Thursday, May 23, 2024

Sibalom Natural Park Opens New Tours Ahead of International Day for Biodiversity

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Lively Kinaray-a songs fill the air as ladies in vibrant floral skirts welcome visitors to Imparayan, one of 18 villages ringing the Sibalom Natural Park in Panay.

Arriving guests are festooned with leis fashioned to resemble giant Rafflesia, the park’s symbol. Home to a variety of wildlife and the Philippines’ Rainbow River, the park has just launched a new ecotourism package, designed and run by the local community.

“Welcome to the park and please remember our rules: no littering, smoking or taking of stones, plants or animals,” explains smiling guide Lumen Tiongco before we embark. “Talk gently along the trails to not disturb birds and lizards. Most importantly, have a good time.”

Our first stop is a quaint Rizalista Chapel established in 1975. Rizalistas believe in the divinity of Jose Rizal, believing our bowler-hat-clad hero is an incarnation of the Holy Spirit. Various folk beliefs abound here, with our guides doling out tiny pieces of ginger to affix to our clothes to appease forest spirits (we got back okay, so they probably worked).

Next is Bato Pispis, an eroded cliff with a pattern that looks somewhat like a bird with its wings outstretched. Swallows zoom above, stalking insects and building tiny nests on the sheer cliff. We take snaps and continue, crossing a bright red bridge and climbing a small hill to reach the Protected Area Management Office (PAMO), where a feast, friendly faces and comfortable accommodations await.

The PAMO is the control center of the Sibalom Natural Park, a 6,778.44-hectare park denuded by the Second World War and declared as a protected area in 2000. “In the 1970s, the park was reforested with a combination of commercially-valuable exotic tree species and local flora,” explains Sibalom Park Deputy Superintendent Joery Oczon. “Aside from the ‘Big Five’ – the Visayan Spotted Deer and Warty Pig, Walden’s and Tarictic hornbills, plus of course the giant Rafflesia – guests might encounter other types of flora and fauna, ranging from giant Lauaan trees to playful monkeys.”

The park also boasts of possibly the most colorful river in the Philippines, the Rainbow River, which brims with jade, quartz, onyx and other semi-precious stones – though park rangers constantly remind guests that stones cannot be taken.

Leveling Up Ecotourism Packages

Since 2022, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Department of Tourism (DOT), United Nations Development Programme’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative (UNDP-BIOFIN), local government of Antique province and local communities have been working to develop a world-class ecotourism package, developed and administered by residents living around the Sibalom Park.

“Local people know their area best, so they’re the ones who should identify and develop tourism spots,” explains Boboi Costas, who previously helped develop Cebu’s Bojo-Aloguinsan Mangrove River Tour, which won the Best Tourism Village Award from the United Nations World Tourism Organization in 2021. “We distilled the best lessons from Aloguinsan to help develop Sibalom’s tour package, which we hope can be replicated across the country.”

To ‘level up’ the community’s ecotourism skills, UNDP-BIOFIN organized a series of workshops covering topics like sustainable ecotourism management, strategic planning for tourism, designing tour experiences, food and beverage preparation, women’s empowerment, financial management, housekeeping, marketing, promotions and tour safety. Participants were drawn mainly from the Imparayan Bantay Gubat Association, comprised of around 80 local volunteers who regularly help clean and patrol the park.

“Communities that provide the infrastructure for tourism can earn not just from guiding, but the provision of meals, lodging, crafts and souvenirs,” explains Anabelle Plantilla, UNDP-BIOFIN Philippines National Project Manager. Properly done, ecotourism combines conservation and livelihood generation. “True sustainable development benefits everyone involved – local residents, tour operators, service providers and of course, the environment itself. We envision better lives for all. Walang maiiwan: no one gets left behind.”

The development of Sibalom’s community-led tours was an offshoot of the government’s and UNDP-BIOFIN’s Year of the Protected Areas (YoPA) Campaign, designed to boost visits to the country’s 247 protected areas. More visits generate much-needed funds for park salaries and equipment, plus the maintenance and improvement of facilities.

Active in over 40 countries, UNDP-BIOFIN has been working since 2012 to help bridge the enormous gap needed to fund the world’s biodiversity projects, estimated by the Nature Conservancy, Paulson Institute and Cornell University to amount to USD800 billion in 2020.

UNDP-BIOFIN has been working in the Philippines since 2014, working closely with the DENR and many allies to finance the Philippine Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (PBSAP), the country’s roadmap to conserve biodiversity. Its current target is to narrow down the national budget gap for environmental projects, estimated at PHP19 billion yearly. Finance initiatives like the Sibalom Park’s new ecotourism packages can help bridge this gap.  

At the PAMO, guests enjoy local delicacies like chicken Porbida and Papisik. Everyone catches a breath after the morning trek, enjoying the cool forest air, the birdsongs around us.

“The Sibalom Natural Park is just one of many breathtaking places to visit in the Visayas,” says Krisma Rodriguez, Department of Tourism Regional Director for Western Visayas. “We invite everyone to see not just Sibalom in Antique – but Guimaras, Iloilo, Aklan, Capiz, Negros Occidental and the other tour destinations of our region.”

After a sumptuous lunch and a quick programme, we trek back through a forest of tall mahogany trees to Indaga Creek, ending at the Mau-It or Rainbow River, which sits beside a road. As we complete the tour while savoring cups of locally grown coffee, the head guide approaches our tired, satisfied group.

“There are many more places we want to show you, like Bato Kipot, Lake Pako and the Tipuluan River,” says Rowelo Esponilla, Imparayan Bantay Gubat Association President turned tour guide. “I work in construction, so guiding is a big help for me and my family. We hope more people come to see the beauty of the Sibalom Natural Park, where we’ll be ready to provide first-class service. There’s so much we want our guests to experience.”

The eco-tour’s launch was held ahead of the 24th observance of the International Day for Biological Diversity, celebrated each 22 May.

“By patronizing our protected areas, we can all ‘be part of the plan’ to reverse the loss of biodiversity,” concludes Plantilla. “Everyone has an important role to play.”

To visit the Sibalom Natural Park, email or call +63926 358 1404. The park is four hours away from Boracay Island, two hours away from Iloilo City or 30 minutes from the Antique Airport in San Jose Buenavista. 

About the Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN)

BIOFIN was launched in 2012 and supports over 40 countries in designing and implementing national biodiversity finance plans. For more information:

About the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

UNDP partners with people at all levels of society to help build nations that can withstand crises, and drive and sustain the kind of growth that improves the quality of life for all people. On the ground in 177 countries and territories, we offer a global perspective and local insights to help empower lives and build resilient nations.

Captioned Images:

World’s Largest Flower. The Sibalom Natural Park hosts the Corpse Flower (Rafflesia speciosa), one of 13 Rafflesia species discovered in the Philippines. Park rangers can regularly find and mark hidden flower buds, though the buds only bloom for a few days a year. The best period to find blooms is from February to April. (Anthony Ian Endencio / DENR)

Rainbow River. The country’s very own Rainbow River, the Mau-It River, snakes through the Sibalom Natural Park. Boulders of all hues – from reds to blues, greens and oranges – adorn its banks, which abound with semi-precious stones like onyx, quartz and jade. (UNDP-BIOFIN)

Kingfisher. A Spotted Wood Kingfisher (Actenoides lindsayi) – endemic to the Philippines – rests quietly inside the Sibalom Natural Park. Birds of all feathers can easily be spotted early in the morning and late in the afternoon. (Gregg Yan / UNDP-BIOFIN)

Happy Tourists, Happy Tourguides. Participants, guides and organizers of the Sibalom Natural Park’s inaugural community-led eco-tour gather under the park’s distinctive welcome arch. (Gregg Yan / UNDP-BIOFIN)

Green Again. Denuded by four years of warfare in World War Two plus 30 years of logging, the shoulder of Mt. Porras is again blanketed in a carpet of green. At 1378 feet or 420 meters, the summit is the highest point in the park. (UNDP-BIOFIN)

Tall Trees. Enormous mahogany trees, some breaching 70 feet, provide shade and cover for trekkers. Planted in the 1970s as part of a reforestation drive, the trees are not native to the country. Approximately 500 hectares of the Sibalom Park consist of stands of fast-growing exotic commercial trees like Mahogany, Teak, Pine and Gmelina. (UNDP-BIOFIN)

Native Wildlings. Park rangers Leonard Alentajan and Bhong Agting inspect Lauaan, Dungon and other native tree wildlings collected within the park. They shall be used to passively replace non-native tree stands. Park rangers regularly patrol the park to prevent illegal logging and poaching. (UNDP-BIOFIN)

Community-based. “Local people know their area best, so they’re the ones who should identify and develop tourism spots,” explains tourism expert Boboi Costas, in black. “We distilled the best lessons from Aloguinsan to help develop Sibalom’s tour package, which we hope can be replicated across the country.” (UNDP-BIOFIN)

Love Philippines. Participants, park management officers and tour organizers enjoy a breather after ascending a 200-step trail during the launch of the park’s ecotourism package, held at the Sibalom PAMO on 10 May 2024. (Angelique Ogena / UNDP-BIOFIN)

Avian Art. Park staff Charlene Charlienet Santocildes shows off a bee-eater, Visayan hornbill and a kingfisher, top entries in a painting competition staged by the University of Antique for Grade 12 students. The Sibalom Park hosts at least 60 bird species, from scene-stealing hornbills to tiny flowerpeckers. (UNDP-BIOFIN)

Forest Cottages. The PAMO offers several concrete cottages with working showers and electricity. Cottages can be rented for PHP1500 a night and can comfortably house up to eight guests. (UNDP-BIOFIN)

Local Delicacy. An iconic dish of Antique, Papisik is made by marinating a native chicken with salt, tamarind leaves, lemon grass and a sour native fruit called Batuan. Guests can request the park to prepare simple meals ahead of their arrival. (Kamille Trillanes Rosales / UNDP-BIOFIN)

Local Brew. Sibalom produces its own mildly smoky blend of Robusta coffee in the form of Kapi Uma, available in and around the Sibalom Natural Park. (UNDP-BIOFIN)

Luya-Luya. Locals believe that affixing a small piece of luya or ginger to your clothes appeases forest spirits, preventing them from doing harm. Everyone in our tour got back safely, so it looks like it worked! (UNDP-BIOFIN)

Idyllic Destination. Away from the hustle-and-bustle of city life lies the Sibalom Natural Park. Those who want to visit can set-up a tour via the park’s Facebook Page. (UNDP-BIOFIN)

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