Defending the Land


Meet the unsung heroes who are working hard to save our culture, our biodiversity, and our land.

Story by
Nina Unlay
Photography by
Videography by
Francisco Guerrero
Read Time
Location Tag
Originally Published In

The green wilderness of Palawan, the tarsiers of Bohol, the cultural traditions of Mindanao, the mighty Philippine eagle: all part of the great tapestry of natural beauty and rich culture that make up the Philippines.

Humans may not have a hand in creating these wonders, but there are heroes fighting to keep them alive. Meet the brave people who fight at the forefront of eco-tourism and environmental and cultural preservation.


Palawan NGO Network Inc., Puerto Princesa

Atty. Bobby Chan is one of those tough guys you want to refer to by their full name, title included. You could also refer to him by his nickname, Mr. Chainsaw, but that might give you the wrong impression entirely.

Four years ago, the walls of Atty. Bobby Chan's office was lined with chainsaws. Today, Atty. Bobby Chan might invite you to come visit the new home of his chainsaw collection: the Palawan Environmental Enforcement Museum. His count is currently at 400, but 46 of them are used to build a 30-foot “Christmas tree". Not to cut down a pine tree, obviously, but to make up the striking stack in front of the museum, serving as much as warning as holiday décor.

Based in Puerto Princesa, he and his team scout Palawan’s forests for illegal loggers and confiscate their weapons and equipment. He officially started his work at the Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI) in 2009, but he’d begun his unconventional, hands-on approach to environmental protection in the early 1990s. As a law student, he was deployed to Palawan by the Ateneo Human Rights Center (AHRC) in 1991 to take on environmental cases pro bono—and it was work that would stay with him forever. “Every time I went back to Palawan, even after I finish a few cases, there would be more. It was addictive. After illegal logging there was fishing, mining, the sale of tribal lands...”

After he passed the bar in 1995, he decided to eschew the traditional route of joining major law practices, and head back to Puerto Princesa and NGO work. “I‘m not the type not to finish what I start,” he says.

“I’m not a policeman or a public official; just an ordinary citizen.”

And so Atty. Bobby Chan started the environmental enforcement program of the PNNI, but found that he was itching for a more direct approach. “Their approach was environmental education. I couldn‘t do it; I couldn’t teach when there were people doing things so near me.” In 1998, he stopped teaching to venture into the field to catch loggers. It was also in 1998 that he confiscated his first chainsaw.

“I used to be a one-man team. I caught my first chainsaw with a tribal leader in Coron... but I realized you need to have a community.” Now the PNNI has a team of seven while he mans the operations from his office. “I’m too old [to be on the field]; I‘m a dinosaur,” he says with a laugh.

The chainsaw tree at the Environmental Enforcement Museum is joined by a motorcycle rebuilt to carry illegally cut wood, along with a boat and some cyanide used for illegal fishing. Once upon a time, Atty. Bobby Chan was hauled before a judge for keeping the items, as it is against the law for a private citizen to keep confiscated items in their custody. “I’m not a policeman or a public official,” he says. “[Just] an ordinary citizen, working for a non-government organization.” His expertise in environmental law still doesn’t make him a public official, although he does exercise public functions. Most importantly, he notes, “Everybody has the power to make a citizen‘s arrest.”

And that’s why we call Atty. Bobby Chan a tough guy.


School of Living Traditions, Lake Sebu

Oyog Todi grew up on T’boli tribal land in South Cotabato. The T‘boli live in close proximity to their ancestral home of Lake Sebu, where they have settled for generations. Her tribe is called Helubong, which translates to “never-ending joy in celebration.”

Today, by the popular tourist destination of Lake Sebu, you will find a School of Living Traditions. According to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), an SLT is a “communal site where a living master, cultural bearer, or culture specialist teaches skills and techniques of doing a traditional art of craft.” For T’boli tribal leader Oyog, the SLT contains a simple message to the youth of her tribe: “Maging proud ka na katutubo ka.”

The Lake Sebu SLT now has 65 young T’boli students, tasked with learning different facets of T’boli culture. While there are also Schools for Indigenous Knowledge and Tradition (SIKAT), which focus on formal education, SLTs focus on cultural practices and issues linked to their heritage; to the lake, and the land surrounding it. “We have classes open to everybody. Storytelling, brainstorming, dancing, values formation,” says Oyog. “We also teach our children [about] the current issues affecting our culture. We have T‘boli students, and we [also] have those who want to experience cultural immersion.”

Since the SLT belongs to the T'boli, it is also fully funded by the efforts of Oyog and her partners. “We market our own products and performances,” Oyog says. “The more the land is developed, the more we get affected. In order for us to survive, we also had to learn how to market our products.”

The SLT contains a message to the youth of her tribe: “Maging proud ka na katutubo ka.”

Marketing their products has also meant learning to fend off counterfeits: While they‘ve had great success in restoring respect for their traditional t’nalak cloth, this has also meant that the higher demand has spawned imitators who are unwilling to put in the time and effort it takes to make real t’nalak—which is made purely with abaca fiber, and colored with natural dye, and takes upwards of two months to make—and other T‘boli handicraft. “Bihira lang na ang mga shops na T'boli,” she says.

Oyog continues to be a powerful figure in tourism and cultural advocacy, working with the Council of Elders, the National Tourism Council, and NGOs. In June this year, to commemorate National Heritage Month, the Philippine Postal Service put her image on a stamp, for her role bringing the rest of the country a living, breathing T'boli culture. “We said, ‘Let’s make a school of living tradition, because we need life.’ Magprepreserve ka ng culture dahil hindi siya naprapractice... Sometimes we brainstorm with the children. Para naka-set ang mind nila ang life ng mga T’boli dati at ngayon... We want them to recall what has passed so that they can compare to what is now, and what might be the future.”


Philippine Tarsier Foundation, Bohol

It must be pretty cool to know that your name is also the name of your favorite animal. This is the case with Carlito Pizarras and Carlito syrichta, the scientific name for the Philippine tarsier, one of the smallest primates in the world.

This is no coincidence: The names Carlito Pizarras and tarsier are nearly interchangeable now—the scientific community even calls him The Tarsier Man, with every respect intended. When scientists agreed to recognize the Philippine tarsier as a separate genus in 2010, the new name meant to recognize Carlito’s work.

Like his equally stealthy animal counterpart, Carlito still spends his days doing work in the forests for the Philippine Tarsier Foundation. Once upon a time, he was a one-man conservation army, foraging for insects for the tarsiers to eat. Today, Carlito‘s tarsier sanctuary in Bohol is the world's most successful reserve for tarsiers, helping bring back the population from the brink. Part of that success can be attributed to the increase in popular awareness about the tarsier and its plight, thanks in no small part to the Tarsier Research and Development Center. The tourist spot, which Carlito founded and now runs with his brother, is a “semi-wild” sanctuary that allows visitors to see the tarsiers up close.

The scientific community even calls him The Tarsier Man, with every respect intended.

Carlito himself remains a quiet man of few words, but of very effective action: "Araw-araw ako nagmomonitor ng mga tarsiers sa gubat. Minsan hanggang gabi,” he says. His stage is a well-camouflaged one, thanks to the reclusive nature of its inhabitants. Because each tarsier requires a hectare of space in order to survive, Carlito roams a large, heavily forested area, scouting for threats to the tarsiers—poachers, loggers, and even cats—and making sure the trees are populated with edible insects. His routine has not changed much since the foundation was put up in 1996, when he was named field supervisor. Today, the foundation has bred over a hundred tarsiers.

The reason he’s so good at knowing the animal’s habits was that, before he became the tarsiers' savior, he himself was an enemy. “Yung tatay ko taxidermist, so nagstustuff siya ng mga animals.” Young Carlito even tried to keep the animals as pets—unsuccessfully, of course. Tarsiers are known as very withdrawn creatures, prone to trauma if petted or caged; he realized that the delicate creatures needed protection.

“Lumiit ang population nila, at nakita ko ito dahil kami [dati] ang nanghuhuli. Baka yung next generation, hindi na nila makita ang tarsier. Nag-desisyon ako na ako na ang mag-aalaga sa kanila.”


Rice Terraces Farmers Cooperative

That the Banaue Rice Terraces are a stunning, unforgettable man-made wonder is undeniable; but that also makes it easy to forget that they are also, first and foremost, working rice paddies. For the 80 percent of people in Cordillera who have a relationship with rice, including local farmers, this is a deeply important distinction.

Jimmy Lingayo is the Cooperative Manager of the Rice Terraces Farmers Cooperative (RTFC) and  the non-government organization RICE Inc., and he has a heart bleeding with love for his land. “Sabihin mo na may nakakapang-iba na rice varieties sa Cordillera! Sabihin mo na nutritious ang rice namin kaya noong bata kami, kahit wala kaming ulam, malakas kami.” He might start here, if you ask him about his co-op. Having worked both in the rice fields and the business of agriculture, Jimmy now manages a team of Cordillera farmers, banding together to keep the terraces alive through their push for heirloom rice.

Since 2005, Jimmy’s co-op has been working with RICE Inc. and their international buyer Eighth Wonder to export different varieties of heirloom rice. Much like its vision for the future, the heirloom rice project’s background begins with a relationship between locals and foreigners: Back in 2002, RICE Inc.‘s executive director Vicky Garcia met with Mary Henley from Eight Wonder, a former Peace Corps volunteer. The two decided together to push marketing for native rice abroad, hoping to find stronger support for local farmers. It was at one of their information drives that they met Jimmy.

“Nag-usap kami, at sabi ko kung kailangan niyo ng kasama dito sa probinsya na magtulong sa process na ito, we can join you,” says Jimmy. “Mabuti na may NGO na nagtutulong sa training at organization namin. Tinutulungan kami sa training at quality control ng heirloom rice.”

“Ang mga project na ganito hindi lang sa pagbebenta, pero para sa preservation ng rice terraces.”

Heirloom rice is not the same as native rice, though the distinction is hard to define. The farmers will tell you that it’s in the history: Heirloom rice varieties have been tended to from generation to generation, curated by a long line of expertise in their field. “Parang may inheritance value. Dito sa Banaue, noong bata ako, lahat ng native rice ay varieties ng heirloom rice.”

The heirloom rice project exists because this isn't the case anymore—after years of nursing the habit of looking for higher-yielding, more resistant kinds of rice, farmers stopped planting different varieties of heirloom rice. “Mabuti nga na may natira na heirloom varieties,” Jimmy says. “Mabuti na ginawa itong project para ma-save ang mga natirang heirloom varieties.”

“Before, noong bata kami, ito ang pinakatrabaho namin. Pero ngayon na nag-aaral ang mga bata at marami silang ibang livelihood at trabaho, they’re abandoning the rice fields. Nakikita ko ‘yung mga tourists na dumadating dito, they can no longer appreciate the same beauty of the terraces. And yet they are still coming.” Now, Jimmy and his co-op receive more regular help from NGOs and government agencies to keep up their work reviving the rice fields. Their products can be found in local establishments, as well as purchased online.

Jimmy says that in the beginning, there were negative connotations attached to the business of exporting that they had to battle. Fortunately, this isn’t just a matter of business. “The farmers now appreciate the old varieties. They value their rice fields. Para sa akin, ang mga project na ganito hindi lang sa pagbebenta, pero para sa preservation ng rice terraces.”


This story was originally published in GRID Issue 05.

This story was originally published in

Issue 05 | Beyond the Break

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