30 Minutes with JP Alipio
30 Minutes with
On the Cordillera Mountain Ultra,
and keeping it wild.
Mountain athlete, conservation advocate, and National Geographic Explorer. JP is co-founder of the Cordillera Conservation Trust, an organization devoted to environmental and cultural conservation in Northern Luzon. The whole idea for the CCT and for the mountain runs that they organize was to inspire more people to participate in conservation efforts—not merely by talking to them about it and “raising awareness,” but by giving people opportunities to experience the outdoors and meet the people who live in the spaces we seek to protect.
What was the situation that prompted you to start the CCT?
In 2005, we did the Cordillera traverse. We mapped and hiked about 400 kilometers of trails in the Cordillera. This was in partnership with National Geographic, just me and a couple of friends. We came up with a report that basically talks about the conditions in the Cordillera, what kind of environment there is, what the challenges and opportunities are, and the types of cultures we observed during the trek.
We created a document that was basically built on the framework of how to develop the trail system and the culture of the Cordilleras for ecotourism to create a more sustainable economy for these areas. At that time, we just sent this big document to all the LGUs we passed through, and obviously they just put it aside and then forgot about it. So we decided, “Why don’t we do something ourselves?” So, we started the Cordillera Conservation Trust. We weren’t doing events at that time; we got most of our funds from grants, (not-so-big grants), but we had a few every year that kept everything running. And in 2008, with the same friends, we biked around the Cordilleras for 24 hours to raise funds for the organization and that raised so much attention for both the Cordillera and our work that people donated money and time, so from 2010 to 2016 we were partners with Globe. That’s when we started the mountain bike ride: The Cordillera Challenge.
What were your conservation efforts?
We’ve focused our efforts on ourselves creating those opportunities for economic growth in these areas. The trail running, the mountain biking…it raises funds for the work of CCT but it also develops these areas for adventure—trail running, hiking, mountain biking, trekking. And these are areas that wouldn’t necessarily have many visitors.
Before we came to Dalupirip, they’d have like five or ten tourists a year, and now it’s a regular destination: 30-50 people every weekend. It creates this economy where the local government earns from fees, people earn from homestays and lodging. And of course, the trail run created this trail which is a circuit around Mt. Ugo and now people are using it… [It’s] making people reliant on an environment which is pristine.
Most of the economy in the area is resource-based, meaning you’ll cut a tree to make money or farm and garden, you’re working on whatever resources are there. [With] the way it works, you’re extracting from those resources. But with an adventure economy, we’re trying to develop it: you’re relying on the resources standing there, being that wild space naturally.
Since we started the Cordillera Mountain Ultra we’ve been tracking how much people spend in these areas. In one weekend…for transportation, lodging, food, including the fees that we pay the two or three communities in that area, they earn something like Php 200,000. That goes into the community’s households. And this is something that is earned by not touching what’s there and just leaving it.
How do you maintain the integrity of the environment because of the inflow of the people that come in?
I think that in the Philippines, tourism always gets a bad reputation in terms of the environment. Trail running or trekking in Mt. Pulag [for example], it’s always in the news. But, if you look at it on the map, they’re using a small percent of the mountain, maybe 10% at the most. But those 500 people are giving jobs to everybody in that one village’s economy. Meaning, by using that small percent of the mountain you’re shifting people from destroying the rest of the 90% to make money for their kids or for whatever they need. In Mt. Pulag, for instance, gardening is the biggest destroyer; it’s not tourism. You can have a thousand people there, leave the mountain untouched for a month [then] it will be back. Because they only walk on this small path, camp in a small camp. And now there are more homestays, that is something we help develop, and the impact is less. And the community can have more income.
So, it’s not simply saying that tourism is bad, because there are opportunities that we have to look at for tourism…To be able to become agents of change for these areas. For the trail run for instance, you just have to set the standard that people are coming into. If your culture is parang, ah bahala na, kahit ano whatever, you’ll have uncontrolled tourism. But for the trail run we’re very strict. We’re respectful of the people you’re staying with and this is the culture that is enforced. You don’t need to be calling out tourists, it’s self-enforcing already. You go there because you want to experience this kind of atmosphere where everybody’s respectful of the locals; you spend your money there locally, it’s a culture of respect.
The problem with the way tourism is done in other areas is people are always too scared to say no. People are always too scared to say, “Hey, you can’t do that,” because they’re afraid tourists won’t come. Sometimes you can get away with a lot of things that locals won’t be able to get away with; because you’re a tourist. Like in Baguio they suspend their number coding for tourists. This shouldn’t be the case. As a traveler you should come to that place knowing the rules; you have to go there with respect. There’s a way to coexist and make it more compatible with more sustainable ways of tourism.
Is this part of the CCT’s initiative? Forming these guidelines to help sustainable tourism with the CCT events?
It takes time, a lot of meetings, you meet a lot of people. I mean, just preparing for the Ultra, before we did it, we were coming back and forth for the past year, going house to house literally, convincing people [that] this is a possible development path for their community. Then, of course, they experience it themselves when the tourists and runners arrive. Then they know how it is; it’s not easy because what we’re doing is hard to explain. It’s hard to explain to people that you’re a conservation organization that runs events and creates trail runs and mountain bike races for conservation by creating jobs.
I’ve always gotten these weird stares and questions na, “I heard you’re an environmental organization, shouldn’t you be planting trees?” We did and we still do, our Roots and Shoots initiative, but the thing is it’s not as effective as creating this economy where everything is reliant on a natural space. You’re reliant on natural space being beautiful, otherwise tourists won’t come.
People don’t travel to El Nido because the hotel is nice, right? When they go to El Nido they wanna see the coves and all of these areas. That’s your product. Your product is not the five-star hotel, but that’s how they (most of the Philippine tourism industry) think. Of course having a nice hotel there will up your value, but that’s not what you’re selling. What we’re trying to sell is that the product is your own. It’s this mountain that we need to protect. That’s the product that you invest in, by planting trees, by creating trails, all of these things. Not investing by building a ten-story hotel. [It’s by] shifting your value from buildings to the wild space—which is hard, I’ll admit. I always dread having to explain this to politicians—and I have to do it all the time.
We’ve seen the Ultra move from Mt. Pulag to Dalupirip. Can we talk about how the marathon has evolved?
Well, when we had the Marathon in Pulag we had some issues. We still continue the program there with the homestays but moved the Ultra to Dalupirip. Mt. Pulag is already a popular destination but unlike Pulag, Dalupirip is a blank slate. Before we went there, few travelers would go to Dalupirip. After the first marathon, people would visit monthly, weekly, to train for trail running, to hike, and stay in some of the homestays. Some of the homestays in Dalupirip are now permanent, making money year-round. Of course, it’s still not a large enough volume of people to maintain, let’s say, a Sagada-level homestay because it’s very close to Baguio—you can drive up, climb up, and then climb down. So, in that way it won’t ever be a Sagada. But there is that opportunity because it was a blank slate. We were able to set the stage for the culture that should be there, that culture of respect for the people and the environment in this area.
The community was really happy with the development; you can really see the difference. We’ve done the Ultra twice in Dalupirip. The first year everybody was questioning if they should open their home, and then, on the race day we only had, like, 5 houses to rent out and then on the day before the race you’d see signs [saying] “Homestay here” all over that didn’t register with us. But it’s okay, that means they’re seeing the value of it. The year after, we had a 500% increase in the households who opted for the homestay. And now during the events, the community sells food. So, the whole village is really onboard with the events.
You go there on the race day and everybody’s awake; when people are racing the kids are out clapping for the racers. The whole village has basically accepted this as something they do every year; it’s a tradition. And because we moved the Ultra to March, it’s also within the month of their fiesta. So, the whole March is basically their month. They have a hashtag and a Facebook page [of] which most their non-Dalupirip or Itogon followers are the runners. So, the runners return to train, because it’s a nice place to train and they have homestays, you can run for the day, come back, and have a nice meal at the homestay. You can go up in the mountains with just a small bag, water, and a snack. And you come down the same day, go to another village, and that’s where you sleep; homestays are convenient.
The hikers, they carry everything on their back, but you don’t spend anything; you have all your food, you have your house basically on your back. There’s a bit of pushback from hikers that say, “You’re taking away from the adventure,”—they want to stay in tents. Which is true, I agree, maybe at some point I also like tents. Not a bad thing, but these areas in the Cordillera aren’t built to travel that way because there are villages everywhere. You know that trek we did in 2005? The Cordillera was rough roads, everything was trails, a lot of it was trails. We trekked for 30 days. We only used our tent 4 times, that entire trek across the mountain—400 kilometers of trail. We would always end up in a village or schools you could sleep in. Why did I have to carry that heavy 4-kilo tent for 38 days? I only used it 4 times. So, that’s also where the idea for this came from.
Do you see the mentality shifting?
It’s slow but it’s definitely shifting and we’re helping with that; GRID is also helping. More and more the idea is getting shared, more people talk about it. It’s so much easier now than in 2005, obviously, because of social media and lots of people are getting into it. The community of this type of traveler is definitely growing.
Do you think that the homestay gives travelers an opportunity to connect with the community?
Yeah, definitely. We’ve seen that in many of the homestays especially with foreign guests, because the foreign runners tend to be more vocal about these things. They have an exchange of information. And the nice thing is that for many people in the village, they never leave the region—they’ve never seen the sea, even though we’re surrounded by the sea. Many don’t leave the extent of their world. Having people from all over the country and all over the world come in and talk to you about their experiences, that’s invaluable, you can’t put a price on that.
This year we had 21 countries; there was a girl from Croatia. She was alone, flew to the Philippines for the Ultra and she would talk to the families about her country. And the hosts would ask about their guest’s country, [have] conversations like that. It brings the world to the community who probably wouldn’t be able to fly into the countries their guests are from. It’s a great way to expand people’s horizons.
And the experience might affirm to the community that they live in somewhere really special, having travels come from around the world.
Some of the community must think, “They traveled all the way here to run around the mountain and get tired,” you know, it’s hard for the locals to wrap their mind around that. Hosting guests who’ve traveled a thousand kilometers to run around the mountain. That’s basically what you traveled for diba, pero it means that this place has value. Your home has value, this mountain behind your house has value. So, that is something that they see.
Also, we give 10 slots to local runners for free, we ask them, “Who wants to run?” And then walang may gustong sumali eh. Tapos, on race day, they come to the race village and feel the vibe, everybody’s excited and now suddenly the whole village wants to join. So siyempre we had to say hindi na puwede. Ano din eh, parang they see all the people are here and this is valuable to them [so] they think, “I want to be part of this value.” There were a few na pinagbigyan namin, we made a way, got them bibs and put their names on the roster and everything so they were able to experience it. Pero ganoon diba, they come to the race, there’s 20 different countries there and they see everybody’’s excited, [so] you really feel the excitement.
A few years ago we participated in the half marathon and my favorite takeaway was how the runners were not as competitive as you’d think. Of course there is the full marathon, the Ultra (50k), that we didn’t experience. But the runners we were with really took their time enjoying the experience, pausing at the top, some even having a picnic at the turn around point.
Well, we designed that course so that you could take your time. Because when people got up there, they’d stop, take pictures and some people stayed there for hours. We want people to do that because we’re a conservation organization. Everyone becomes an advocate no matter how fast you are; you’re going to see every little inch of the mountain from top to bottom. Even now, we extended pa ng cut off time for the 26k, which is the half marathon, to 10 hours, which you can basically do it at a walking pace of 3 km per hour. You really want people to see that environment.
Outdoor races are less competitive, generally. Of course there’s that competitive group but it’s more friendly, I would say. People appreciate where they are and aren’t so concerned about how fast they’re going. There are people who are concerned with how fast they’re going but 70% are there just to see the environment, enjoy nature…It’s a trip.
Personal records don’t matter as much when you’re dealing with trail running and mountain running. So it’s more about being outside, seeing what’s there, enjoying nature.
For me personally, I started out by hiking, trekking, and I went into trail running to train for hiking and trekking. But then it also became a way [for me] to go further faster and see more. So for me, it’s travel. Trail running for me is about seeing places [and] seeing the beauty of the mountains.