivors: resilient.

There were speeches and a ribbon cutting ceremony, standard fare DSC01014of any inauguration, and there was also the proud singing of the Provincial Hymn after that of the National Anthem. SAVIMA president, Septima Pugio, introduced their association’s officers as well as that of Barangay San Vicente. SAVIMA member and Barangay Captain Pedro Jaminal gave a few words too. But the highlight is going through the length of the boardwalk itself.

DSC01003Walking the first few meters felt good and solid, but then we felt a brief shaking that strangely disappeared as we progressed. I looked back to find that a number of villagers have decided to join us, so I attributed the tremor to the unsynchronized steps trudging over the walkway. I found out from the news later that another aftershock ran through the island at about that time.

A leisurely pace on the wending boardwalk, purposely fashioned to 20140221_012951609_iOSavoid cutting any mangrove tree, can take some time, and one can appreciate the wisdom of having two rest and observation decks along the way. Juvenile fishes, crabs, birds and a few monkeys may be observed up close. Emmie tells me that they will soon be putting signs on some of the mangrove trees to indicate their species.

At the end of the boardwalk is the 1.2-hectare uninhabited island of Tintinan. After the sheltering confines of the mangrove forest, seeing the vast expanse of the sea was refreshing. When Governor Chatto asked of my impression, I remarked that the area has a huge tourism potential. To his credit, he said that the challenge is to ensure that waste management mechanisms are in place before embarking on any further development.

20140221_014023911_iOSAs it is, the SAVIMA Boardwalk is a haven for naturalists and photographers. Just a 45-minute drive from Tagbilaran City, it is an ideal stop on the way to the island’s other tourist destinations. Homestay programs are also available for those who would like to be with the warm, friendly, enterprising, and yes, resilient, Boholanos up close.