El Nido's balancing act: Managing nature and tourism

PALAWAN, Philippines – The El Nido local government finds managing its natural environment challenging due to the constant demands coming from its booming tourism industry.

“It is very challenging because this is a developing municipality, and as tourists are coming in, we have to provide appropriate services to them,” town administrator RJ de la Calzada said on Tuesday, January 30.

As one of the world’s top tourism destinations, El Nido offers tourists a bunch of adventure-filled nature activities, thanks to its unique islands and beaches and exceptional biodiversity.

“Of course, we’re offering tourism activities and these necessitate the utilization of our surroundings, but we also need to protect the natural integrity of El Nido which we’re known for,” De La Calzada said.

El Nido is currently beset with issues of diminishing water quality, biodiversity loss, the proliferation of business establishments without permit, and a host of other problems.

Such problems have put the town in the list of priority areas of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu said he directed his staff “to address such priorities as clean water, clean air, and solid waste management” to help minimize the negative impact of tourism pressure in El Nido.

“I want people to experience the beauty of El Nido and other natural wonders of our country for as long as possible,” Cimatu said in a statement on Sunday, January 28.

Local, national gov’t synergy

De la Calzada said the department’s pronouncement is a welcome development in regulating the town’s tourism industry. “There's no problem with that as we always work with the different government institutions, including the DENR,” he said.

This is evident in the municipal government’s long-standing partnership with the DENR in managing the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area (ETMRPA), pursuant to the Republic Act 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992.

“We have certain policies we're implementing together, such as the enforcement of the anti-logging law and regulation of harvesting non-timber forest products and our islands and beaches,” De la Calzada said.

DENR MIMAROPA Regional Director Natividad Bernardino said the ETMRPA’s Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) already passed a resolution that limits tourist entry and activity in 3 of the most visited places in El Nido.

“We value El Nido’s contribution to the economy of Palawan and of the country; we cannot help, however, but worry that the magnitude of tourist activities in El Nido is already way beyond its carrying capacity,” she said.

In the Big Lagoon, only 60 guests will be allowed at a time or a maximum of 720 guests per day. In the Small Lagoon, a maximum of 30 guests will be allowed at a time or a total of 360 persons per day. For the Secret Beach, only 12 visitors will be allowed at a time or a total of 144 a day.

Limits on the number of conveyances have also been set – a maximum of 5 boats in the anchorage area and 30 kayaks inside the Big Lagoon, only 15 kayaks inside the Small Lagoon, and two boats in the anchorage area of Secret Beach.

Activities such as fishing, cliff jumping, grilling of food, and playing of loud music have been prohibited in the 3 spots.

In another resolution, the PAMB identified the Strict Protection Zone or areas with high biodiversity value that should be closed to human activity, except for scientific research and/or ceremonial use by indigenous communities. These include, among others, Helicopter Island, Balinaud Beach, Turtle Island, and Pacanayan Island.

De la Calzada said they will support the DENR Protected Area Office in implementing these new policies, particularly in providing fuel for monitoring boat and additional enforcement force, and in conducting info drives.

Structures for phaseout

Currently, the municipal administrator said they are specifically seeking help from the DENR in conducting a survey to establish the regular highest tide and begin removing the business establishments lining the town proper’s shoreline.

“We need to establish the easement from the highest tide for us to have a phase-out plan for structures located within this zone,” De la Calzada added.

Under the Philippine Water Code, building of structures of any kind within a zone of 3 meters in urban areas is prohibited as this area is subject to the easement of public use in the interest of recreation, navigation, floatage, fishing, and salvage.

“They can build after the 3-meter easement, but if their current structures are within that zone then they are subject to phase-out,” he said.

Initially, De la Calzada said that they already informed some 20 business owners who will be affected by the implementation of easement in the town proper. The municipal government, he added, has yet to issue permits to these business establishments.

“It’s obvious they are in that no-build zone but we need a scientific way of telling it,” he said.

Regulating the water quality

In the next months, the DENR plans to inspect all establishments in El Nido and ensure their compliance with the disposal of solid and liquid wastes, and also to monitor the town’s water and even air quality.

El Nido gained unwanted attention in 2014 when it was widely reported that the water quality along the town shoreline had exceeded the allowable limits of pollutants set under the country’s Clean Water Act.

With the implementation of a septage management ordinance, the municipal government assured residents that pollution levels have since gone down.

“There’s a company dislodging the wastewater from the septic tanks of establishments because we really prohibit them to release it to water bodies or land,” De la Calzada said.

He said the construction of the town’s centralized sewage treatment plant is ongoing and is expected to be fully operational in 2020.

Creation of an urban masterplan

Another concern raised by the municipal administrator was the occupation of timberlands. He noted the case of Barangay Pasadeña, a flatland but classified as a timberland.

“For the longest time it’s a residential area and that’s what we want to resolve with the DENR, although under the 1987 Philippine Constitution the reclassification of timberland is no longer allowed,” De la Calzada said.

Besides Pasadeña, De la Calzada said there are other timberlands in El Nido that are “really suited for residential and commercial purposes” and thus need the environment department’s scrutiny.

Bernardino said they will also validate tenurial instruments of business and residents in the town.

Critics say all of the developmental issues that increasingly crop up in the town and threaten its natural environment is due to the lack of sufficient planning, which the municipal government also admitted.

“It’s true because we’ve been overtaken by events; we’d seen an influx of tourists in the past few years,” De la Calzada said.

According to the 2016 report of the El Nido Municipal Tourism Office, tourist arrivals in the town increased by more than 30% annually in the last 3 years. Last year, there were nearly 200,000 tourist arrivals.

This does not only mean increased revenue for the town but also increased demand for fresh water, timber, and other construction materials, use of fuel and consumer goods, and activities in the islands – all exerting tremendous pressure on the rich biodiversity of El Nido.

De la Calzada said they allocated P5.5 million to fund El Nido’s urban master plan. “We will be partnering with an urban planner to identify the developmental agenda of El Nido in the future,” he added. – Rappler.com