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For most people, May 23 could be an ordinary day, a date off the calendar, or a mid-week dread. But for the almost 4,800 residents of Turtle Islands in Tawi-Tawi, May 23 is a day of celebration.
Adlaw Sin Payukan (roughly translates to “Day of the Pawikan/Sea Turtle”) is a two-year old festival highlighting the various species of marine turtles inhabiting the six islands (Taganak, Baguan, Langaan, Boan, Lihiman, and Great Bakkungan) that make up the municipality.
“Since our town is known for its sea turtles, we need to make it memorable that is why we are doing this festival,” municipal mayor Berong Oliveros said in an interview.
More than its turtles, Adlaw Sin Payukan also turns the attention to an ordeal that the Turtle Islands has been facing for decades now. By promoting the municipality as a viable tourism site, the festival hopes to shed light on the urgent need to establish alternative livelihood packages for the community - especially that internal and cross-border trade activities continue to persist.
A tradition that stood the test of time
“Traditionally, egg harvesting [in the Turtle Islands] is a source of income,” Romy Trono, technical advisor for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Protected Area Management Board (DENR-PAMB) said. Since the 80s, Trono has worked with numerous government and private institutions in terms of turtle conservation efforts in the area.
In their interviews with the early folk of the island, Trono said that egg production volume has been extremely high in the Turtle Islands back then that harvesting activities, which usually start at around six in the morning lasts until late in the afternoon.
Although not practiced by the majority, statistics show that at least 37% of the community still turns to egg harvesting and trade for livelihood.
A “permitting system” was also implemented by the DENR in the early 80s, allowing harvesting activities in five out of the six islands in the municipality. Baguan Island, which contributes to more than 50% of the eggs laid in the islands, is an exemption as it is considered as a “no-take zone”. In the scheme, 60% of the total area is allotted for harvesters that were granted permits while 30% are given to hatcheries for conservation purposes and the remaining 10% went to the now-defunct Turtle Foundation.
Reforms on marine turtle trade were then put in place when the National Integrated Protected Areas System and Philippine Wildlife Acts were signed into law (in 1992 and 2001, respectively) - imposing a ban on any harvesting activities in the area, thus threatening the source of income of the select communities.
Ecotourism as alternate livelihood
For the LGU, while it adheres to the policies of saving the turtles, it is also crucial to save the people.
“For the longest time, efforts on conservation have been species-based to a point that we have neglected the needs of the community,” Trono said.
Mayor Oliveros also shares this sentiment by saying that “livelihood will bring the people out of trade transactions since they will be assured of stable employment.”
This is why ecotourism is identified as a platform for the phase in - phase out strategy of the government for the Turtle Islands.
“Ecotourism provides livelihood opportunities to the people while ensuring that conservation efforts are not compromised,” DENR IX assistant regional director for technical services Ronald Gadot said.
The DENR together with the Department of Tourism has already identified offshore livelihood opportunities for the community, which include capacity trainings on room servicing, catering, and tourist guidance for the local community.
Aside from its turtles, Gadot cites that the municipality’s beaches, rich biodiversity, and coastal and marine resources can also be tapped for their high ecotourism potential.
Trono also believes that ecotourism is a successful model for the “non-consumptive” use of the turtles.
“In Australia for example, their experience with ecotourism shows that they are capable of earning enough while ensuring that the trajectory of the survivability of the turtles follows an upward trend,” he added.
However, Trono also emphasized that the ecotourism development plans need to be “serious and high-end.” According to him, this involves developing facilities in the municipality requires an intersectional approach - one that ranges from an in-depth understanding of the turtles biology, waste management, climate change and adaptation, down to community engagement, among others.
In his research with non-profit organization Conservation International (CI), Trono cites that ecotourism development in the Turtle Islands can be segregated according to its strengths. Areas like Baguan Island can be made into “low volume-high value” nesting beaches with its high hatching rate while nearby islands such as Taganak can house more “high volume-low value” tourist facilities for other potential tourists.
Most importantly, tourists will be required to pay “conservation fees” that will be used as funding for conservation efforts. Trono noted that the CI ecotourism development plan projected earnings of at least PhP 12 million annually when such ecotourism services are in place.
The challenge ahead
Transforming Turtle Islands into an ecotourism destination is not without some roadblocks, transport and connectivity topping the list.
From Manila or Davao, one needs to travel by air to Zamboanga followed by another flight to Tawi-Tawi. Local air carriers fly to Zamboanga and Tawi-Tawi at least twice and once a day, respectively. Total travel time is approximately 2 and half hours.
To reach Taganak Island, passengers need to board the BRP Cebu (PS-28) corvette of the Philippine Navy from Bongao Port with a 16-hour travel time. They will then be ushered by a ferry to the island, which takes another least 30-45 minutes. Gadot adds that this route is eyed for regularization.
“The idea of making this as a transport option coincides with the patrolling activities regularly conducted by the Navy,” he said.
A more accessible route though sees passengers traveling from Manila to Kota Kinabalu via plane followed by speedboat rides to Sandakan then to Taganak which clocks at around 4-5 hours travel time.
In its bid to promote the potentials of the Turtle Islands and Tawi-Tawi in general, the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA) advocates for a Tawi-Tawi Integrated Seaport and Ecozone (TISEZ) as one of its priority catalytic projects to position the province as a competitive economic and tourism player in local and international markets.
Some of the initiatives identified under TISEZ include the development a shipyard in the Sibutu Passage as a bypass route for carriers from the Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and an international transhipment port as well as commercial and industrial zones in Bongao, among others. As the Philippine coordinating agency of the Brunei Darussalam Indonesia Malaysia Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area or BIMP-EAGA, MinDA has also participated in environmental impact studies for the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area (TIHPA) with Sabah.
“This plan looks at improving our existing connectivity channels and developing additional infrastructure in order to bring in investments, which will hopefully result to more employment opportunities for the community inside and outside of Turtle Islands,” MinDA Secretary Datu Abul Khayr Alonto said.
Alonto who also sits as the Philippine Signing Minister for BIMP-EAGA also noted that turtle conservation in Tawi-tawi is one of the priorities under the sub-region’s environment pillar, which aims to come up with a framework for intra-EAGA cooperation in the integrated protection and management of natural resources and biodiversity in its priority areas.
The TISEZ is also anchored on the Mindanao Development Corridors, the agency’s spatial strategy which aims to connect growth centers across Mindanao through the deployment of viable connectivity and infrastructure facilities. The said strategy also sees the inclusion of the Bangsamoro Development Corridor, which the TISEZ initiative is a part of.
“A healthy ecosystem provides us food security, stable climate, protection against storm surges, clean water and air, recreation, tourism, and even attend to some of our people’s spiritual needs. Our leaders should put that into consideration,” DENR’s Trono said.
He hopes that the time will come when Adlaw Sin Payukan becomes a day not just for the turtles, but most importantly for its people.