by Boboi Costas, Community Organiser, Bojo Aloguinsan Ecotourism Association (BAETAS); Founder, Grassroots Travel
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There they were, debating deep into the night whether to buy that old village house, or not. On a night like this, the discussion sometimes turns into a lively argument, punctuated by the sound of nocturnal bird calls. A flash of lightning occasionally illuminates the mangrove canopy, followed by a distant roll of thunder on the horizon. It’s the beginning of monsoon. Finally, a decision was reached: they have to acquire that house, or it will fall into the hands of antique dealers in the city.
In 2009 I arrived in the river village of Bojo, Aloguinsan in the central Philippine island of Cebu. Its waterway snaked through a thin deforested mangrove forest, its water almost dark with algae and scum from the water buffalos the locals used to bring down into the river to bathe after a day’s toil in the farms, and from the waste dumped into the water. The river, fed by almost a hundred springs was an oasis where the whole community turned up to wash their clothes especially on weekends. Fishing devices for catching fries littered the water. It was dirty.
But it seemed the locals had the best of both worlds from farming and fishing. While waiting for the harvest season which happens twice a year, the men would venture out daily to the sea to fish (sometimes with dynamite) for a living. The women took care of the kids and wove grasses into mats to augment the family’s income. It seemed like all was well with the world.
A few years earlier, the village was up against two big businesses. It prevented a cement factory from operating, and stopped a multinational company from oil exploration. Bojo River empties into the Tanon Strait, the biggest national marine park in the Philippines. What could have been a massive environmental disaster in a national park the locals had successfully averted. Yes, the lost opportunity could have provided them jobs but they also deemed it necessary to stop them lest they would suffer the consequences later.
They cleaned up the river on the first month of the project. This was after two weeks of project orientation and community meetings. The initial funds for the meetings came from the local government and the locals had to bring packed lunches to the cleanup. The next two months were just as crucial as the community was organized and mobilized to conduct environmental scoping, baseline surveys, resource assessment and cultural mapping. In less than a year, the Bojo Aloguinsan Ecotourism Association (BAETAS), a community association was created with a new set of officers. All in all, the association underwent a capacity building program on naturalist interpretation, food and beverage service and homestay to prepare for an ecotourism venture. To keep the momentum of the community participation, fast track projects were implemented to respond the community’s immediate and basic needs. With fanfare, the Bojo river cruise was launched.
The next two years were good. The river cruise became an ecotourism icon in the country; its business model being talked about and tried to be replicated in other parts of the Philippines. In hindsight, the project has generated insights in environmental governance. The local government has realized environmental conservation as a basic government service, just like it has an obligation to provide citizens with access to clean water, education, health services and job opportunities. Personally, I came to realize the countryside to be teeming with creative citizens full of potential if only they are given the right opportunity.
In no time at all, BAETAS became a powerful voice in environmental conservation in the community. It gave the association members great leverage in local governance and politics, resource management and a significant stake in the local tourism industry. And while it basked in the limelight, it did not forget its raison d’être – how it can sustain and balance environment and development, between conservation and commerce.
And it was one of those nights when the community came together to discuss the future of the ecotourism venture. How can it sustain its operations without hurting the environment? Will they cut down trees, or use bamboo to build another guest reception area, or buy an old village house and recycle the wood? Would the association members still give latrines to non-association members? How many medical doctors are they inviting this year for the annual free clinic? Would it be school supplies and bags, or supplemental feeding, or both, to the village children?
Seven years ago, nights like this were quiet and foreboding. Tonight, the village is illuminated with a glimmer of light and hope.
BAETAS won a 2015 Tourism InSPIRE Award for the category of Best Community Based Tourism Initiative.