Park officials, community members and various stakeholders of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park discuss the boundaries of the Ancestral Domain Claim of the indigenous community in Brgy. Marufinas that falls within the protected landscape. (Photo from PPSRNP-PAMO)

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

In Puerto Princesa, it literally took villages to safeguard one of its important forests—the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.

On the verge of losing its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2014, the park’s management adopted an unconventional approach in response to illegal activities. Instead of traditional barriers, they turned to the power of the community by empowering surrounding villages to stand as protectors of the 22,202-hectare landscape through an invisible fence.

The park’s primary draw, the underground river, renowned as the world’s longest navigable subterranean estuary and one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, has not only enticed tourists from across the globe but also spurred the migration of diverse individuals seeking to share in the benefits of tourism.

“When I assumed office in 2013, I was greeted with rampant illegal activities,” Park Superintendent Elizabeth Maclang recalled. “We apprehended our first illegal logging activity just three days after I took office.”

Realizing that the park’s benefits primarily reached only a few, Maclang focused on involving the local community. “The first thing we did was to employ more people from the community,” she shared.

From Illegal loggers to forest defenders

From being an environmental offender, Mary Ann Andrade now helps community members to find a sustainable alternative livelihood minimizing their dependence on the environment. They now supply bamboo straws to different establishments all over Palawan. (Photo by J. Elmer Badilla)

Among the community members she employs is 58-year-old Mary Ann Andrade. A few years back, she was involved in illegal activities within the national park.

She could hardly recall how many trees she and her husband had felled. What she can vividly remember is the guilt she felt while engaging in the illegal activity.

“When a tree falls, I can’t help but scream,” she recounted, illustrating the gravity not just of the trees they felled, but of its environmental impact. “It’s like killing a person.”

Fueled by the need to provide for her 6 children, they persisted in their illegal activities despite the dangers and the constant threat of being apprehended by park rangers.

Andrade admits that their gains from illegal logging only provide temporary relief. “It’s just enough to put food on the table,” she shrugged, resigned to the vicious cycle of illegality. “After that, nothing changes,” she sighed.

Now employed as one of the park’s community organizers, Andrade educates nearly 7,000 residents within the national park on sustainable practices and the importance of conservation.

“I share my story to inspire,” she said. “We tell those who engage in illegal activities that it’s a dead end. That we can’t survive that way. There are many government agencies, NGOs, and the park management that are willing to help,” she added.

Among the 182 park staff, 152 or 83.5% were from barangays Cabayugan, Tagabinet, Marufinas and New Panggangan, including the indigenous peoples from three Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim, Kayasan, Cabayugan and Marufinas, all within the national park.

Sharing income for shared responsibility

PPSRNP, Conservation International Philippine Foundation Inc. staff and the indigenous community of Sitio Kayasan during a tree planting activity in Brgy. Tagabinet. (Photo from CIPFI)

Going above and beyond mere employment, the park management’s commitment reaches far into community development. With an average annual income of P70 million, the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) directs P1 million towards projects benefiting their impact barangays and P500,000 towards initiatives supporting the CADCs These allocations serve as incentives for their active participation in conservation endeavors.

In Barangay Tagabinet, the release of these funds came as a much-needed lifeline. Barangay Kagawad Bryan Orcajada emphasized the critical role these funds played in alleviating the community’s financial struggles.

“When we assumed office as barangay officials, our barangay hall was virtually devoid of any equipment. We faced immense difficulties,” he said. “In the past, obtaining even a simple barangay certification was a daunting task for our residents due to the lack of electricity, printers, laptops, or computers,” he explained.

“Having the PAMB aid is truly a great help to our barangay, especially considering our financial constraints,” Orcajada expressed gratefully. “Thanks to the PAMB aid, we were able to address our problems swiftly, and our barangay transactions became much more efficient.”

Aside from serving as an incentive for environmental protection, Maclang views this profit-sharing scheme as “seed-funding” for community development.

“Barangay Marufinas used to be one of the poorest barangays in the city,” she claimed, citing data from the 2015 Community-based Monitoring System. “In just one year of intervention, we were able to lift 34 families out of the poverty threshold.”

Maclang attributed this to the livelihood projects funded by PAMB aid. These initiatives include support to organic farming, banana chip production and collection of almaciga resin and other non-timber forest products, that offer alternative sources of income to the community.

Capacitating the guardians

PPSRNP Superintendent Elizabeth Maclang engages with the tribal leaders of the Cabayugan Ancestral Domain Claim in a meeting in Sitio Sugod 1. (Photo by J. Elmer Badilla)

The park management has also taken steps to enhance the capabilities of local communities through comprehensive capacity-building initiatives. These programs extend beyond traditional conservation efforts, aiming to empower residents with the knowledge and skills needed to effectively protect the forests.

Among these initiatives is the deputation of indigenous community members for environmental law enforcement.

“Training our indigenous peoples in environmental conservation is crucial to deepen our knowledge and better safeguard our ancestral domain claim,” Tinig ng mga Katutubo sa Cabayugan (TIKCA) tribal leader Reynaldo Rodrigo said.

“From then until now, indigenous peoples have relied on the forest for our livelihood,” he stressed.

Rodrigo admitted that due to a lack of knowledge, especially regarding laws protecting their ancestral domain claims, indigenous communities often fall prey to diwans or lowlanders who exploit them and their resources.

To put an end to this, Rodrigo, along with other IP leaders within the national park, is determined to empower their fellow indigenous peoples to enforce laws effectively. Through education, training, and community mobilization, they aspire to put an end to exploitative practices and protect their ancestral lands for future generations.

Community’s evolution from problem to solution
Center for Conservation Initiatives chief scientist Dr. Neil Aldrin Mallari, who has been studying the park since 2000, has observed a significant decline of forest cover in the national park since it began to attract tourists.

“Starting in the year 2000, we began studying the park, and we noticed that just looking at satellite images, there have been rapid changes since then,” he noted. “Initially, with the rise in tourism, the number of visitors increased upon the opening of the park, and during those times, I think around 1,200 hectares were lost annually.”

Mallari identified the people residing in the area, both indigenous groups and migrants as primary drivers of forest loss.

“During that time, the high deforestation rate was primarily driven by the need for agriculture, typically carried out by those without permanent employment,” he said.

With the present management and its strategies, Mallari observed a significant transformation in the community. He underscored the introduction of economic incentives, including the CBST initiatives supported by the park management, as crucial factors in this development.

“These incentives attracted former loggers and farmers, encouraging them to engage in sustainable tourism activities instead. Consequently, the pressure on forest resources diminished, as individuals found alternative livelihoods in tourism-related ventures,” he said.

Overtourism to detourism
As tourists continue to flock to visit the underground river, Maclang views the increased tourism demand as an opportunity rather than a setback.

“We are trying to resolve overtourism with detourism,” Maclang noted. “While guests await their turn to explore the underground river, they are encouraged to visit other destinations within the park,” she explained.

Maclang believes that this not only removes pressure on the underground river as a main attraction but also provides economic opportunities for local communities and funding for their protection efforts.

“For me, tourism fuels our conservation efforts,” she stressed.

Since 2008, the park has been self-sustaining, relying on the fees they collect to fund their operations.

“Whenever there are visitors, the community earns income. As long as the community has income, they won’t be interested in engaging in illegal activities,” she said.

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