Talking ecotourism with the Tagbanua
My group's boat docked into the wood-and-rock port leading to the entrance of the Twin Lagoons in Coron, Palawan.
I had been there once before so I was more interested in something else: the fact that most of Coron's most popular tourist attractions were managed by the Tagbanua tribe.
As usual, the port was crowded by tourist boats, spewing smoke from cooking stoves and letting loose a horde of tourists and their tour guides. The backdrop for this virtual swarming were the towering limestone cliffs and agate-blue waters Coron is famous for.
But my destination was the small nipa hut on stilts crammed among rocks in the cliff face opposite the port. In front of the hut floated small wooden boats, tinier than the tourist boats outfitted with katig and its own restroom.
Our tour guide told me that was where I would find the Tagbanua.
From our boat, I swam to the hut, resolved to memorize my conversations with the tribe members since I could not bring a pen, paper and camera (how I wish I had brought a GoPro then).
The young Tagbanua men saw me swimming toward them and helped me scramble past the rocks and climb into their hut.
There wasn't much in it. It functioned like a small kitchen and gathering place. Tables by the wall were topped by an assortment of coffee mugs, plates and some fruits.
Long seats were placed against each wall. Around 11 young Tagbanuas were sitting there, with one of them lounging on a hammock. Two dogs, one brown and one black, were flitting around trying to get attention.
After sitting down on one of the benches, the brown one eventually walked up to me, nervously licking my wet knee.
The dog broke the ice and I found myself talking with the Tagbanua men, equally curious about me and Metro Manila life (we talked about the pork barrel issue and elections, among other things).
Isjon, a 26-year-old Tagbanua called his uncle, one of the tribal leaders so we could have a chat.
Adornio Biring, who at the age of 38 was already part of the tribal council, gladly told me about the Tagbanua's ecotourism efforts after first pouring a cup of coffee for me and himself.
More than once during our conversation did one of the younger men casually grab the big brown dog around the belly and throw him out the door into the water.
Apparently, that's what they do when the dogs get too whiney. A few minutes later though, the dog, aptly named Guard, would be back in the hut, dripping wet and ready to irritate his owners anew.
Biring told me that the Tagbanua tribe have exclusive rights to Coron tourist sites like Kayangan Lake, the Twin Lagoons and surrounding beaches and islets because they are part of their ancestral domain.
The Tagbanua have been stewards of these sanctuaries since the time their first ancestors lived, which for Biring, goes way back before Coron even became a town.
Back then, these sites, now flooded by tourists, were sacred.
"Not even tribe members could go there unless they have permission from the guardian," Biring told me in Filipino.
The Tagbanua believe that each of these places was guarded by a spiritual being. If you went inside without its approval, you would start to feel sick or "get a bad feeling."
In 2001, after consulting with the Coron local government and at the encouragement of some visitors, the Tagbanua tribal council decided to open up the sites for tourism.
To do this, they had to perform complex rituals in which they asked permission from the guardians to allow outsiders into the sacred places. The signs were favorable.
The result was life-changing. From 1,000 tourists in 2001, the sites' visitors doubled in 2013. Just last year, there were 75,000 visitors, said Biring.
This boom has led to unprecedented economic benefits for the tribe. Last year, just on entrance fees alone, the tribe was able to collect around P7 million (US$ 161,100).
The money, said Biring, is deposited into the bank account of the tribes' foundation. This fund is shared with the entire community through community development projects
These projects are implemented by the tribe's committees on education, health and cleanliness, said Biring.
In this way, the money from ecotourism pays for scholarships for young Tagbanua, for the construction of health care centers in their villages and to maintain the beauty of the natural attractions that earned them the money in the first place.
A new interest of the tribe, said Biring, is the acquisition of solar panels for their villages. They learned about solar power from trips to Metro Manila and Coron. They'll give one unit a try first before buying some more, he said.
Keeping their domain clean
The tribal elders, who each head committees, are very strict in keeping the tourist sites clean.
Young Tagbanuas, including the 11 I met in the hut, make daily rounds in small boats, picking up trash from the beaches or those floating in the water.
They also alert the Coron local government when they see illegal fishermen in the area.
Biring says the tribe imposes rules on tour guides and tour boats that prohibit them from improperly disposing of trash within the ancestral domain.
It was through their efforts that Kayangan Lake has been recognized twice as one of the cleanest lakes in the country.
The Tagbanua's sites have proven to be such powerful draws for tourists that the Coron LGU wants more involvement.
Mike Fababer, a planning officer for Coron, said the LGU is hoping to be able to tax the entrance fees collected by the tribe.
According to the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA), tax collection from indigenous peoples is only justified if the tribe's source of income is not based on indigenous cultural practices.
"The ecotourism activities, even if they are happening within their ancestral domain, are new activities. They aren't really rooted on the tribe's culture," he told me.
The local government plans to use tax collected from the Tagbanua for constructing facilities that would cater to the needs of tourists. Examples of these are better comfort rooms, railings for uphill trails and modern ports.
While Biring said he is personally open to the tax, the Tagbanua plan to keep the sites as "natural" as possible.
The challenging trail to Kayangan Lake, for example, is only made of rocks placed strategically to form crude stairs. Ports are made of wood. The lack of comfort rooms dissuade tourists from doing their dirty business in the sites still held as sacred by the tribe.
Biring believes it's this natural, raw beauty that attracts tourists anyway. To preserve this, the current tribe won't allow restaurants, resorts or other "modern" facilities in the sites.
it's this tension between these two schools of thought on tourism that intrigue me. Are culturally and ecologically important tourist sites best served by the Tagbanua's type of tourism or by the more mainstream type of tourism championed by the LGU?
At what point is development, like "modern facilities," good for these sites? How do we balance the demands of tourists, who pay to get there, with the need to conserve and protect the site?
I am reminded of the condition of the Puerto Princesa Underground River, which before road improvements by the government and a UNESCO title, was a remote attraction accessed via bumpy, dirt roads.
Before, only one or two boats with tourists could be found inside its cathedral-like tunnels. Today, some 6 or 8 are crammed in, with the voice of one boat's tour guide overlapping with that of the other boat. What you get is a cacophony, ruining one's experience of the river.
Pretty soon, if these hordes of tourists go unchecked, tourism may ruin the natural park. (READ: Boracay: Paradise lost?)
Thankfully, there are now more studies to help us balance environmental protection and tourism. We now know what makes our country's natural park management weak and, through a newly-launched study, we'll know exactly what we have to gain if we pursue ecotourism models properly. (READ: 5 ways to improve how we protect our parks)
After all, there is nothing inherently wrong with tourism. We all want to see the beautiful places in the world. We all want adventure and the thrill of discovery.
We all have the right to enjoy nature's gifts. But nature has an equal right to protection. Surely, there is a way for these two to meet? – Rappler.com