Far From Ordinary
A Hero's Journey: Likhaan Stories Series
Not many people know that in one of the lush forests in Paranas, Western Samar, British naturalist John Whitehead first observed the majestic Philippine eagle. It happened in 1896, long before the years when illegal timber poaching became rampant.
While the menfolk of Paranas residing by the seashore had fishing as their primary source of livelihood, those who lived inland indiscriminately cut down trees and carried the heavy logs down the forest trails for measly daily wages.
Eugene Igdalino was introduced to the illegal logging trade when he was about thirteen years old. He shares, “Sa simula’t-sapul, ito na ang namulatan naming hanap-buhay.” Regretfully, he recounts the part that he and others from generations past played in the human destruction of the forest. Eugene explains that he never once thought twice about the impact his actions would have on the environment because his biggest concern was feeding his family.
But in 2010, the local officials, led by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the local government unit (LGU) of Paranas, and the Department of Tourism (DOT), identified the Ulot—the longest river in Samar at ninety kilometers—as a potential tourist attraction. Soon afterward, the all-male group Tour Guides and Boat Operators for River Protection and Environmental Development Organization, or TORPEDO, was established. These men were then able to find an alternative means of livelihood, and Eugene was elected president of TORPEDO.
TORPEDO Boat Ride • Source: PG-Samar
He says, smiling broadly, “Instead of hauling logs down the river in our boats, we carry only tourists. In TORPEDO, we are all trained tour guides, and we’re very proud of what we do for a living.”
Eugene Igdalino at TORPEDO
During the year, when the river becomes too rough and dangerous to traverse, the men of TORPEDO continue working in a different part of their municipality. At the Paranas Ecotrail and Birding Site, the men perform heavy maintenance activities such as the repair and restoration of structures and pag haras, or the clearing of overgrown grass, weeds, and branches in the area.
It is three o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun’s rays pierce through the canopy of trees like laser beams. The Paranas Ecotrail footpath, stretching over eight hundred meters and cutting through the forest, shows wear and tear. It has been well trodden, embedded with stones carried and laid down carefully one by one in a great show of pintakasi, or teamwork, by the men of TORPEDO and the military.
Pintakasi | Hauling of the steps
Pinataksi | Trail Preparation
Before its formal launch in August 2019, the Paranas Ecotrail and Birding Site was just a forested area in Barangay Tenani, where twenty-one-year-old tour guide Marissa Gabiana grew up. “I remember that, as a little girl, I would tag along with my mother and her friends, helping them carry baby trees to plant in the forest. Even then, I thought the forest was a beautiful place.”
Raised among other strong women in her community, Marissa eventually joined her mother and the other female volunteers of Tenani Association for Women and Development (TAWAD). Formed in 2011, TAWAD brought together these women in the barangay whose past duties were limited to managing their households and children.
From being engaged initially in activities to further their advocacy program, Violence Against Women and Child Trafficking, the TAWAD women, throughout the years, were also asked to perform traditionally female-oriented tasks, such as cooking and planning social events in the community like town fiestas.
Elizabeth Doza, president of TAWAD and general manager of the Paranas Ecotrail and Birding Site, tells of how the women of Paranas were a formerly unharnessed and yet valuable resource in their community. Under Elizabeth’s leadership and with guidance and training facilitated by the ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation, Inc. (ALKFI), the women took charge of the ecotrail—performing new roles as accredited tour guides, caterers, and farmers. They even acted as security guards when necessary. Bravely, they accepted the challenge of working without pay as volunteers, while receiving training and building their small enterprises.
These women of TAWAD, along with the men from TORPEDO, helped shape the community’s rebirth after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the region in 2013—its power and sheer wind force earning it the distinction of being one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded.
As I listened to the stories of survival of those whose lives had been changed dramatically due to the catastrophe that was Yolanda, I learned that despite being thrashed by typhoons every year because of their geographical location, the Paranas residents were unprepared when Yolanda hit.
Those living by the seashore could only recall with horror how the winds lifted their bodies as they held onto tree trunks for dear life. They tearfully described how they scrambled, running away from waves as tall as buildings. One woman shared, “I kept turning to look back as I ran away from the wave. I felt like it was right behind me.”
They lowered their eyes and voices as they spoke of how, after the winds died, everyone sat in silence and struggled to come to terms with what had just occurred. They were alive, but what would tomorrow bring?
It seemed as though their cycle of poverty would never end, as the community would need to rebuild itself after each natural disaster while they were, for lack of opportunities to earn a living, forced into contributing to the depletion of their precious natural resources.
Following Yolanda, ALKFI went to look into Paranas. At that point, they saw both TAWAD and TORPEDO as the organized groups that could spearhead the rehabilitation projects in the area.
For Eugene, Marissa, and the other residents of Paranas, the rehabilitation years were full of challenges and self-doubt. But they say they felt empowered by the knowledge shared with them by their ALKFI mentors, PG (provincial government)-Samar, LGU-Paranas, Municipal Agriculture Office of the LGU-Paranas, and DOT, who provided capacity-building training for mountain guides and on standard first aid, food preparation and handling, and poultry production, among others. Their confidence continued to grow with each small success and achievement.
Marissa recalls, “There were those in our community, the ‘bashers,’ that doubted the sincerity of the people from ALKFI. When they told us their idea of developing the Paranas Ecotrail and Birding Site, some in the community said we were just being used and would eventually be left to fend for ourselves.” Naysayers discouraged Marissa and the others from participating in the program, casting doubt on their capability to do what was needed.
She said they asked, “Why would anyone go out of their way to help someone like you?”
The Paranas Ecotrail and Birding Site lies within a protected area in the Samar Island Natural Park. It has five stations in total, with the first one featuring the largest of the many sinkholes on the property. Guests making their way to Station One are in for an uphill climb, but there are signs with humorous messages and bits of information about the trees to while away the time. At Station Two, there is a rest area, where one can catch their breath as they look at the beautiful foliage surrounding the area. The demo farm at Station Three is where herbs and vegetables are grown. Visitors to the ecotrail are encouraged to try their hand at planting seedlings, while their guides talk about the importance of sustainable and responsible farming and the different uses and features of certain plants.
Source: DOT RO8
Guests are rewarded after another challenging trek up the forest trail to Station Four with an uninterrupted view of the treetops, as seen from a viewing deck. From there, one may spy birds returning to or leaving their nests high above the ground. Finally, the walk to Station Five entails the crossing of hanging bridges and lots of stairs but, once there, guests may sit down to enjoy the delicacies made by the women of TAWAD.
Source: DOT RO8
Source: DOT RO8
Recalling how the people of her community never imagined there could ever be a place like the Paranas Ecotrail and Birding Site in their barangay, Marissa has this to say: “To us, it used to be just a place with a lot of trees. Now, my fellow tour guides and I know the different uses of the trees and how valuable these trees are to us. We are happy to share this knowledge with everyone—not just the tourists—and also to show them how important it is for us to take care of the trees in the forest.”
It has been a little over three years since the project’s launch in 2019, and those who stuck it out during the most challenging period are now reaping the benefits of their hard work, perseverance, and faith.
Marissa shares, “Para sa akin, ang gantimpala ay ang karunungan na hindi mabilang at and samahan ng iba’t-ibang ugali na [aking] nakasalamuha.” She has grown from being shy, insecure, and feeling ordinary to being confident. She’s happy to get along with the different personalities in her organization as they work towards achieving their common goals. “My world has expanded because of everything I have learned. I have dreams now for myself and my family, and I know now that I need only to keep working hard to achieve them.”
April Jane, another young member of TAWAD, appreciates how the income she earned as a tour guide at the ecotrail helped her pay for the bus fare to and from her school, located quite far away from where she lives. “Nagpapasalamat ako sa DOT, LGU, Spark Samar, at lalo na sa ALKFI dahil nabigyan kami ng pangkabuhayan.” She says that, unlike before, she now has enough money to pay for things like materials for her school projects.
Grateful that his work allows him to earn a good living and sleep peacefully at night, Eugene beams with pride at being able to put two of his children through private school. “I am happy that I can feed my children and that I am earning money through legal means.” He knows now more than ever that protecting the environment is equivalent to safeguarding his means of livelihood.
Despite the absence of tourists due to the pandemic, the area is bustling with activity as the women of TAWAD attend seminars and workshops to make good use of their time. They are determined not to let their momentum die down after they’ve worked so hard to uplift themselves through hours of training and learning.
First Aid Training - DOT RO8 x Philippine Red Cross
In the interim, some TAWAD women have become certified barangay front liners, while some received chickens to raise as livestock and recently completed a creative workshop on making handicrafts. ALKFI has also encouraged the enhancement of an existing youth organization within TAWAD, to foster the same values of hard work in the next generation.
Brgy. Frontliners during COVID-19 • Source: Community
Brgy. Frontliners during COVID-19 • Source: Community
At the outset, ALKFI went to Paranas to offer relief and help to the communities affected by Yolanda. The foundation provided skills training to the residents and needed resources for the development of the ecotourism site.
But in the end, the most important thing they’ve imparted to the people of Paranas is a newfound pride in themselves and their community. Ultimately, what the ALKFI bestowed upon them was the mirror that reflected how special Paranas is and how its people have always been far from ordinary.
Source: Marvin Piczon
Source: Marvin Piczon