Immortalizing ourselves

I recently conducted a lecture to about 300 high school students in an all girsl shool in Manila and talked about Outdoor Education. When I asked how many of them have at least once written on the walls and doors of the restroom, 80 % of them raised their hands. I admire their honesty.When I was growing up I remember my younger sister (who ends up being an artist) writing almost anywhere - walls, chair, tables. She doodled, drew and expressed her creative part through her hands. The same happened to my youngest daughter who is artistically gifted. She drew and wrote on our headboard, the walls, the doors and almost everywhere, even on our TV.To her our house was one huge canvass. I realize that most of us live to express our art form and if we cannot sing or dance, we write and draw. However, we seem to bring to adulthood this behavior and misdirect our creativity in a form that is destructive.

Through my travels I have collected graffiti expressed in various forms, and in various places. Some are obviously not brought about by the need to express creativity, but to unleash the ego. The most common forms are etches on trees and rocks.
Some prefer to paint their names and even use nature for signages. I even came upon a place with a beautiful waterfalls and signages painted on rocks. What was disgusting was that the place was labeled an ecotourism site! It was clear that whoever did it was rather confused about the concept.The most appalling that I have seen is an etching on a piece of coral.. Yes, graffiti underwater! Unbelievable but true!

A week ago I went to a century old lighthouse on an island in Cagayan. I had been going to this place almost every month since it is my project site. I was furious to see a newly written graffiti by a female. She etched her name and unbelievably even her mobile number on the wall of the ruins! I am tempted to send her an sms to tell her that she is being fined Php200,000.00 for the graffiti she wrote on a heritage site. She clearly violated a protocol that was written on a signage strategically located where boats dock on the beach.

When I went to Sohoton National Park in Samar, I came upon a graffiti on the wall of the "natural bridge". It was in bright red paint, as if it was done the day before. The date however was 1964! No wonder the people who came after them wrote and wrote and wrote. The wall was filled with all sorts of names.The message was clear: It is alright to leave your mark. Afterall, the one who did it first was a Judge! Writing graffiti is irresponsible and destructive, no matter who wrote it. So please, next time you travel bring a journal or a sketchbook and express yourself in a more responsible way. Don't bring yourself down to the level of those who do.

Beyond Promotions and Marketing

Tourism planning does not merely involve promoting a fabulous waterfalls, a historical site or a wonderful beach. Thinking this way is a common mistake among decision makers in communities that wish to develop tourism in their area. For years, this kind of mindset had only resulted to natural or historical attractions that are vandalized and destroyed by irresponsible tourists. Planners should consider two other components that are equally as important - product development and social preparation. Discover a balanced approach in planning for tourism in a destination. Whether you are planning for a city or a small community, I have a simple framework that will ensure that you end up with a destination that will last for many generations. This approach also allows you to achieve the triple bottom line - economic, social and environmental goals.

Throwing away our environment & health

From Health Today June 2004

In a small island down south, a marine turtle swims on the surface and spots what appears to be his favorite meal. It’s cloudy form drifts near the surface and undulates with the steady current. The hawksbill turtle paddles it weary arms to reach the jellyfish. It is hungry and tired having traveled thousands of miles to find the same beach where it was hatched years ago. The female turtle is ready to lay its eggs. Through instinct and natural navigation, it was able to come back in order to propagate its species. It chomps on what she thought was a jellyfish and swallows it. A few days later, a fisherman finds her on the shore, dead and poisoned by plastic.

Being an archipelago, the Philippines is blessed with a long coastline, extensive reef formations, beautiful islands, sand bars and warm tropical water. The seas surrounding our islands though are being tuned into veritable dumping grounds for a wide variety of trash. The ocean is becoming a waste receptacle since it seems to have the capacity to hold a huge amount and can conveniently hide it from the eyes of people. Unknown to many, the trash that ends up in the water, is not obliterated from existence. Non-biodegradable trash is scattered on the ocean floor and is continuously moved about by waves and currents, making it a perpetual killer of marine life.

Kinds of trash

There are two kinds of trash that end up on the reef, the biodegradable and the non-biodegradable. Both can kill life. Biodegradables include coconut husks, coconut fronds, left-over food, uprooted trees, leaves, poultry and hog waste, market wastes, rotten vegetables and fruits, rice husks and kitchen wastes. The types of non-biodegradable trash on the other hand is much more extensive. Almost all types that end up in the landfills may also be found underwater. It may also be shocking to know that even large objects such as rusty refrigerators, LPG tanks, engines, boat trailers, washing machines and all sorts of junk end up at the bottom of the sea. They come from various sources, including households of coastal communities, resorts, markets, private beach houses, businesses and industries. Inter-island vessels and fishing boats contribute significantly to this problem. Although the Philippines have laws against the dumping of trash in the water by vessels of any size, compliance is rather difficult to monitor.

Out of sight, out of mind
“In the past, our purpose in disposing our waste was simply to have clean, pleasant and sanitary surroundings. As long as we swept and mopped our floors and threw litter into the garbage can, that was it. The prevailing attitude was ‘Out of sight, out of mind’. As long as we didn’t see it, it was not a problem,” remarks Angelina Galang, executive director of Miriam College’s Environmental Studies Institute.

Indeed the mindset was simply on disposal. The absence or lack of solid waste management systems in coastal communities not just in the Philippines but in other countries had exacerbated the problem. The basic assumption was that the ocean is big enough for the purpose, covered with water and can easily hide whatever trash is dumped into it. Garbage that is buried in the ground are sometimes also dislodged during the rise of tides and during seasonal flooding. The connectivity of waterways had also made it possible for trash that was thrown miles from the coast to end up flushed out from rivers and into the sea. Distance is not a deterrent since waterways become highways for trash that float and get drifted.

A global concern

The issue of trash on the reef is not exclusive to the Philippines. Many nations are faced with the same problem. Needless to say, trash that is thrown out to sea does not necessarily stay put in one spot. Water, current and wind can dislodge it and transport it to other islands, shores and even countries. When it lands on corals and other life forms inhabiting the reef, it prevents them from feeding and getting sunlight which they need for survival. Discarded fishing nets or those that had been snagged, end up catching and killing fish indiscriminately and perpetually. Sometimes, even sharks, whales, dugong and turtles are caught by “ghost nets” and eventually die by starvation, drowning or infectious diseases.

Nice but dangerous
Balloons that are released during festivals and celebrations are driven by wind out to the sea. In time, they pop, land in the water and float. They are mistakenly ingested by marine turtles. Certain materials such as batteries, tires, engines and paint react to salt water and leach toxins. When they are spread out by currents, they can wipe out colonies of marine life, planktons and benthic organisms. Presence of sewage which contains nitrates and phosphates is tantamount to fertilizing marine plants such as algae. This results to algal bloom, eventually depleting the oxygen content of the water. Fish kill and red tides are two major events occurring more often in the Philippines.

Louie Mencias, a NAUI diving instructor and President of the Marine Ecosystem Council, Inc. believes that the aesthetic appeal of a live coral reef diminishes as trash is dumped on them.

” Their value goes beyond the amount of fish caught or the food that they produce for people. They are also valued for the tourist receipts that are derived from the visitation of tourists and divers. Reef destruction translates to opportunity loss as well as productivity loss. So, while tourists can help protect the reefs through low impact activities, their most important contribution may be the economic incentives that their tourism dollars create to keep the reefs alive,” Mencias remarks.

Berting Sulit, a fisherman and president of the people’s organization in Barangay Hugom, Batangas says that it is important to keep the oceans clean. “Polluting it means polluting our food,” said Sulit, referring to diseases and ailments that humans can get from eating seafood that had been caught in polluted water. Shellfish had been found to contain organisms that produce diseases such as polio and hepatitis. Dirty water also means higher level of colliform bacteria which can cause ailments when swimmers unintentionally swallow the water.

Trashy truth
Jim Paredes, a famous singer and environmental advocate says,”If we pollute our sea it is like getting food from the dumpsite, or worse, from the toilet.” This may be comical way of putting it but it has a sense of truth, specially in coastal communities without sanitation. Sewage goes straight to the sea without any treatment.

Luzviminda Marasigan, a housewife in the fishing village says that, “The potential harm from trash along the beach goes beyond diseases. Cuts and injury due to a shard piece of glass, metal and other sharp objects is the most common hazard “ Children of coastal communities use the beach as their playground. They also pick up bottles and containers which may have traces of toxic substances like chemicals, acids, fertilizers, paint and other substances. They are not aware of the danger. Trash sometimes becomes their toys.

The International Coastal Clean-up, an initiative which started in the early 1990’s catalyzed international awareness on the issue of reef trash. To date, many countries around the world conduct simultaneous beach and reef clean-ups during the month of September of each year in support of this program. Critics however say that clean-ups should be done all year round and efforts in reducing production of trash is a more effective strategy. Over the years, clean-ups had become too commercialized and “corporationalized”. They had turned out to be media events and promotional gimmicks, mostly benefiting businesses and private sectors. Although the main agenda of reducing the trash along the coasts and the coral reefs are attained, the proper disposal of the collected garbage is still a problem. Some even say that clean-up participants merely transfer trash from one location to another.

Dr. Bernie Singson, a surgeon and a certified diver believes that annual reef clean-ups will be more effective if participants also practice waste management in their own homes. Events like this should not merely be an excuse for socializing. He adds, ”Resorts that organize clean-ups should partner with local communities. They are after all, the direct and closest source of trash. But at the same time, resorts must set the example by practicing solid waste management.”

With the passage of the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act in the Philippines, local governments are mandated to implement management of wastes and promote segregation, recycling and composting. We have to remember though that this law will be effective only if citizens start managing waste from the source. Households, offices, businesses and industries must be more responsive to the need to keep our environment clean and healthy. On an individual basis, people can do their share by disposing of thrash responsibly and being aware of its effect when they reach waterways, and eventually the ocean.

In the Philippines where 62 % of its population live along the coast, the reef trash problem can severely jeopardize food security and health. The impacts have far reaching implications and go beyond the direct damage they create on the reef. The fact that our shores end up as recipient of foreign trash shows that waste disposal is not a local issue. Countries all over the world are faced with the fast build-up of waste products, not only from domestic consumption, but also from commercial and industrial activities. Capitalism, market and economic forces had resulted to the production of a wide range of products and commodities which are becoming less durable and highly disposable. This trend results to more waste products for a small planet.
It is clear that the “rainforests of the sea” are getting severe pressure from irresponsible dumping and mindless acts by humans. Concerted effort, greater participation, integrated approaches and more financial support for clean-up programs will greatly reduce the severity of the impact, but personal commitment will have far greater effect in minimizing if not totally solving this problem of trash on the reef.

Losing yourself in Aurora

From ME magazine July 2005
Whenever I ask people if they have ever been to Aurora, two out of three give me the classic, “Aurora in Quezon?” Sometimes the confusion no longer surprises, since Aurora used to be part of the province named after the President of the Philippine Commonwealth and husband of Doña Aurora. I, too, was confused until I got to visit the place seven years ago. And I have gone back countless times since then, enough for me to say that I know the province as though it were my own.

Aurora is a land of sweeping beauty, a natural paradise tucked between the mighty Pacific Ocean and the rugged Sierra Madre mountain range. Quite fittingly, its name means “dawn”. Indeed, the province is on the verge of embracing changes that will affect the lives of its residents for many years to come. Former Congresswoman and currently Aurora governor, Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, now steers its development path. She sees the potential of alleviating the poverty of her kababayan (constituents) through sustainable tourism, a decision so timely with the imposition of a total log ban. Governor Castillo believes that a well planned and controlled tourism industry can improve the lives of the poor communities while addressing conservation objectives. The feisty governor believes that a non-extractive industry is a feasible alternative to logging and other destructive activities.

I have reason to agree with her, having toured the province and seen its potential for outdoor recreation, environmental education, and ecotourism. The upcoming book, Treasures of Aurora: People and Environment , is a fitting testimony to the claim that the province offers a cornucopia of adventure. Its mountains, forests, seashores, coral reefs, tidal pools, mangrove areas, hills, coves, rivers, streams and watersheds provide a natural stage for thrills and learning. Being an outdoor buff myself, I can see that the natural environment serves as a huge playground.

The watersheds of Maria Aurora and San Luis, most of which are declared protected areas, are perfect for day hikes, multi-day camping trips or extreme trekking. The numerous waterfalls, some still un-named, never fail to fascinate. The Ditumabo waterfalls, which I attempted but failed to visit in 2000, due to slippery rocks and the absence of a trail, is now accessible through wooden bridges. This simple low impact development was initiated by a group of farmers who simply wanted to share the beauty of their falls with visitors. How they manage this natural wonder is now considered “best practice” among resource mangers.

The marine protected areas of Dinalungan and Dibut Bays also have compelling stories to tell. They are a result of years of concerted effort from the various stakeholders, major and minor players aiming to protect the province’s marine resources in order to ensure food security. Here, they have seasonal sightings of dugongs, dolphins, and whale sharks. Añao Island’s coral reefs, though exposed to the northeastern monsoon at certain times of the year, are amazingly well preserved. Terraces of branching corals adorn the slopes, while fairy basslets make like purple confetti floating on the water and pulsating with the current.

San Ildefonso peninsula, on the other hand, is a seasoned surfer’s haven. This picturesque white sand beach hosts tidal pools created by the pounding waves of the Pacific. What’s left of a beach forest is adorned with 100-year old bonsai trees, their twisting roots and trunks a testimony of resilience against the battering of the Pacific and the howling northeast monsoon. Its pockmarked veined cliffs and caves, constantly and masterfully redesigned by Nature, are considered virgin, never been climbed, rappelled or scaled by man. The forest that caps the peninsula is threatened by increased migration and kaingin (slash and burn) yet it remains an excellent hiking spot. Its streams, waterfalls and caves are a perfect backdrop for adventure enthusiasts and naturalists. Interesting flora and fauna, from common to threatened species, are seen along the trails established by the Dumagat tribe and locals who visit to hunt and gather. On one of my hikes across the peninsula, I saw a stream littered with bluish petals from the endangered purple jade vine.

One doesn’t even have to be in outdoor sports to appreciate Aurora’s natural majesty. Just wake up early enough to catch the sun rising from the Pacific. The rock formation in Digisit is a natural landmark of Baler and a perfect vantage point. I woke up at 4 AM twice to travel 20 minutes to the place. With a mug of hot brewed coffee on hand, I propped my tripod and camera on a ledge, waiting for the sun to peek straight from the horizon and wield strokes of orange, pink and purple, and blue across the sky. The silhouette of Digisit is breathtaking. The transition from shadow to light gives life and texture, not only to the sky, but also to the rock surface, the beach, the forest canopy and the sea’s surface. Here, no two seconds are the same. One learns the value of time and the changes that occur in a brief span.
This magnificent sunrise is symbolic of the hope of the people of Aurora, and the great responsibility in store for visitors who engage with the fragile ecosystems, the people, and the culture of this awesome frontier hidden in the folds of the Sierra Madre.

The need for experts to facilitate the planning process.

Often the planning process is done in a haphazard manner, without a clear understanding of the “real” process. Planning groups think that hiring facilitators and experts is a waste of valuable resources. Some copy and paste old plans of other places without realizing that plans need to be site-specific and updated to the needs of the times. They cannot be simply copied. Plans are not cast in stone and need to be modified when changes occur in the social and environmental aspects or political structure in the community. It is vital that research and data gathering be initiated to provide the experts with a basis for the Situational Analysis. This tool provides the starting point in the planning process and point towards the desired future. Tools are used to identify priority sites and secondary sites and analyze the major and minor players in the industry (Stakeholder Analysis). Tools are also used to determine readiness level of the community for the changes that tourism will bring.
Experts are not only trained in the use of these planning tools, but they are also specialists in the facilitation process and are knowledgeable in contemporary strategies that had been tested in other places. Without professional guidance, the Plan Output may not represent the authentic preferred direction of the people. In the long run, this type of plan will not yield the optimum outcome and the desired future. Facilitation by experts on the planning process will ensure that the Plan is properly and professionally crafted and represents the common vision stakeholders.

What is a Tourism Development Plan?

A Sustainable Tourism Development Plan is a blueprint that guides community leaders, investors and stakeholders in the creation of an industry. It focuses on activities that prepare the destination such as organizing, capacity-building , infrastructure development and product development. It likewise focuses on strategies to attract tourists, minimize negative impacts of development and maximize benefits. The Plan defines priority sites as well as secondary destinations, access routes, modes, and gateways. It indicates clustering and partnership opportunities. It describes how the community will manage the influx of visitors. It shows which areas of the community that will be shared with tourists and those which will not. It would identify which sectors will be affected positively and negatively. It considers the fundamental questions of the cost of tourism to the community and how the community will capture potential benefits.
A Sustainable Tourism Development Plan is a public document or presentation generally consisting of maps, drawings, definitions, vision & mission statements, goals, objectives, descriptions, policy statements and action programs. It is the result of research and public planning process. The Plan Document should include all the public choices made by residents about future tourism development of their community. Those choices should be based on information gathered through research and public discussion and consensus building.

Why Plan for Tourism

In many places in the world, tourism simply is an industry that sprouted from the need to derive economic benefit through the promotion of an attraction. In most cases, the growth was not based on any plan or clear direction. Tourism just happened to these communities.
Here are a few basic knowledge about tourism:
Unlike most economic activities where resources are harvested, goods and services are manufactured and products are shipped out to consumers, in tourism people flow to the consumable rather than the consumable flowing to them. The destination plus the amenities and services form the tourism product.
Large or small, near or far, willing or unwilling, tourism happens in communities everywhere in the world. It happens whenever an outsider comes to buy gas, shops, eats, spends the night or stays for whatever reason . They come, they stay awhile, they interact with community residents, they look around, check out the attractions, they may or may not spend money, and in the end, they leave having some kind of impression in the minds about the place they just visited.
Tourism is a double-edged sword. It can result to both negative and positive impacts. People tend to look at the economic impact and only discover its negative effects on the culture and environment years later.
Given that tourism happens in communities, the people should then ask themselves if they want tourism to happen to them (and result to uncontrolled development) or for it to happen for them.
In most cases tourism simply happens to a community, and this results to negative impacts that are often irreversible. Uncontrollable development is a result of lack or absence of a plan that provides the proper guidance for development. Places like Boracay, Puerto Galera and Baguio are classic examples of places where tourism simply happened. It may be true that economic benefit are being derived from the tourism industry, but the environmental degradation and cultural erosion cannot be ignored. These represent the price that was paid for tourism development.
If the choice is for tourism to happen for the community, then there is a need to plan. Planning provides a mechanism of control by the stakeholders and the people of the community. It serves as a blueprint for success and is built upon a consensus for a common goal.