Conrad Cejoco is the young and energetic vice-mayor of Bislig, a city of about 110,000 people on the east coast of Mindanao. Until recently, Bislig was also the center of operations of one of the largest paper mills in the world, a paper mill that operated in a sanctuary for the Philippine Eagle. The paper mill is gone, so is almost 95 percent of the old-growth Philippine rainforest (see, Vanishing Treasures of the Philippine Rain Forest, 1998). But remarkably, a visually stunning and ecologically rich preserve of virgin rainforest is located only 20-minutes away from Bislig. Conrad believes the natural environment holds the future for the city. His vision is eco-friendly development featuring this natural treasure, and key building blocks are the growth of environmental appreciation and awareness in local schools, and local jobs.
Bislig is the gateway to the magnificent Tinuy-an Falls, the “Niagara of the Philippines”, which when we visited in January 2011, were thundering with the runoff from recent storms. The vista from the foot of the falls, mist drifting through a rainforest draped with bromeliads, orchids, and ferns, was truly awe-inspiring. A swath of forest has been preserved along the river valley, and most significantly, the Philippine Eagle is regularly seen here. The expanse of enormous old-growth trees is the backbone of the ecosystem that supports the habitat that supports the eagle. We watched a group of long-tailed macaques move cautiously through the trees, a raucous family of spectacular Rufous Hornbills, kingfishers, and secretive fruit doves.
The falls and surrounding habitat are magnificent, but the visitor facilities are rudimentary; the welded rebar steps leading up the second level of the falls were treacherous. A tenant of ecotourism is that increasing the quality of the ecotourism experience leads to an increase in ecotourist demand. The site is almost unknown to the international ecotourist, but with Philippine eagles, macaques, and hornbills it should be a major attraction. Conrad believes the falls could be the site of a sustainable eco-lodge, powered by unobtrusive micro-hydro, with local food specialties and an observation deck to contemplate wildlife passing through the surrounding jungle.
This is Conrad’s vision; a combination of education in local schools to build awareness and pride for the national bird and its threatened habitat, and growth of international ecotourism to share knowledge and appreciation of the Philippine eagle. Both are needed to ensure the eagle’s protection and preservation. It will take money to achieve this; local income is needed to replace the jobs that left with the paper mills. Hence the lure of international ecotourism; “responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well being of local people” (The International Ecotourism Society). Eco-tourism is not without its challenges, but there are success stories, such as Costa Rica, that provide a model for ecotourism that protects habitat and species, provides local jobs, and offers great memories for environmentally aware tourists. Done properly, locals, travelers, and the natural environment all win.