For MAD Travel, tourism is the way to go, when it comes to helping local communities

There was a certain lull in the atmosphere as we trekked towards the reception hall — a relatively easy walk, considering the mountainous terrain the reserve is built upon. It was a little before five in the morning, so for the most part our surroundings were draped in darkness, punctuated sparsely by the light of the hall. Despite the early call time and cold atmosphere, however, my group and I were wide awake, curious to see what lay ahead.

We were slated for a nice sunrise hike at the Mt. Purro Nature Reserve (MPNR), the first item on our itinerary with MAD Travel. MAD, which stands for “Make A Difference,” is a social enterprise that creates travel experiences which bridge other people to marginalized communities. According to founder, Raf Dionisio, each package is created with the community’s needs in mind, a process that involves constant visitations and dialogue. The end result, then, is something that hits all the marks of your typical travel experience (food, adventure, culture), but in a way that helps you understand the community better and the issues they face.

For this trip, the reserve — which is located along the Upper Marikina Watershed in the Sierra Madre — is within the domain of the Dumagat Tribe, who we would meet later in the day. As practitioners of kaingin, or the “slash-and-burn” style of farming, there’s an interesting environmental aspect that comes with the issues they face. But for now, we would familiarize ourselves with the mountain; plunging ourselves into the darkness of the wilderness with only the stars and our flashlights guiding us.

Along the way, our trail guide, Camp Master Rodel, tells us tidbits about the area in between breaks. For instance, Mt. Purro was once a site of heavy deforestation due to illegal logging in the ’70s and ’80s. Its location in the watershed made it a particularly vulnerable site for natural calamities, and the balding pushed out endemic species from their habitats. Fortunately, the mountain now hosts a secondary rainforest that continues to grow, thanks to the reforestation efforts of MPNR founder Toto Malvar. A good portion of the forest contained fruit-bearing trees like rambutan and dalandan, which we had passed along the way.

The sunrise came on full-force as we descended the peak, giving the paths a nice golden glow. We then had breakfast at Loli’s Kitchen — which served a delicious home-cooked buffet — and before long we headed up the mountain again to plant some trees. We set the kamagong saplings in a clearing near more mature trees, which we learned helped shield them from direct sunlight and nurtured them as they grew. We got to meet members of the tribe right after we descended.

Mt. Purro was once a site of heavy deforestation due to illegal logging in the ’70s and ’80s, but it now hosts a secondary rainforest thanks to the restoration efforts of Toto Malvar.

Gathered around MPNR’s bonfire area, we looked on as Kuya Danny, the chieftain, introduced everyone else, and before long our group dispersed to chat with the members while participating in some of the other activities, like potting and making fire with bamboo. We did all this as some of the members cooked up a delicious binuho meal, where each staple and viand is cooked within native bamboo stalks called buho.

 

While the kaingin system is often put to blame when talking about rapid deforestation, the issue goes into more complex territory when considering the human aspect of it. For Ate Ligaya — along with other members of the community — this includes being able to make a living.

 

It’s this point in the tour where the magic happens. Raf introduces me to Ate Ligaya — an important gesture, as it allows for mutual concession — and we talk a bit about her life. She then tells me about their current struggles, particularly how they aren’t allowed to farm in their own ancestral lands. While the kaingin system is often put to blame when talking about rapid deforestation, the issue goes into more complex territory when considering the human aspect of it. For Ate Ligaya — along with other members of the community — this includes being able to make a living.

In a way, these interactions allow for a clearer, more empathic look into these issues, particularly if there’d been a case made against them. We then begin to paint a more in-depth picture of what is going on in a way that changes us: the knowledge of the fact allows us to make more informed, kinder, decisions, and perhaps urge us to create efforts that truly make an impact.

Before we leave, we end the trip with a nice boodle fight, which we share with our new Dumagat friends. One tribe member teaches us a bit of their language, and after the meal he talks about the proposed Kaliwa Dam, which the tribe has disputed for years. For now, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut solution we outsiders could help with, so we just continue to listen. It’s something to reflect on the way back.

Despite this, however, I don’t think it was an effort made in vain. I feel a little more understanding, a little wiser, even if the next immediate action isn’t quite clear yet. But sometimes, perhaps that’s all it takes: not a big, sonorous action to end all dispute, but slow, silent steps towards an equal, inclusive world.

 

 

MAD Travel and Mt. Purro Nature Reserve hope to use tourism to create a better respect for humanity and nature, as well as make sustainable travel the norm in the Philippines. Visit madtravel.org/tour/tribes-treks-rizal to know more.

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