Found in the Calamianes Group of Islands in northern Palawan, Coron has made quite the name for itself over recent years, enchanting travelers with its pristine lakes and underwater shipwrecks. But there is a place within the municipality that not many may have heard of—and it is found east of Busuanga Island, some 40 kilometers north from the Coron town center. To get there would mean riding a van for over an hour on mostly paved roads, or a boat between four to five hours on mercurial seas.
This place is called Malawig: a small, coastal barangay shaped like a half-claw on the map; wedged between the mountains and the sea. It is the ancestral domain of the indigenous Calamian Tagbanua—a semi-nomadic, seafaring people believed to be descendants of the Tabon Man, the oldest modern human from the Philippines.
In his 1954 dissertation Religion and Society Among the Tagbanua in Palawan, anthropologist Robert Fox notes that unlike their brethren from the mainland, the Calamian Tagbanua largely relied on the sea for survival. Having lived on these islands for many years, their lives intertwined tightly with the natural world.
But over time, that world began to change: the Tagbanua noticed how their coastlines were slowly shrinking, or how the dry season felt longer and warmer than usual. Sometimes the rain was delayed, so they could no longer tell when it was time to plant seeds.
Then in 2013, a super typhoon caught the Tagbanua off-guard. With a maximum wind speed of 315 kph, Typhoon Yolanda was one of the world’s strongest typhoons, bringing widespread destruction around the Philippines within 24 hours. In Coron, where it made its final landfall before exiting the country, winds blew as strong as 160 kph; affecting over 10,000 families and causing over Php 200 million worth of damages in the municipality.
Clemencio Carpiano, one of the village leaders, remembers it well: how Typhoon Yolanda arrived in the dead of night; how at first, he thought the impact that bore down on their house was just the rain. But it turned out to be the ocean, swelling into waves that pummeled everything on the shore.
Having lived on these islands for many years, the Calamian Tagbanua’s lives intertwined tightly with the natural world.
The next day, the houses, schools, village centers, and fishing boats were all reduced to piles of debris; full-grown trees lay uprooted on the ground, and dead fish remained where the school used to stand. The landslide from the rain buried their crops and springs, leaving them without access to food and water for two days.
“Walang natira,” he says. “Nagtaka nga yung mga tao sa Malawig. Marami ring dumadaan na bagyo pero hindi pa yung ganoon kalakas.”
The Tagbanua hadn’t known it then, but scientists have long coined a term that would explain the long-term weather changes that they—and the rest of the world—were experiencing: climate change.
This isn’t new information: Since the 1960s, studies have shown that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions have accelerated the natural process of global warming, the long-term effects of which involve changes in climate. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that human activities in the last hundred years have increased global warming by almost 1.1 degrees Celsius, essentially locking us into a warmer future.
In Coron, local climate projections show that the mean temperature could increase to as much as 2.1 degrees Celsius in the next 15 to 30 years, with at least a 25 percent decrease in annual rainfall. By 2065, Coron’s sea level is also expected to rise by 0.6m, submerging land formations and affecting the salinity of the island’s freshwater ecosystems.
What does this mean? If the world heats up by one degree, the likelihood of extreme weather events like tropical cyclones and droughts—phenomena that, even today, Coron’s locals already experience—increases. It means greater exposure to landslides, flash floods, and storm surges that can destroy livelihoods and contaminate existing water sources.
L-R: Rodico Aguido is a member of Malawig's Bantay Gubat program; a boy collects water from a simple pipe in Brgy. Buenavista.
This is bad news for the entire world, but immediately worse for Coron, where majority of people’s livelihood depends on the environment. As climate change worsens, what happens to the Tagbanua?
To a great extent, Typhoon Yolanda changed the way the country saw natural calamities; a glimpse into the kind of ecological disasters that were to come in a world a few degrees warmer. In the aftermath of Yolanda, many civil society organizations (CSOs) partnered with the local government of Coron to help build their resilience. One of them was Cordaid, a Netherlands-based nonprofit.
At first, their goal was to simply jumpstart recovery on the island: rebuild houses and improve water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities from scratch. But if the effects of climate change could drastically alter the landscape of Coron—and in turn, the future of the Tagbanua—could that be enough?
“They need to own the process,” says Eric Lopez, a development worker from Palawan who was part of Cordaid’s resilient recovery program from 2016 to 2019.
If the world heats up by one degree, the likelihood of extreme weather events like tropical cyclones and droughts increases.
Cordaid initially worked with three barangays in Coron—Tara, Malawig, and Buenavista—which all belonged under one ancestral domain claim by the Tagbanua. Beginning in Malawig, they facilitated workshops and planning sessions with IP leaders to help them identify their biggest problem: access to drinking water.
Just how difficult was it for the Tagbanua to access fresh water? Eric says it all depends on the season, and which barangay you were from: Water wasn’t a problem during the rainy season for all three barangays, but during the summer, as the years went by and the days grew warmer, the wells and drums they had scattered around the community slowly dried out—the result of groundwater levels diminishing.
Now, if you had the resources—time and money—to spare, you could travel all the way to Coron town to buy purified water for your family. (If you were a resident of the island barangay of Tara, you had no choice but to travel to the mainland.) But most of the time, residents of the mainland barangays could only afford to paddle to an adjacent sitio on the other side of the island, and draw water from a natural spring inside the forest. Sometimes, when the tide is low, they would have no choice but to scale boulders just to get around the island.
“Sa awa ng Diyos, wala namang nakakuha ng diarrhea sa amin [mula sa tubig]… kung meron man, iilan lang,” says Elizardo Flores, one of Malawig’s community leaders.
Engr. Fernando Lopez, the current head of the disaster risk reduction management office in Coron, says the water supply in Malawig actually improved in the late ‘90s, after the municipal government imposed a short-term ban on kaingin, or slash-and-burn farming. The LGU had helped set up a water tank system in Malawig in 1998, upgrading the community’s water facility status from Level 1, where water is collected from a stand-alone source; to Level 2, where people could collect water from communal faucets.
“Pero lahat din ng [mga water tanks na] iyon nasira noong Typhoon Yolanda,” says Elizardo. It left the community no choice but to build back from scratch; this time, they also needed to make sure that there would always be enough water even during the dry season.
With the help of the RAIN Foundation, a global organization that promotes the use of rainwater harvesting systems, Cordaid introduced a nature-based solution called 3R, which stands for recharge, retention, and reuse. It uses techniques that build on what nature already provides, like rainwater: by making sure that water remains available for use and reuse inside the watershed through a well-stocked water table, it helps coastal communities gather enough water even during the dry season.
Some of the water-saving strategies the RAIN Foundation taught were installing gully traps along the creek: stacks of large stones that slow down the flow of water, so that more of it could travel underground instead of flushing out into the sea. Not only did this contribute to groundwater recharge, but also helped prevent flooding and increased soil erosion in the area. They also set up a forest rehabilitation program; installed forest wardens; and taught the Tagbanua the role of trees in storing rainwater underground.
“Dati kasi yung mga matatanda, [kung saan-saan] nag-kakaingin. Pero noong naturuan kami ng Cordaid, naramdaman talaga namin na kahit tag-init, may tubig pa rin kami,” says Malawig kagawad Joel Quijano.
These days, water flows freely right out of Joel’s faucet; he no longer needs to circle the island or rely on drums, thanks to a joint undertaking between Cordaid and the Coron local government that installed water meters and connected Malawig’s residents to a pipeline. Having met a basic need, the residents are now free to occupy their time with other things—from farming to weaving—that have helped improve the community’s quality of life.
Eight years after Yolanda and four years since Cordaid kicked off its resilience program, Clemencio is now a 3R manigtuldok—a word that means “teacher” in their language.
He belonged to the first batch of leaders that were trained by Cordaid; members chosen by the community themselves. When Cordaid left in 2019, it was now up to Clemencio and the manigtuldoks to pass on their knowledge, and encourage their neighbors to keep going.
“Dati balewala lang sa amin na hindi gaanong nalilinis yung [aming watershed]. Ngayon, seryoso na kami na magkaroon ng taga-linis at magtanim ng mga seedling ng Narra, para madagdagan pa ang mga puno,” he says.
Together with the barangay, the Tagbanua drafted a resolution designating the 300sqm around their natural spring as a protected area; eventually forming an independent committee that would be in charge of its maintenance, from forest protection and rehabilitation to water distribution. The resolution also includes payments for environmental services (PES), which means that each household pays 3 percent of their monthly water bill to the watershed committee, which they use to fund their activities.
These activities weren’t exclusive to the members of the committee; the manigtuldoks invited students and youth members whenever there was a tree-planting or gully trapping activity, and rewarded them with food and drinks after a long day’s work. It was their way of making sure that life in their small island remains, even after they’re long gone.
Indigenous people are the first stewards of our environment, protecting 22 percent of the Earth’s surface and 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.
“Lumakas din yung loob namin noong nahirang kaming Bantay Gubat,” says Rodico Aguido, a member of Malawig’s Bantay Gubat. Every month, he and his fellow wardens go roving inside the watershed, keeping an eye out for any illegal loggers. If they caught an outsider, he would have to pay fines to the barangay; but if they caught a member of the Tagbanua, he would have to face punishment from the council of elders.
“Kasi kapag pinabayaan namin ito, kami din ang mahihirapan,” Rodico adds.
Obtaining follow through from the community can be a struggle for many non-profit organizations; when an NGO completes a project and leaves without a sustainability plan in place, the community can slide back to what it was before—sometimes, ending up even worse. But in Malawig, things were different: three years after the project officially ended, the manigtuldoks were still arms deep in the work; investing time, energy, and resources in protecting their watershed.
It wasn’t unheard of, but it wasn’t very common either. The key, Eric says, was to respect what the Tagbanua already knew.
“Yung pagtingin nila sa environment, alam talaga nila,” he tells me when I ask him about his time with them. Their knowledge may not have come with a shiny diploma, but they could tell you just as well how the water cycle works; and where the best place is to set up a makeshift shelter during a typhoon.
“Their knowledge isn’t alien to them; what’s alien are the terminologies we bring. So you make sure to utilize their knowledge then explain the science behind it after,” he says.
Whenever there were misconceptions, Eric took the time to clarify them through demonstrations; making sure to pull from the Tagbanua’s own experiences. There was a time the Tagbanua didn’t know how the roots of a tree worked; they thought that trees were important because the roots themselves stored water, so Eric patiently explained to them, using a branch he’d plucked off from a nearby tree, how the roots actually help push and store water underground.
But Eric also spoke of things he learned from them alone; the more he spent time with them and opened his mind to their way of life, the more he realized that many of the strategies that were being discussed in the climate community were already being lived out by the Tagbanua.
“Take natural regeneration for example,” he explained. “When I told them about artificial tree planting, they asked me, ‘Sir, why do we need to plant new trees, why can’t we just protect what’s there?’ And it hit me—oo nga ’no! So I researched and studies show that natural regeneration is cheaper when it comes to returning biodiversity; you plant based on the existing seedlings on-site.”
“Minsan, masyado tayong mayabang sa alam natin; pinoproblema mo pa kung paano mo ituturo. Dapat lang pala hanapan ng paraan, at aminado ako na hindi siya madali… pero meron din silang talino, at kailangan lang talagang i-respeto.”
By the time the first batch of trainings ended in 2017, Cordaid was in the middle of facilitating conversations with other stakeholders; a move that helped maintain the progress they achieved in Malawig. These meetings resulted in the Calamianes Resilience Network (CRN), a multi-stakeholder coalition composed of over 40 organizations from the government, academe, and non-profit sector.
“When Eric first approached us with the idea of organizing, I remember being skeptical about whether or not our office needed to really be a part of CRN,” says Engr. Lopez who, at the time, had just been appointed head of Coron’s disaster risk reduction management office (DRRMO). Eventually, he came to understand its benefits: with all four municipalities as members of CRN, each local DRRMO can access technical knowledge and assistance when it comes to dealing with disaster risk reduction, environmental protection, and climate change.
One of CRN’s major goals is to build on the Calamian region’s water resiliency, which they intend to do by replicating the WMC model in different barangays around the four municipalities. As of writing, CRN has helped facilitate 3R workshops in barangays in Busuanga and Culion; with plans to do more in Linapacan and Coron Island.
The best part is that the Tagbanua are leading the workshops themselves; traveling to different areas around the Calamianes to teach their 3R project. In one of our conversations, Clemencio tells me about the time they visited Manlag, a village in Busuanga, and how the residents were so eager to learn about the techniques they achieved in Malawig.
Having met a basic need, the residents are now free to occupy their time with other things—from farming to weaving.
In another village, the manigtuldoks also taught the residents how to filter drinking water from seawater, using a desalinator made out of a shallow box of wood and a thin film of plastic: a technique that was taught to them by Cordaid, particularly for island communities that were far and remote.
“Tuwang-tuwa sila noong itinuro namin iyon!” Clemencio tells me proudly.
It’s a line you don’t always expect to hear, but given the right support, the Tagbanua have shown that they can protect their environment, and empower others to do the same—a message that’s necessary, now more than ever, in the ongoing fight against climate change. Indigenous people are the first stewards of our environment, protecting 22 percent of the Earth’s surface and 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. In the Philippines, it’s estimated that 85 percent of our key biodiversity areas are located within ancestral domains.
“Kung may kakampi sila, nandyan yung lakas ng loob nila. Alam natin na maliliit lang sila, kadalasan wala silang pinag-aralan. Pero kung alam nila na may tutulong sa kanila, na nandyan ang LGU o ang mga ahensya na dapat tumulong sa kanila, mas lalakas ang loob nila na proteksyunan ang lugar nila,” says Engr. Lopez.
There are still challenges of course; from getting non-IP members to work with members of the indigenous political structure to getting enough funding to keep their project going. Through the Coron LGU, CRN is also still waiting for funding approval from the Green Climate Fund, a global fund that helps developing countries implement projects related to climate adaptation and mitigation. The funding intends to help upscale CRN's efforts; approval was initially put on-hold due to the pandemic but discussions have already restarted, as of writing.
Months after we first spoke, I called Eric to ask him about what we can learn from the project in Coron. The biggest thing, he says, is the ability to move past initial perceptions and stereotypes to be able to unlock a community’s potential.
“The road [to] getting there is not easy; you have to build their trust and confidence in themselves. But what’s important is that you also trust that they have the inherent capacity to protect themselves and build resilience for their entire community.”
“I’m happy that we left Malawig,” he adds. “Sure, after the project, there were things we needed to finish, but seeing the people appreciate their environment and helping to maintain it… I don’t feel worried. Kampante ka na pag-alis mo, sila na rin mismo ang magsasalita tungkol dito. Sila na mismo mag-aadvocate for this.”
For the older members of the community, the work can be physically taxing; even now as plans are being made to visit Linapacan Islands in the near future, Clemencio voices out his concern about leaving his family for too long.
“Kailangan kasi mag-bangka—mga ilang araw din kami mawawala,” he says. Sacrifices need to be made; every day spent volunteering also means losing at least a day’s income from fishing. These are only some of the considerations they need to weigh, but when I ask Clemencio and Elizardo what keeps them going, it’s clear that they’re also thinking about a future that goes beyond them.
“Huli na namin natutunan na ang klima pala ay nagbabago,” Clemencio says. “Pero nagpapasalamat pa rin kami na kahit papaano, natuto na rin kami, at nakakatulong din kami sa kapwa namin. Kaya hangga’t malakas ang katawan ko, obligasyon ko ang magturo.”
This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Asian Center for Journalism.