PPSRNP's Communication, Education and Public Awareness staff Allan Brix Madrona briefs students from Palawan State University about the park features and management of the protected area. (Photo by J. Elmer Badilla)

(Second of the two-part special report on the PPSRNP’s social fence)

Community-based sustainable tourism initiatives have played an important role in safeguarding the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park’s ecological integrity. By providing alternative livelihood opportunities for residents, their engagement in tourism activities has reduced their dependence on unsustainable activities and practices that pose a threat to the environment.

Park Elizabeth Maclang admits that low-impact tourism activities should be ensured for this strategy to work.

“For one, to avoid noise that would disturb the biodiversity inside the cave, we adopted the use of a multilingual audio device in 2015,” she said.

Park ferry service provider Sabang Sea Ferry Multipurpose Cooperative (SSFMPC) has also been championing sustainable tourism practices in their operations.

To minimize their ecological footprint while contributing to the preservation of the park’s surrounding marine and forest ecosystems, they plan to phase-out wooden-hulled boats and replace them with fiberglass ones.

“In this way, we can avoid the demand to cut down trees for boat construction, not just in the forest inside the national park but in the entire Puerto Princesa and Palawan,” SSFMPC President Teresita Austria highlighted.

CBST Trailblazer the late Doc Gerry Ortega talking to some members of the SSFMPC at the Puerto Princesa Underground River entrance during one of his visits. Photo from PPSRNP-PAMO

Maclang shared that her community development projects drew inspiration from the late broadcaster and environmentalist Dr. Gerry Ortega whose vision of CBST, initiated under the ABS-CBN Foundation’s Bantay Kalikasan, paved the way for transformative initiatives in Puerto Princesa in 2008.

“Doc Gerry used to believe that when there’s benefit, there’s care. This became our guiding principle,” revealed Maclang. “First, we gave the community an opportunity. Then, we taught them how to harness their resources, and we made them realize that they don’t need to destroy nature to benefit from it,” she added.

Merly Francisco, a Tagbanua woman, was once engaged in charcoal making in Sitio Sugod 1. They would cut trees at the foot of Mt. Bloomfield, a watershed that provides water to the river that flows through the underground river.

“In one batch inside a charcoal kiln, we would cut down about 10 trees,” she revealed.

Francisco explained that their actions were driven by the necessity of finding a consistent source of income.

Trained as part of the Community Park Warden association, she now guides guests and maintains the park’s jungle trail.

“Before, there were people who would enter the jungle trail to gather bird’s nests. But since we started monitoring this area, we haven’t caught anyone,” she shared.

Fence with a sense

A newly constructed Monitoring Station bolsters the protection and conservation efforts of the PPSRNP-PAMO against illegal activities within the national park. (Photo by J. Elmer Badilla)

From 19 cases in 2014, illegal activities recorded by the park management significantly dropped to 7 in 2023. Maclang attributed this to the social fence composed of empowered communities they have established.

She revealed that they have been practicing the concept of social fencing even before they came across the term.

“We didn’t realize that there was a term for what we were doing. Someone just mentioned to us that what we were doing was social fencing. We researched it, and indeed, that’s what we’ve been doing,” she remarked.

Social fencing first gained prominence in India in the mid-1980s when village committees were established to safeguard an ecologically delicate grassland in the North Indian state of Haryana. This approach revolves around fostering a collective sense of responsibility among local communities to preserve the grassland by promoting sustainable grazing practices and vigilant surveillance against the potentially harmful impact of external forces.

In the Philippines, Mounts Banahaw-San Cristobal Protected Landscape (MBSCPL) established a social fence in 1997 that served as a defense mechanism against quarrying, exploitation of springs and waterfalls, unauthorized treasure hunting, increasing garbage during Holy Week, and the proposed construction of a six-lane highway through the sacred mountain’s foothills.

PPSRNP’s community fence

Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort not only aids in the promotion of the park but supports its protection and enforcement efforts by donating provisions for its park rangers. (Photo by J. Elmer Badilla)

Fourteen organizations initially formed the park’s social fence. This group expanded to 24 member organizations in 2017 spanning its membership with other service oriented and interest groups. Now considered as a people’s council, member organizations now sit as representatives in the park’s Protected Area Management Board.

The concept of social fencing has not only gained traction among local stakeholders but has also caught the attention of private businesses. Entrepreneurs like Butch Tan, owner of Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort, have made sustainability and environmental protection as their business niche, setting a precedent for environmentally conscious tourism.

Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort, as the city’s pioneer zero-carbon resort, has garnered recognition of being a hall of famer of the ASEAN Green Resort Award for its sustainability efforts. In 2023, the resort clinched its second ASEAN Sustainable Tourism Award for a tour package it initiated.

“We had it engrained from the beginning. It was integrated into our mission and vision from the very start,” Tan stressed. “It’s our commitment to stick with our concept. If we change it, we’d just be like any other city hotel. Look at us now – while others are closing, we’re still receiving awards,” he proudly said.

Looking ahead, Tan proposes the deputation of private resort owners and staff to enforce environmental laws within their areas of operation.

“In this way, we can show others that we don’t just mean business. We genuinely care for the environment, and we want to inspire others,” he emphasized. “Actually, many are already following, but they’re just keeping quiet,” he added wryly.

Protection as a ‘local’ affair
For Atty. Gerthie Mayo-Anda of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), the devolved functions of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to the local government of Puerto Princesa have been instrumental in enabling the park’s management to address issues creatively.

In 1992, the environment department and the city government entered into a memorandum of agreement devolving the management of the park from the DENR under RA 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS) Law to the local government. Since then, the park has been managed by its own management office working under the direction of a multisectoral PAMB.

“It’s a major factor because it gave impetus and opportunity to the local government unit to use its powers effectively,” Mayo-Anda stressed.

“The reality is, the DENR has very few personnel. One forester is tasked with overseeing 4,000 hectares [of forest] – they can barely keep up,” she noted. “Given the multitude of mandates of the DENR, it’s crucial that local government units and community stakeholders are given the opportunity to take charge. For me, PPSRNP showcases that non-DENR agencies can effectively play the role,” she explained.

Sustainability in question
Mallari also highlighted the capacity of the park management under its current status to recruit technical staff and scientists.

“That’s the significant change I’ve seen— the improvement in management due to having skilled technical staff for the last 10 years. Previously, I was the only one volunteering and assisting in PPUR, but now you have full-time staff, scientists, so there’s more direction,making management more efficient and reducing deforestation, seemingly due to better management,” he said.

However, Conservation International’s Jeanne Tabangay also perceives this as one of the loopholes in the park’s management.

“The challenge here is how we can sustain it because the Park has no plantilla position. So, there needs to be core staff within the City Government who, regardless of changes in the Local Chief Executive, the core technical park staff remains there, not being replaced. That’s the sad part,” she lamented.

Despite this challenge, Maclang remains undeterred highlighting the changes they have instilled with the community.

“Nothing lasts forever. But when you’ve transformed the life of a former illegal logger, lifting them out of poverty, you haven’t just ended the cycle of illegal activities. You’ve also broken the cycle of poverty. They and their descendants would remember it all through their lives. And that for me is forever,” she remarked with a hint of humor.

Unity in community

Park Superintendent Elizabeth Maclang imparts the importance of mangrove forests to the young community members of the national park. (Photo from PPSRNP-PAMO)

Still reeling from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastation wrought by Typhoon Odette (Rai) in 2021, Maclang and the park’s community is focused on strengthening the social fence they have diligently built over the years.

“During the pandemic, both the park and the community suffered from zero income. We thought they would resort to logging again, but they persevered,” she recounted.

“Then Typhoon Odette (Typhoon Rai) struck, leaving almost everything in ruins,” she added.

Based on the post-disaster assessment made by USAID-SIBOL, 58% or 9,964 hectares of the park’s forest cover was damaged by the typhoon.

To address the aftermath of these crises, the Green Recovery Invest Packages have been introduced. This initiative involves partners and private companies pooling funds to support CBSTs and IP organizations through livelihood enterprise development. In return, these communities will spearhead reforestation efforts as part of the restoration process.

Maclang believes that by helping out the community develop alternative sources of sustainable income other than tourism, they are helping them become crisis resilient.

Maclang emphasizes that by assisting the community in developing alternative sustainable income sources beyond tourism, they are aiding in building resilience against crises.

She recalled one moment during the calamity when she was with the community that has left a profound impact on her.

“They were the ones who lost their homes and livelihoods, yet they were the first to ask me how I was doing saying, ‘It’s okay, ma’am, as long as you’re here with us,’” she shared, highlighting the importance of unity in facing adversity.

This, to her, exemplified that the key to maintaining the strength of the fence they have built lies in standing together as one community with a shared goal of safeguarding their natural wonder.

(Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network in partnership with Lyf and Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists)