Plans & Progress in the Land of Contradictions: My Take on Siargao
I’m here in Siargao, a tear-shaped island in the southeast region of the Philippines famous for surfing, for eight weeks now to understand if sustainable travel and tourism is possible. It’s an incredible opportunity to observe an issue from 10,000 feet up and from the ground level. But also a tall order.
Upon landing, I’d make small talk with everyone from the airport van drivers, restaurant servers, tour guides, to resort and guest home owners, foreign investors and nonprofit founders. I would even check in with my biological and step-father — one who’s owned and operated businesses here, and the other who’s active politically, to ask about their experiences and opinions. I wanted to hear everyone’s thoughts on tourism and its effect on the local community; and also understand why things happen the way they do here. During my down time, I would download and read over 100 academic papers on sustainable tourism and environmental awareness in the Philippines, how to motivate Filipinos to be environmentally responsible, the role of various government levels in tourism planning, and specific initiatives planned for Siargao.
My initial goal was to obtain a broad but also nuanced understanding of how the most successful sustainable tourism plans unfolded in the Philippines; and if best practices can be leveraged in Siargao. That was still too broad of a goal; I needed to zero in on something specific.
Meanwhile, I reached out to the architecture and urban planning firm, Palafox Associates, who won the national bid to create a master plan for Siargao Island. I met with their senior economic planner to discuss plans that are currently underway.
Thanks to that meeting, I was able to identify gaps where I could fit in: behavior enforcement supported by communications and proper infrastructure to achieve sustainable tourism in Siargao, including recommendations based on on-site observations and academic literature from the past 10 years. The papers I’ve read have provided me with enough information to write a literature review on community-based power dynamics to achieve sustainable tourism.
In an interesting turn of events, the Mayor of Cabuyao in Laguna Province expressed great interest in my capstone project. He’s hoping to implement more environmentally-friendly measures to the tourism industry – which includes hot springs, mountain hiking, agricultural farm stays – that his province is famous for. He asked if I could share my findings and recommendations for Siargao with him. I agreed to provide him with a modified version that aligns better with his municipality.
The mayor himself has also made great strides in environmentalism, which I will be interviewing him and his constituents about and including in my report for Siargao (should the data/ideas be relevant). This could serve as a catalyst for information-sharing among local government units currently lacking in some parts of the Philippine government.
My final deliverables include: (1) recommendations on behavior enforcement supported by communications and proper infrastructure to achieve sustainable tourism for Palafox, leveraging best practices from Laguna; (2) modified recommendations from Siargao for Laguna; and (3) literature review on community power dynamics to achieve sustainable tourism.
A LAND OF CONTRADICTIONS
After reading over 100 academic papers about the Philippines, I’m left shaking my head. One reason is that things change so fast between the time of the authors’ on-site work and the time of publication. Then there’s an additional gap between the time a paper was published and the reality today; sometimes it’s not the same. So for example, nonprofit leaders and investor countries may have had good intentions with payment for ecosystem services (PES) for forest management. But these schemes may not have lasted long after they’ve left the country.
The other reason I’m shaking my head? Almost all of the papers cite the lack of good governance in the Philippines, a country that’s been plagued by corruption and abuse of power for over a century. Nothing new since my parents left this country four decades ago. Authors have laid out plans on how this country can achieve sustainability. But the same things that have been observed and recommended before are the same things I see and want to recommend today. We’re still in the same predicament.
Here, things change fast and nothing new changes. It’s a land of contradictions.
Other examples of contradictions:
Streets are dotted with billboards quoting religious calls-to-action to “act in a Godly manner” next to signs that say “don’t urinate here”. Shouldn’t the first billboard suffice?
Environmental ordinances are printed on laminated posters and displayed roadside, yet plastic bottles and trash litter the surrounding area. What’s the point of the posters then?
The Siargao and Bucas Grande group of islands were declared a Protected Landscape and Seascape Area (or SIPLAS) by Presidential Proclamation under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act. But rapid real estate development continues, a direct violation of the NIPAS Act resulting in destruction of important ecosystems, habitats, and rare species of endemic flora and fauna.
It reminds me a lot of our discussions on governance in Nathan Schulfer’s class and on power dynamics and cultural differences in Rob’s Env. Cons. Professional Practice class.
On a personal level, these experiences also made me question my own cultural allegiances… something I haven’t done since my college days. I live a hyphenated life as a Filipina-American and I’ve already accepted what that means when living in the United States. But I begin to question my motivations and intentions as a Filipina-American who left the Philippines over 25 years ago, who’s been educated here and in the U.S., who’s been influenced by a lot of factors from constant work and personal travel, but want to make recommendations on infrastructure and policy for a place that I visit only for vacation every few years.
But then, I see other hyphenated citizens like me (also Filipino-American / Australian / British / French etc) who make investments in Siargao. The locals welcome what they bring in: new job opportunities and social progress. Locals follow everything investors do and say. It’s the locals’ land but the wishes of investors are highly revered. Though I know Siargao investors want to support the local community as much as possible, I still wonder if it’s the type of support that locals truly want and need.
When I start writing my recommendations for the future of Siargao, I start thinking about “what’s good” for the locals — a higher level of education, continued skills training, ingrained environmental awareness. But what does that mean for them? Do they actually want it? Does this fit their culture or their values?
What could be an important lesson from an academic paper may not translate well for Siargao. What could be relevant in Siargao today may not be as pertinent a year from now. This sentiment is best summarized by my favorite economist, Jeffrey Sachs, in his book The End of Poverty:
“Cultures change with economic times and circumstances. What looks like immutable social values turn out to be highly malleable to economic circumstances and opportunities. Although not all cultural values change so easily, values deemed to be inimical to economic development are rarely, if ever, un-alterable features of a society.”
More questions, more contradicting feelings.
But this quote also strengthens my decision to continue on-site observances and cultural immersion in Siargao. I don’t want to “helicopter” in with solutions. It’s crucial to walk in the locals’ shoes, talk to decision makers and experts, and think critically how recommendations will transpire in real-time and in real life.
EYES ON A LARGER PRIZE
My capstone project has taken the shape of a traditional Masters thesis. I observe, I talk to people, I conduct interviews, I transcribe my interview notes, I read academic papers, and I start drafting my reports.
Yes, I do have the privilege of taking mini-vacations since Siargao is Instagrammable everywhere you turn (well, except where there’s trash and ill-conceived home construction). I take those opportunities to capture photos and test conservation messages on my Instagram profile to see how it’s perceived by the public. But while I’m “vacationing”, I also talk to fellow tourists, tour guides, land managers, conservation fee collectors, boatmen, and even the random marine biologist or GIS expert (also on vacation) to gather more stories and data for my report. I also take photos of trash bins, signages and posters, floating trash, or locals working their jobs, which my island friends make fun of me for.
What I do sounds slightly different compared to a lot of my cohort’s applied conservation work on the Wisconsin prairie, on the African savannah, in the Scottish Highlands, or out on Fiji’s open water.
However, at the request of the locals, the Mayor and the architecture firm, my deliverables must take the form of a presentation (graphics and text) or a two-page summary. Not a thesis paper which, as they’ve told me, they won’t have the time to read or the level of education to completely comprehend. They want actionable recommendations in layman’s terms.
While it’s frustrating and lonely at times not having a host organization to bounce ideas with (or have the support of my cohort in real life), this independent study of sustainable tourism in Siargao has given me the mental space to make meaningful connections, engage in deep conversations, reflections, emotional awareness, empathy and compassion, and ask why and how. It’s a far cry from my past experience as a communications professional in Silicon Valley, where everything happens at the speed of light.
I thought that a deliverable that’s reflective of the economic, social, political and environmental state of Siargao that fits within a larger master plan would be most useful and helpful to Siarganons. It means individuals, such as nonprofit leaders or environmentally-motivated business owners, no longer have to work in isolation just to make incremental progress. It means all of the work happening in Siargao will be prioritized, communicated, enforced, monitored and done together to achieve a larger goal. It means that work aimed to improve Siargao matters, despite how small.
When locals hear about the work I’m doing, they shake my hand or give me a high five. It’s an incredible feeling to know your work will leave a tremendous impact on people’s lives. It’s people, and their relationship to nature, that motivated me to join this Master’s program. Now, it’s how we communicate with people about their relationship to nature and travel that pushes me onwards in this journey.
It’s also good to know that I won’t be abandoning my public relations, social media, and marketing skills from my past career. If anything, I’ll be using those skills time and time again. With that, I’d like to combine my communications and new skills in my new career path, preferably as a communications consultant for sustainable travel and tourism.
There’s still so much to learn but I’ve gained a lot — mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually — from these past 15 months thanks to the Nelson Institute and the support of my awesome, wisecracking cohort friends. Can’t wait to see you all again!
This post was originally published 7/15/18 in Nelson Institute’s Environmental Conservation Capstone Projects Blog