Developing community based ecotourism in Northern Negros Natural Park
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
I visited several areas within the Northern Negros Natural Park in Negros Occidental province recently to conduct rapid assessment on different livelihood activities that maybe considered as biodiversity friendly. These are income-generating endeavors that do not in any way create negative impacts to the environment, particularly on habitats and species. Actually, it is not easy to determine biodiversity friendly livelihood, because there are many parameters that have to be considered. Just the same, I did focus my assessment on livelihood that maybe compatible on the status of the NNNP as a protected area. The assessment was part of the activities of the Biodiversity Partnerships Project of the United Nations Development Program – Global Environment Facility and the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which is being implemented in NNNP by the Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, Inc.
One of the recognized potential livelihood initiatives that maybe carried in NNNP is related to ecotourism. When I say ecotourism, it means ecological tourism, a concept that has evolved through time as a form of tourism that is very sensitive to the fragility of ecosystems, and promotes conservation education, and community participation and benefits, among others. Ecotourism uses the natural environment as the main product and therefore it must be implemented in sites that possess unique features and characteristics, like NNNP and Mount Kanla-on Natural Park.
One of the sites, I visited is the famous Barangay Patag in Silay City, that has already established its reputation as one of the
major tourism destinations in Negros Occidental. The Silay City government has constructed some visitors’ facilities in the area. During summer thousands of people are visiting the place, while others use it as a jump off point for trekking in higher elevations, particularly in Mounts Mandalagan and Marapara. I am aware there are occupancy issues in Patag. Like in Salvador Benedicto town, another municipality within the NNNP, there are non-residents of Patag who have constructed and maintained vacation houses in the site. Patag is one the barangays within NNNP that is covered with the Integrated Social Forestry Program, which was devolved by the DENR to provincial government right after the enactment of the Local Government Code in early 1990s. Under this program, several residents of Patag availed the Certificate of Stewardship Contracts, giving them privilege to occupy and develop their respective areas for 25 years. Unfortunately, some CSC holders sold their claims to lowlanders, who are now maintaining vacation houses or fighting cock farms in Patag. These are issues that need to be addressed and resolved by the NNNP Protected Area Management Board, DENR, provincial government and the Silay City government. In spite of these challenges, it is interesting, that in Patag, community-based ecotourism has so much potential, and in fact it has started to evolve as an important enterprise, which may balance the requirements of communities for livelihood and the need to protect the natural features of the protected area.
At least five holders of the CSCs are now engaged in ecotourism services in Patag. They started to develop picnic and camping grounds and constructed vacation houses in areas covered by their CSCs. They also offer food and guiding services and some have constructed swimming pools. These CSC holders have never abandoned their claimed areas and they are also cultivating parts of their lots for agriculture. Admittedly, these community initiatives have no permits, since they started to develop their sites for tourism purposes prior to the declaration of NNNP under the National Integrated Protected Areas System. However, these community members may also qualify as tenured migrants of NNNP. While it is true that NNNP is a protected area, it is not absolute that occupancy is not allowed. Based on the revised Implementing Rules and Regulations of the NIPAS, or Republic Act 7586, the household head shall be considered a tenured migrant if proven to have actually and continuously occupied a portion of the protected area five years before its designation under the NIPAS, and solely dependent therein for subsistence. Tenured migrants shall be organized to avail of the Protected Area Community Based Resource Management Agreement from the DENR.
Community participation in ecotourism is a very good livelihood opportunity for occupants in the protected area. In fact, residents in Patag, who have started to venture on visitors’ services, are earning quite well, and they no longer engage in natural resources extractive activities. Although there are still many concerns in order to systematize and improve the ecotourism services in this part of the NNNP, Patag has a lot of potentials to become a major ecotourism destination in Negros Occidental. The promotion and development of ecotourism is very crucial so that non-residents of the NNNP shall be prevented from constructing vacation houses, resorts and related amenities in the protected area, like what is happening now in Salvador Benedicto and even in Patag. Communities, who are qualified as tenured migrants, should be organized and provided with necessary assistance to extend ecotourism services.
Salvador Benedicto could also be an ideal site for community-based ecotourism, because it has a lot of scenic sites and pristine natural environment. There are also residents of Salvador Benedicto, who are actually occupying portions of the NNNP. Instead of promoting the area for tourism development by non-residents, how about providing support and assistance to tenured migrants to become ecotourism service providers? By encouraging and supporting communities to develop their areas for ecotourism, they may tend to avoid selling their land claims in the area to outsiders. Once capacitated and provided with support system, communities would be encouraged to protect the natural environment of the NNNP.
It should be understood, however, that when we talk about ecotourism, we are referring to development that does not involve
destructive activities and should be sensitive to the fragility of ecosystems. In the event that infrastructures shall be constructed, they must be located in hazard-free sites, done without cutting of natural growing trees and with provision of soil and water conservation measures. Structures should not impair visual corridors and must blend with the natural environment, instead of becoming eyesores. It is also necessary to include conservation awareness and education in ecotourism development. Nature-based activities, such as guided bird watching, walking, trekking and camping, should be promoted, too.
The other potential site for ecotourism development in NNNP is Gawahon in Victorias City. The city government has already constructed some facilities, but they require improvement and maintenance. There are communities that can be tapped for ecotourism development in the area. Some community members in this part of NNNP are also engaged in wild honeybee collections. Although there are still legal issues on this kind of livelihood, it seems the collectors are engaged in sustainable harvesting, since they have been doing the collection for quite a time already.
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