From timber to tourists: Community transformation in Samar Island

boat man guiding tourists
Members of the Ulot Watershed Model Forest Stakeholders Federation (UWMFSF) comprised of 11 people’s organizations now help guide and operate Torpedo Boats in Samar Island National Park. (Photo: Wayne Pan/UNDP Philippines)

“Illegal logging – that is the large scale logging done by big companies. What we did here is not logging. We cut trees to sell to sawmill so that we could have money to buy food and other necessities for our family.” So says Eugene Igdalino, a resident of Samar and former harvester and transporter of illegal logs in what is now the Samar Island Natural Park. His story, like many others in the province and around the country, is one of people utilizing the resources around them in order to survive. For Eugene, it was not about profiteering or greed – it was simply about need and a lack of other opportunities: “We knew that it was illegal, but it was the only way, the easiest way, to get money.”

Today, Eugene is proudly in the tourism business as a Torpedo Boat operator in the Park. While he is still running boats up and down the rapids of the Ulot River, he now transports excited tourists looking to spot wildlife and rare species of plants instead of illegal logs that might land him in jail. For Eugene, the difference is big. “Those doing illegal harvesting could get apprehended. Sometimes we would have to lie low and we couldn’t make money. Now, I get regular pay. I don’t have to think where I will get money to buy food and other necessities.” As a Torpedo Boatsman, Eugene can make “very good money” during high season: around 800 pesos on a regular day, sometimes more with tips.

Higlights

  • Samar Island Natural Park is the largest land-based National Park in the Philippines covering over 450,000 hectares across three provinces, protecting a multitude of species and the largest remaining contiguous tract of old-growth forest left in the country.
  • From illegal logging, UNDP supported alternative livelihood to residents such as the torpedo boat adventure ride.
  • UNDP has also supported the passage of three Provincial ordinances that ban logging and mining in the Park. It is the culmination of extensive work to engage with local communities and governments to ensure that they see the value of the biodiversity around them and become stakeholders in its conservation.

The Torpedo Boat adventure ride is but one new community initiative that has come out of the Samar Island Biodiversity Project (SIBP) supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Working with the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), UNDP has spent the past decade establishing the National Park, raising awareness of the importance of the island’s ecosystems and unique species, and piloting community projects to increase opportunities and livelihoods.

Today, Samar Island Natural Park is the largest land-based National Park in the country. Established by Presidential Order in 2003, it covers over 450,000 hectares across three provinces, protecting a multitude of species – many endemic – and the largest remaining contiguous tract of old-growth forest left in the Philippines. UNDP has also supported the passage of three Provincial Ordinances that ban logging and mining in the Park. It is the culmination of extensive work by UNDP and DENR to engage with local communities and governments to ensure that they see the value of the biodiversity around them and become stakeholders in its conservation.

The reality is that Eugene and the others like him who live in Samar, are most affected by the very ecosystem degradation that they are contributing to. Eugene knows the impacts of this degradation very well. “The floods last year were terrible. The waters reached the highway. SIBP people helped in the rescue – they lent us kayaks and bancas (small dugout boats). Later, they explained that the floods were caused by the forest destruction and that we needed to stop cutting down trees, because without trees there was nothing to stop the water from coming down the mountains,” Eugene recalls. “They also told us about the plants and animals that can only be found on Samar and why it was important to protect them.”

It is an appreciation that he now shares with the people he comes in contact with. “Every time we bring tourists on a boat trip, we get to meet different people. I tell them stories about the river and they are very interested. I also help patrol the river… if I see piles of freshly cut logs, I tell SIBP.”

For Eugene, timber is still integral to his livelihoods, but with the intervention of UNDP and SIBP, it is now worth much more to him standing than cut. As Eugene sums up nicely, “I am proud now that I help protect the forest and the river. I want to show the birds and the forests to my children and to my grandchildren.” It is this sense of pride, more than any policies or regulations, that gives real hope to the possibility that the magnificent old-growth forests of Samar will be around for generations to come.