Working as an island community comes with constraints but these always give way to creativity. We do not call ourselves an eco-tourism or sustainable travel company. We just like to explore beautiful remote islands while building resilient and self-reliant communities, and we intend to keep doing that.
We had been running for about seven years and with hundreds of islanders when one of the strongest super-typhoons in history, Haian (locally known as Yolanda), hit Palawan. We lost boats, basecamps, and a crew member.
There was work to be done and we don’t like to rest for too long, so we got back on the water just two weeks after the typhoon struck. The way we recovered and rebuilt shaped the way we operate and think about sustainability today
It seems that travel companies that aren’t talking about sustainability may very well consider themselves dead (or worse – unsustainable). Now is the age of eco/green/tree-hugging-and-beach-cleaning tourism. Every tour outfitter claims that their tour is the key to a brighter future for our dearest Mother Earth and us, her sons and daughters. We’re not about to make those claims.
To start, everyone who joins us has to fly. That’s at least one long-haul flight to the Philippines then a shorter flight to Palawan. But airlines are switching to energy efficient aircrafts! Using sustainable aviation fuels! Reducing waste on board! That’s great, but that still leaves copious amounts of carbon our guests have to burn to get to us. Too much for us to say you’re doing the world a favour by being here.
Are we saying you should stop traveling? Of course not.
Traveling is the best way to develop a strong enough connection to the world to care about it. An honest experience that ignites a deep understanding and appreciation for your environment might just be worth the necessary environmental impact…if the experience is done right.
The Climate Crisis in the Islands
For every beautiful tourist spot in the Philippines there’s an equivalent vulnerability to natural disasters. We’re on the Pacific Ring of Fire, making us prone to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. We’re also on the regular track of typhoons. This puts us at risk of intense flooding, landslides, storm surges, and wreckage.
? Homes – People living in low islands don’t have the resources to protect their homes from rising sea levels.
??? Agriculture – Rising sea levels coupled with increasing land temperatures make soil unfit for growing crops.
? Fishing – Higher ocean temperatures and acidification cause fish to move to cooler and deeper waters, putting fishermen at risk of losing their livelihoods.
? Storms – Changing temperatures also increase the frequency and strength of extreme weather events, especially in groups of islands where each has its own unique microclimate.
All Filipinos — rich or poor, from the islands or the mountains or the cities — will experience a natural disaster in their lifetimes. This makes us resilient and able to cope with tragedy. But with each instance we’re getting less resilient and more dependent on sporadic and short-term aid.
On those first trips after Haiyan we did three things — take guests on expeditions, look for new basecamps to replace those we lost, and offer relief to devastated island villages.
? Papachelen Island, or Patsy as we now call it, was one of the villages our boats gave relief supplies to after the typhoon. It’s now one of our basecamps, complete with a tuka kindergarten building.
Seeing our huts destroyed after the typhoon brought us to rethink the way we build. The tuka design and structure was a result of this rethink. Today we build using natural materials and designs that stand strong in the islands.
? Mangueynguey Island was home to a resort that was destroyed by typhoon Haiyan. The resort’s concrete buildings and air-conditioned rooms stood no chance against the rains and wind (surprise). We found the wreckage and took over with our bamboo structures. The island is now Camp Ngey! Ngey!, our main camp in Busuanga.
The typhoon also destroyed local farms and of course stopped fishermen from fishing, making food scarce when people needed it most. We subsisted on canned food and stale produce that arrived from Manila. Delicious.
? Our work on the Tao Farm is a result of that experience. Having to rely on goods from the city made self-reliance a priority in restarting the business. Today we get our food from the Farm and our partner fishermen, family farmers, and food producers.
The underlying theme in our response to typhoon Haiyan is resilience. Our construction, training, food production, and business processes today reflect our experience of having our success taken away overnight. Since then we do everything with tenacity and self-reliance in mind. The way we do tourism allows locals to earn livelihoods now but also secures that they’ll be able to provide for themselves should disaster strike again, which it will.
Our Sustainability Theory
The answers are not in global trends and theories but in local traditions and practices. It is islanders who know best how to take care of the islands, but they can’t be expected to do so before taking care of themselves. We think the best way to take care of the environment is to take care of its people. Economic security and self-reliance by way of skills training and livelihood provision are the most direct paths to environmental sustainability.
If a boatman makes a living taking tourists to beautiful snorkelling spots he will of course not anchor his boat on the corals. He will also discourage the fishermen in his village to use dynamite and sodium so as not to kill fish and destroy their habitats. The fishermen will benefit from the preservation by having more abundant catches over time.
If a farmer makes a decent living selling produce, he will want to look after the forests surrounding his land, because they’ll help protect against storms, generate healthier soil, and manage water flow. If there’s enough local produce to go around then villages and towns will no longer have to rely on deliveries from the city, making the community as a whole more self-reliant.
This is how we design our operations. The way our trips are “sustainable” is that they’re sustainable for us. Our people know best, and our people come first. The systems we have that benefit the environment are effective because they benefit people. They are never hurriedly imposed like an instant ban on all plastic or a weekend effort to plant trees but are woven into daily practices and allowed to unfold and develop over time.