By Analou de Vera
The Palawan Island is known as one of the country’s world-class tourist destinations because of its rich biodiversity. While many tourists flock to the main highlights of the island, there are still some ‘hidden tourism gems’ that are yet to be uncovered by many.
Tagged as the Philippine’s ‘last ecological frontier,’ the island of Palawan frequently makes it to the list of “best islands of the world” by international travel magazines due to its exceptional scenic views. Recently, Palawan was named as one of “Asia’s five best islands” in 2018 by Conde Nast Traveler, a US- based lifestyle and travel magazine.
Just one hour away by plane from the Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the Palawan island is the home of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park and the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, which are both included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But aside from these ‘big names,’ there are budding tourism sites that now help uplift the lives of some of its communities, especially the indigenous people.
Among the lesser-known tourism sites in Palawan that are now aiming at unleashing their rich culture and biodiversity are the Batak Tribe Visitors Center in Barangay Concepcion, Maoyon River Cruise in Barangay Maoyon, the Mangrove Paddle Boat Tour in Barangay Sabang, and Hundred Caves in Barangay Tagabinet. These budding tourism attractions are all located in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. These sites are being supported by the Pilipinas Shell Foundation Inc. (PSFI) that aimed at harnessing the potential of these communities with the help of the local government.
The PSFI has established two programs that promotes environmental sustainability; the TANDIKAN (Turismo at Negosyo Dulot ng Ingat Kalikasan) and ISIP (Integrated Support for Indigenous People). These programs are aimed at mobilizing community involvement, creating alternative income opportunities for the locals, and protecting and conserving the island’s biodiversity. It provides livelihood trainings and other projects that help improve the community members’ quality of life. Alternative livelihood seminars such as handicraft-making as well as integrated bio-farming system were also being conducted.
“The projects empower the beneficiaries to have better lives in terms of being able to earn a living while understanding the ecosystem and why we need to protect the environment. Indigenous People communities are taught to how to read and write, learn other skills to make a living, learn the tenets of healthy living including back yard gardening to ensure they have food on the table instead of just forest gathering,” PSFI rogram manager Marvi Trudeau told the Manila Bulletin.
Trudeau said the communities are organized to ensure that the natural resources of the area are preserved and “make environmental conservation a way of life.”
“For these communities, they do not only gain employment from taking care of their natural resources but they are also taught how to enhance it further through reforestation of mangroves and other terrestrial areas,” Trudeau said.
Conquering a ‘new’ world, building confidence
During the visit at the Batak Tribe Visitors Center, the members of the said tribe, who were then wearing a red woven clothes, offered a native dance for their guests. They energetically showed their moves as other tribe members produce music using their traditional instruments. The women tribe members meanwhile showed their skills in making handicrafts on the other side of the center.
Erlinda Delos Angeles, one of the Batak tribal leaders, said they are not used to conversing with other people because they feel shy about their condition—being members of the indigenous community.
“Our community is very poor. We do not know what really is our condition. We do not know how to manage a business, also we do not have enough capital… If a disease spreads in our community, surely some will die. We lack knowledge regarding these aspects,” said Delos Angeles in Tagalog.
Currently, there are 47 families or more or less 200 individuals who belong to the Batak tribe. Delos Angeles said they do not have permanent jobs before. They just wander in the mountain forest in search for their food.
“When the Shell Foundation came, we realized that we can change our way of living,” she said. Delos Angeles said their tribe is slowly building their confidence to communicate with other people. Through the livelihood trainings set by the PSFI, Batak community now learn how to plant vegetables like string beans, eggplants and pineapples. The women were also taught how to make handicrafts such as baskets, beaded bracelets and necklaces and sell them to tourists.
“Honestly in our tradition, we are really shy in selling our own products. We are trying to improve ourselves and eventually get accustom on how to manage a business for our community to progress even more,” said Delos Angeles.
Ernesto Dagsalyo, 66, a former tribal leader said they somehow overcome their shyness and learned the value of being a member of their tribe.
“Our shyness begins to fade away through the trainings and seminars. That is when I learned that even though I’m a Batak, I will be respected by others if I’m not shy and if I will learn how to converse with them. Our own culture will not vanish just because of these changes… It will remain because we are still Batak after all,” he said.
Coping with changes
Some members of the communities, however, find it hard to cope with the livelihood and environmental changes.
Celestino Santander, president of the Mangrove Paddle Boat Association in Barangay Sabang said that before the PSFI came in to help their community, selling charcoal is the main source of income of the different households in their area. Currently, some of them are now tour guides who introduce the importance of mangroves.
“Some of us who previously sell charcoals find it hard to accept this change in our livelihood. When Shell Foundation promoted this kind of livelihood and some of us saw that there is enough income for our families, we eventually stop selling charcoals… besides it is more clean,” said Santander.
Santander, meanwhile, said that their very own attraction is not yet well-known to the tourists. He said that at least 60 people a day visit their area to ride the 45-minute boat tour. Through their trainings, Santander and his co-workers are able to provide interesting facts in the area while they paddle down the river surrounded by mangroves and wildlife animals such as monitor lizards, monkeys, squirrels and snakes. He then recommended that it is best to ride the paddle boat tour at 6 a.m. because one can spot a number of native birds and can hear their melodious tone.
‘Take courage to stand alone’
The residents of Barangay Tagabinet strive to learn how to stand on their own as this is their way to give back from all the learning they are receiving. The barangay’s caving destination–the Hundred Caves is also being supported by the PSFI. “One of their advocacies is for you to learn how to stand alone,” said Bong Yatco, the head guide of Hundred Caves.
Yatco said the maze-like cave began operations two years-ago. Before entering the cave, tourists are required to wear helmets and gloves for safety. The more than two-hours of exploration inside the cave reveal the unique stalagmite and stalactite formations that are named after some animals and objects due to its resemblance.
To further boost their budding tourism industry, the residents also rolled out their sleeves as they ventured on soap-making and t-shirt design printing.
An appeal to tourists
Safeguarding the natural areas, meanwhile, is among the priorities of the members of the Maoyon River Cruise Association. Maribel Binas, the president of the association said they need to maintain the cleanliness of their area to further drive growth and profitability among its members.
Binas said the 45-minute cruise attraction, which highlights lush green landscapes and a visit to a century-old giant Dao tree, has improved their lives.
“To our potential tourists, we appeal that when they visit us here they should avoid littering. Our area is of great help to our community because this is our source of livelihood. We should help each other take good care of our natural resources that God has given us,” said Binas.