JULY 9, 2008
(STARweek) By Ann Corvera - Batanes is so remote and so peaceful locals say the police fight boredom rather than crime. The natural environment of the province’s seven islands is rugged and pristine, its culture and heritage rich and unique. Such are the charms of Batanes that it has become one of the most sought after destinations in the country, prime not just for tourism but investment as well.

This group of islands at the northernmost tip of the country seeks to come out of isolation and the Batanes Heritage Foundation Inc. (BHFI) is providing the direction to bring the province and its people – the Ivatans – into the global village without the attendant ill effects.

BHFI, a non-stock, non-profit organization incorporated in 1996, aims to address this dilemma while ensuring a sustainable economy and the preservation of the Batanes heritage.

With this, the BHFI poses the question: How can Batanes grow economically and enjoy sustainable development without compromising its rich cultural heritage and environment and the strength of its social institutions?

BFHI believes the answer lies in eco-cultural tourism development.

“Apart from building on the unique endowments of the province, this non-dislocating, non-intrusive type of tourism approach has a great potential for giving birth to other services that local people have the know-how, experience and resources to provide. This thus ensures that the process and benefits of development remain under the control of and inure to the benefit of the Ivatans and their community,” BHFI believes.

Despite its seclusion, Batanes is popular for the architecture of its vernacular houses made of lime, with thick stone walls and thatched roofs, as well as for the lighthouses – both new and old – on its unspoiled landscape of rolling hills overlooking both the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea.

Years of remoteness have also endowed Batanes with a high level of endemism in its flora and fauna. For this reason, it is the only province that has been included in the National Integrated Protected Area System (NIPAS). In 2003, BHFI began taking part in a multi-agency effort to inscribe Batanes onto the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Successfully integrating the promotion of tourism into preservation and sustainability efforts goes both ways.

“We have to work on both the Ivatans and the tourists,” says Florencio “Butch” Abad, a former congressman and now consultant for BHFI. “The Ivatans should realize that tourists come to Batanes for three things that – together – are unique to Batanes: the integrity and pristineness of its environment, the richness and uniqueness of its cultural heritage and the strength and resilience of its social institutions. These three characteristics combine to make Batanes a must-see destination.

“On the other hand, we must educate the tourists not only to be aware of and appreciate these characteristics, but also to enhance it by contributing to their preservation and development. This way, tourists are not merely spectators and the residents not displays and artifacts.”

It is for these underlying principles that BHFI embarked on putting together a sustainable and responsible tourism project. And last April, the BHFI conservation project for Batanes’ culture and heritage through eco-cultural tourism development was endowed with a P1-million grant from the Canada Fund after winning in the Panibagong Paraan 2008, a joint undertaking of the Department of Interior and Local Government-Local Government Academy, the World Bank along with other international funding agencies and local organizations.

With the theme “Building Partnerships for Effective Local Governance,” Panibagong Paraan 2008 sought out innovative ideas to address development challenges nationwide.

BHFI noted dramatic increases in tourist arrivals over the years through word-of-mouth marketing, giving them more confidence about bright prospects for the project.

BHFI has lined up several programs to be implemented using the P1-mil-lion grant. Among them: Restoring and adapting for re-use vernacular houses as lodging and art workshop centers; offering the “voluntourism” program to schools, professional associations and nature lovers that would involve people in BHFI’s preservation efforts; reinventing tourist packages to include indigenous healing and wellness practice, heritage archaeological tours, photo/art workshops and even yoga sessions.

HFI was established to push for ef-forts in rediscovering, preserving and promoting Ivatan culture, tradition and history. Apart from its restoration program of heritage houses, BHFI has been engaged in keeping art alive by holding workshops, with the first of its kind in 2006.

It has also engaged in a cultural exchange program to enhance relations between the Ivatans and the indigenous people of neighboring Taiwan, with BHFI president Fr. Ermito de Sagon leading a multi-agency delegation to Taiwan in 2004.

The present thrust of BHFI is to be a resource foundation and to provide institutional support to agencies and organizations embarking on heritage and cultural preservation.

For the Panibagong Paraan project, BHFI’s starting point is the conversion of the Fundacion Pacita into an eight-room nature and artists’ lodge, which was expected to start accommodating guests last month.

The Fundacion used to be the art studio and residence of world-renowned artist and “true-blue Ivatan” Pacita Abad, sister of the former congressman. Following Pacita’s death in 2004, her husband Jack Garrity and the Abad family offered the Fundacion for the project and funded its conversion into a lodge.

There are only two conditions – that whatever income generated by the facility would be invested in the training of young Ivatan artists and in the restoration, conservation and adaptive re-use of Ivatan vernacular houses and structures within the framework of eco-cultural tourism.

In addition to offering accommodation, BHFI, in collaboration with Fundacion, will also organize tours not just on foot, but on bikes or horseback, to archaeological, heritage and scenic sites as well as performances and exhibits. And for water lovers, there are fishing, diving, kayaking, sailing and snorkeling activities to choose from – of course, one can always opt to experience it all.

The second and third quarter of the project year will focus on 12 Ivatan vernacular houses “restored and ready for use” – six houses for restoration and another six for construction.

There are around 1,200 Ivatan vernacular houses in all of Batanes, a good third of which can be enrolled in this restoration and conservation project. Most of them are found in the towns of Sabtang, Itbayat, Uyugan, Ivana and Mahatao.

The P1-million grant would enable BHFI to expand lodging and eco-tourism services of the Fundacion through a network of B&B (bed-and-breakfast) type accommodations using restored vernacular houses, lighthouses and unused public buildings in the six municipalities of Batanes – Basco, Itbayat, Ivana, Mahatao, Sabtang and Uyugan.

The BHFI is working with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples-Batanes, local government units and housing cooperatives in different municipalities to restore vernacular houses using traditional materials.

It has entered into 12 contracts of usufructuary with local governments and families who have agreed to participate in the project, the only condition being that the houses and buildings be restored and maintained and family members and locals are given priority for employment or livelihood.

Among the houses/buildings awaiting restoration are the Cabcaben house (in Tuhel, Ivana), Fuentes house (Basco), Hornedo house (Chavayan, Sabtang), two BHFI-acquired houses (Chavayan and Malakdang, Sabtang), two NCIP-acquired houses (Itbud, Uyugan).

“We are also in negotiations to restore two churches in Sabtang, in Savidug and in Centro and a cluster of houses in Songsong, Uyugan,” Abad adds.

Moreover, BHFI will implement the Restore-an-Ivatan-House Voluntourism Program, wherein “people pay their way and volunteer their services to help restore Ivatan houses. In exchange, they get to live in a restored house and are given a heritage and environmental tour of the islands – all for free.”

Apart from its restoration services, local housing cooperatives – called kamanyidungan or kayvayvanan – in Ivana, Uyugan and Sabtang will also be tapped, with LGUs, to manage cogonal reserves and lime pits to ensure continued supply of housing materials, to restore identified vernacular houses and implement the voluntourism program.

BHFI is also launching the “Adopt-an-Ivatan-House project” involving corporate donors.

“In exchange for their support, a plaque will be installed with the name of the donor on it and the donor will be allowed use of the facility when in Batanes. The Ayala Foundation Inc. will be a partner in the project,” Abad explains.

One big challenge in pursuing BHFI’s projects is changing the mindset of the people themselves.

Like in the preservation of heritage houses, Abad says the people tend to “dream of owning a house like what they see on TV or in Manila, that their Ivatan house is old and inconvenient,” he says, even as he admits that the traditional Ivatan housing arrangement is “difficult to maintain.”

Typically, the Ivatan house, he explains, “is a three-building facility with a main house, a multi-purpose kitchen (i.e. drier, storage and lodging during winter) and an outhouse.”

“But as UP professor and green architect Joven Ignacio has proposed, changes can be introduced to integrate modern amenities in the main house,” Abad points out.

There is also the difficult task of sourcing materials for maintenance and repair such as lime, reeds, cogon, bamboo, wood and fastening vines.

BHFI admits Batanes “faces a growing temptation to accept offers from tourism operators, property developers and agro-fisheries enterprises – some foreigners, some of suspect motives – to develop the islands as a tourism destination, gaming/casino resort or marine production and processing center.”

“The LGUs are not leading the way – yet,” Abad says. “What we need to do is to define roles that the stakeholders should play – the government, the local and national, the entrepreneurs and the private sector, the communities and the non-profit sector. The objective is to promote empowerment and self-reliance.” Empowering the youth and better educating them of the importance of cultural and heritage preservation is on BHFI’s mind.

On the latter part the project year, BHFI will work on integrating into the school curriculum of high school and college students the restoration, conservation and adaptive re-use of Ivatan vernacular houses.

Another future plan, he says, is to work with the Art Association of the Philippines to support art residencies in Batanes and to conduct art seminars and workshops for both local artists and budding ones from outside Batanes every year from November to June.

Also BHFI will work with the local government to produce legislation that would provide incentives for the restoration and maintenance of the vernacular houses, including adopting an architectural style guide, and for the development of cogonal reserves and lime deposits.

Likewise, BHFI aims to have an Ivatan association for responsible tourism established with local tour operators, owners of tourist facilities and other stakeholders as members.

For Batanes, much needs to be done to translate awareness into local legislation and policies. “But the concern here is not to create dependencies that can allow outsiders to control the tourism activities in the province,” Abad stresses.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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