OCTOBER 21, 2008
(STAR) FROM THE HEART By Gina Lopez - My dream of ecotourism has always been that communities benefit from the preservation of the environment. Sometimes dreams remain dreams — and sometimes they bloom into reality. October 10 and 11 brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart as I saw my dreams become reality.

The secret to success? An amazing human resource asset in the form of Gerry Ortega — Bayanijuan Manager for Puerto Princesa and his two community organizers: Jet and Marlon — and equally important, a local government headed by Mayor Ed Hagedorn who shared the same vision and supported us all the way. And the communities — what can I say? Gerry’s choking as he emotionally talks about how the communities labored to build the infrastructure, went the extra mile in a united way, giving their all and more to make the October deadline — that should say it all.

I visited in June this year and saw tremendous possibilities. I asked Gerry how much time he would need. I honestly don’t think he knew what he was getting into, but we both agreed on a four-month period, targeting Mayor Hagedorn’s birthday. Whatever the difficulties were, Gerry delivered. He asked me, “Ma’am, what grade do you give me?” “A+,” I told him. It was a mammoth task getting the communities together, building the infrastructure, but through hard work and sheer will and determination, the group delivered.

This weekend we went through a packed schedule that saw the launching of five ecotourism sites. A brief rundown of our trip:

Dolphin Watching

Bantay Kalikasan invested in a dolphin-watching boat that was donated to a community of 58 fishermen. The boat can hold up to 20 people. The rate includes an onboard snack, and dolphin sightings are guaranteed! The fishermen act as spotters. The boat captains know exactly where to go to see dolphins as they depart from the harbor since the fishermen are given cellular phones top relay sighting info. One call and the boat heads in the right direction. The mayor anointed the fishermen as “dolphin wardens.” One of their duties is coastal cleanup, and their monthly requirement due to their passion and commitment has become a weekly cleanup effort, so that Puerto Princesa Bay is now sparkling clean — a fit abode for dolphins!

Greeting us before the boat blessing were the fishermen. My heart swelled. There was one fisherman who had made a one-string guitar from scrap material and used the edge of a broken bottle as a pick. His musical skill was amazing!

And I got the surprise of the day when I saw the boat named Princess Regina! I have always had an obsession with dolphins. I have a dolphin necklace, dolphin earrings... there are dolphin pictures and dolphin decorations all over my house, but a dolphin-watching boat carrying my baptismal name — now, that really tops it all!

Iwahig River Cruise And Firefly Watching

Iwahig is situated at a penal colony. Here, Bantay Kalikasan invested in the building of a visitors’ center (which the employees and dependents of prisoners built in a month!). There are several huts. The pathways are clean and attractive looking. In addition 10 paddle boats were built. The words of Michele Goeldi, an Australian visitor, conveyed the experience well: “I loved the rhythm of the paddle. It’s so much better than having a noisy motor. I could feel the river. My tiredness just went away.”

Tita Gretchen Cojaungco, who is a member of the Bantay Kalikasan board, was with us. And she was all praises for the merienda. The native delicacies cooked by the Iwahig community were excellent!

Ugong Rock Climb

Ugong rock is a huge rock formation that was submerged in water for millions of years. The shell formations — crushed and pressed — eventually formed spectacular shapes that made for challenging weaving in and out — until we reached the top. Bantay Kalikasan invested in the visitors center, the pathway made of cobbled stones, harnesses, gloves and helmets.

The community got excess building material and used it to put up boardwalks inside the rock. They got plants from their houses to landscape the visitors’ area. The guides are all women, by the way! We see these tiny women moving with such agility — how can we not be challenged to do the same? The youngest achiever of the day was Matthew, the six-year-old son of Dyan Castillejo. Remarked one person: “That little boy knows no fear!”

Jet, the community organizer, related how these women climbed this daunting rock to bring up the building material so that we could have a hut to rest in when we reached the top. It was hard enough to climb without anything. But climbing with building materials? My goodness — they deserve a medal. And when we got to the top, we were greeted with cold towels from an ice box. And when we got down we had a sumptuous meal. This one is an experience that should not be missed.

Kims Hot Springs

This is not one of our community ecotourism sites, but it was such a perfect way to end the day that I must mention it. I can take hot baths, but this was really hot — to the extent that, initially, I could only dip my legs.

When I boarded the plane for Puerto Princesa I was nursing a sprained ankle. But soaking my ankles in that mineral-rich bath made a huge difference. Due to my experience, I can now authenticate the benefits of hot springs — they’re a bona fide healer of aches, pains and sprains.

San Carlos Mangrove

The San Carlos community tops my list of communities with initiative and passion. They live in this pristine environment — it’s almost surreal. With tears in his eyes Gerry related how the people connected the pipes in an eight-kilometer stretch from the source of water in the mountains to their houses.

Men, women, young and old — working together.

He related how they worked overtime to finish the boardwalk for the mangrove. This amazing community has been maintaining a centuries-old 378-hectare mangrove for generations. In my years of development work I have come to one realization: the key to success is the human resource base you are supporting. If there is passion, commitment, and initiative — whatever you give goes a long, long way.

The heartfulness of the community blended with the purity of the place made us feel we were in shangri-la.

Showing me the mangroves, Marlon, the community organizer who is also from San Carlos, related how they stretched the material so what was supposed to be only 50 meters went up to 85 meters! And how they made every effort not to cut any roots of trees; rather, they wove the boardwalk to accommodate the trees. During high tide, he says one can go crabbing and then eat the food at the floating restaurant.

In the floating restaurant, while listening to live music from the San Carlos community we were treated to the creative delicacies they prepared. I went to the hull of the boat and allowed my feet to dip into the river. Oh... if only the Pasig river could be so clean!

Bahay Ni Juan

Gerry is the Bayanijuan manager for Puerto Princesa. In San Carlos he elatedly showed me the Bahay ni Juan. Envisioned to be environmentally friendly, the house uses bio-sand and gravel to filter water. There is composting, an herbal garden and organic farming.

Gerry’s next dreams are Itlog ni Juan and Obra Ni Juan. The future belongs to those who dream, and make it happen. Dreams like this build the country, and build people up.

School By The Sea

At the Pambato Reef, we inaugurated our school by the sea. The roof is shaped like a large turtle and here one learns about the role of coral; you can go snorkeling and observe giant clams and areas of mushroom-shaped coral. We had a university professor prepare a curriculum wherein visitors are treated to modules about coral life; then they can witness for themselves the varied forms of life.

It is vital to note that all these projects are run by the community, under the guidance and supervision of local organizers. This means that 100 percent of the proceeds help the community. The community then becomes a steward of the environment. There is also every effort to ensure that any development undertaken is imbued with a non-negotiable respect for the environment.

For example, all the sites including our dolphin boat have waterless toilets wherein waste is biodegraded so there is no debris that spills over and pollutes the environment. Surrounded by aesthetic natural décor, these toilets have no smell whatsoever.

Mayor Ed Hagedorn

Puerto Princesa is such an idyllic place. Mayor Hagedorn is to be emulated. He transformed this once-dirty city into a city that is so clean, it’s now a Hall of Fame Awardee in the Clean and Green Contest which each year cites the cleanest and greenest cities in the country. Whereas other cities see their forests decreasing, Puerto Princesa’s forest cover has actually increased from 50 to over 73 percent. And the numbers keep on increasing. His two major festivals are environmental: The Feast of the Forest — wherein thousands go to plant trees in the watershed area — leading to a forest cover; and on Valentine’s Day, the mayor holds a mass wedding wherein the main requirement in order to be wed is to plant trees in the mangrove.

I have been to these two festivals and it was deeply heartwarming to see residents coming out in full force in the wee hours of the morning, sometimes even running joyfully to pay their respects to nature. Totally awesome.

He has banned illegal fishing and illegal mining in Puerto Princesa and is now in the process of making all tricycles in the area run on electricity. He is adding pedestrian lanes for bicycles. And he actively supports culture and the arts. I must say his cultural groups are world-class. His dance troupe has won first place in a national competition. They even have a Puerto Princesa song, and songs that sing of unity and the environment.

From the musical instruments and their sounds, to the very feel — the music of Puerto Princesa is authentically Filipino.

What moves me deeply is the transformation of consciousness. This can be seen in the clean streets and the reverence his people have for the environment. And they love their mayor: on his birthday, streamers hang all over the city reading “Happy Birthday, Mayor!” I could tell it was not mere sycophancy; the city truly loves the man. And the man loves his city and his people.

Come visit Puerto Princesa and in particular the community-based ecotourism projects of Bantay Kalikasan. Luxuriating in the abundant natural resources will not only support the communities but, just as importantly, nurture the ideals they stand for: that preserving the environment should be a non-negotiable and primary criteria of any kind of development; that taking and implementing this tenet is in fact nurturing the very essence of life itself.

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Help us build a better Philippines. Please contact Gerry Ortega, Bayanijuan manager for Puerto Princesa at or call 0917-5076719. I can be reached at

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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