By FILEMON G. ROMERO, PhD.
BONGGAO, Tawi-Tawi: Ecotourism in farther southern Philippines will boom once tourism facilities are established in the Turtle Islands of Tawi Tawi, the fifth province of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and which is near Sabah.
Ecotourism facilities that include a hotel, a restaurant and four cottages will soon rise in the Turtles Islands Wildlife Sanctuary. This is funded by the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) of the Department of Tourism and supported by Governor Hadji Yshmael “Mang” Sali and Congressman Rashidin H. Matba.
These facilities are part of the implementation of the Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary Ecotourism Development Framework Plan which was approved by the Protected Area Management Board of the Turtles Islands.
As shown in the reduction of turtle egg production through the years, the DENR identified the biggest threat to the turtle population is the dependence of the natives on turtle egg gathering for food and source of income. Despite the organization of the Protected Area Management Board and the interventions from DENR and LGU and livelihood assistance from NGOs, the tenured migrants have not been weaned away from the turtle egg collection for food and source of income.
But when the Wildlife Act was enacted, the permit system was discontinued by the DENR and taken over by the LGU. Most of the eggs end up being trafficked to nearby Sabah. Enforcement of the law from the Philippine Turtle Islands end is weak or no enforcement at all.
The common aspiration as to explore ecotourism is one way by which the tenured migrants are given a non-extractive and sustainable source of livelihood. A strategic ecotourism framework plan was formulated through a writeshop with the participants from the DENR, LGU and other stakeholders and defined the vision which is to be a regionally competitive Ecotourism Destination, within the Islamic context, in preserving its natural beauty and cultural richness, conscious of the need to conserve, enhance, sustain and develop these assets and ensure equitable sharing of benefits among its people.
It also defined its mission and strategies for ecotourism based on the guidelines set by DENR. In addition, all these are guided by conservation based on the fatwa on environmental management and that eco-tourism should be practiced based on Islamic values and also respecting the culture and traditions of the people of the community. The assumption is that if a community managed ecotourism would succeed; the communities will eventually have a sustainable source of income in addition to their traditional sources like fishing and farming and therefore would reduce the threat to the marine turtle population.
Turtle Islands ASEAN’s remaining green turtle rookery
The Turtle Islands is the ASEAN region’s only remaining major green turtle (Chelonia mydas) rookery and high density nesting aggregation of hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelis imbricata). The first is classified as Endangered and the second one is Critically Endangered based on IUCN classification and these are protected by law.
The Turtle Islands harbors 80% of green turtle nesting population of the Philippines. It has served as a natural laboratory for sea turtle scientists and has been a model site for transborder conservation of migratory marine wildlife and for tourism. It has been part of the First Transboundary Protected Area for Marine Turtles as embodied in the bilateral agreement between the Philippines and Malaysia known as the Turtle Islands Heritage Protected Area.
The whole sanctuary has a high economic potential because of its rich fisheries resources and also high potential for ecotourism. It is rich in biodiversity especially its excellent coral reef cover for SCUBA diving, snorkeling and other water sports.
The highest potential however for ecotourism is Turtle Watching like in the island of Selingan where tourists have to book at least one year earlier to be accommodated.
Another attraction is the Island of Lihiman which has the only mud volcano in the country.
On the cultural aspect is the visit to the shrine of the Pitu Alim, the grave of what is believed to be one of the 7 makdumins who joined Sheik Makdum in propagating Islam in the Philippines. His grave is found in Baugan Island.
Also the Adlaw sin Payjan which happens every May 23, the day the Turtle islands was proclaimed y Presidential Proclamation 171, Series of 1999 as Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary is celebrated with a Cultural extravaganza of naïve music and dances which includes the Lunsay, the traditional dance of the Jama Mapun.
As soon as the Environmental Impacts Assessment would be approved and the Environmental Compliance Certificate would be given by the DENR, the funding of 24 Million pesos would be released to the Provincial Government of Tawi-Tawi which has been given the authority to implement the project through a Sangguniang Panlalawigan Resolution.
Mayor Hadji Mohammad Faizal Jamalul, mayor of the Turtle Islands said that his municipality welcomes this ecotourism project and would give it the full support of his administration.
FILEMON G. ROMERO