‘Living jewels’

It is a perfect fit, making the Philippines synonymous with the amazing flora and fauna found here—and earning tourist dollars in the process.

Last week the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Tourism (DOT) announced they were joining forces to push local natural attractions to boost Philippine tourism. Brimming with bright promise, this planned collaboration between two Philippine departments is a very welcome development.

Officially called “Partnerships for Biodiversity Conservation: Mainstreaming in Local Agricultural Landscapes,” the collaboration is part of a $17-million project funded by the Global Environment Facility of the United Nations Development Programme. It will promote among local travelers and foreign visitors natural attractions in the provinces of Agusan del Norte, Aklan, Antique, Cagayan, Capiz, Davao Oriental, Negros Occidental, Occidental Mindoro, Quirino and Palawan.

Aside from telling the world about the rich biodiversity found in the Philippines, the project will alert tourists about the urgency of protecting our natural resources and, at the same time, generate livelihood opportunities down at the local communities, too. Ecotourism projects are the rage, after all.

The DENR has pointed out that the Philippines has been named one of the planet’s 17 “megadiverse” countries, boasting one of the highest rates of newly discovered species anywhere in the world and the highest number of endemic species in the Indo-Malayan region. “These endemic species are our living jewels,” Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said in December. “They are irreplaceable and unique components of our awesome environment heritage.” Among the newly discovered species are 29 rodents, two bats, four birds, 44 reptiles, 29 amphibians and over 160 plants. The stars of the DENR-DOT mash-up are classic creatures such as the endangered Philippine eagle.

A component of the program is a guided bird-watching trip to Mt. Hamiguitan, which will offer a chance of glimpsing the rare monkey-eating avian soaring in its natural habitat. Other offerings will include snorkeling and dive trips, but with a twist—they will be in overfished spots. “Instead of deriving income from fishing, the community can earn their living from tourism,” said Mundita Lim, director of the DENR’s Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau.

That’s because the program will advocate environment protection and avoid becoming a mere naked cash grab unmindful of damaging ecological sites. “That is what (you mean by) sustainable,” Lim said. The risk, of course, will be astronomic if these projects are developed and implemented without the guarantee that biodiversity will be protected and preserved. Care must be taken that, say, a bird-watching trip organized for tourists will not result in the destruction of the birds’ habitat, or a diving expedition will not bring harm to reefs. As in any endeavor, the education of the front-liners in these ecotourism venture is imperative.

All this is even made more urgent by the Philippine government’s resolve to increase tourist arrivals and, by extension, to expand the economic impact they provide. Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima said that the administration of President Aquino seeks to double the number of tourist arrivals to 10 million by 2016, as the country logged a record-high of 4.27 million in 2012, up 9 percent from 2011. The DOT and local travel agencies project some 5.5 million foreign tourist arrivals this year. The government wants to do even better, and the DENR-DOT project is indeed a welcome shot in the arm for the tourism industry, which has the potential of bolstering the expected crowds in heavily-promoted destinations like Boracay and Puerto Princesa with added attractions and new tourism come-ons.

As they move forward with this ecotourism initiative, the collaborating agencies must make sure they do it well, and do it correctly. The Philippines is now on many lists of top destinations in the world. It’s both boon and bane, opportunity and challenge, and the Philippines has to make sure that it protects its immensely rich biodiversity even as it collects tourism revenues. The DOT’s “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign, to be sure, can be aided by this daring new way of pushing the Philippines. And the country can show the world that “hope” is not only “the thing with feathers,” to borrow a line from Emily Dickinson, it can also turn into reality in the thing with scales, fur and flowers.

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Tags: Biodiversity , DENR , DoT , editorial , environment , opinion , Tourism

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