Supported by: Edilberto Magpayo
El Nido is a top tourist destination known for its turquoise waters and white-sand beaches. But it also offers a different kind of beauty that isn’t known to many. Around 23 kilometers from the town proper is a seldom-explored 412-hectare mangrove forest located in Brgy. New Ibajay. Since 2018, the Dewil Eco-Mangrove Association (DEMA) has been safeguarding and facilitating ecotourism in the area.
Diomac “Ondo” Pable and Maria Eveleyn “Pinky” Maquilan-Pable are the president and board director of DEMA, respectively. PSFI saw potential in their community to integrate tourism and environmental conservation by empowering locals to develop a Community-Based Sustainable Tourism (CBST) site. Eva Malabanan, who was the project officer at the time, helped them officially establish DEMA through the Turismo At Negosyo Dulot ng Ingat KAlikasaN (TANDIKAN) program.
Ondo, Pinky, and 18 other DEMA members eagerly participated in the water search and rescue (WASAR) training, environmental training, and mushroom, patis, and tinapa food processing that would empower and prepare them for their new CBST endeavor. They also received tools like life jackets, snorkeling gear, and kayaks. Beyond their gratitude for TANDIKAN’s tools and training, the couple shares their appreciation for Ms. Eva, who was the first to spark their love for the mangrove forest.
The Dewil Eco-Mangrove Tour officially opened in June 2019. They were gradually gaining visitors when the pandemic abruptly halted their progress. The couple continued to manage operations despite having no income or visitors for nearly two years, facing a dwindling number of DEMA members, and receiving judgment from other locals. Some even considered them foolish for toiling in their association without pay.
Pinky and Ondo consider themselves fortunate that they can support their five children even without DEMA, as Pinky now continues to work as a high school teacher and Ondo sells fish for a living.
However, leading DEMA and protecting their environment is where they find fulfillment.
“Ang naisip ko lang ay yung sinimulan na namin…‘yung purpose namin na mapanatili ang kalikasan. ‘Yan naman talaga ang goal namin. Hangga’t nandito pa kami, hindi namin sasayangin yung pagkakataon na proteksyonan talaga [ito],” Ondo asserts.
With support from non-profit organizations, they continued learning and training to become better tour guides and stewards of the environment. Edong Magpayo, a PSFI project officer, also assisted them in registering their organization with the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).
DEMA’s story shows how communities can flourish and become resilient when given the right resources and support. When asked how they kept the organization intact, Ondo replied, “Nagkakaisa kami. May iisang layunin na kikita kami na napu-proteksyunan namin ang environment.” Pinky and Ondo have observed that other local organizations typically last just one to two years.
As tourism began opening up in 2022, DEMA sought more ways to improve their facilities and the experiences they offer visitors. They entered two separate float competitions and won a total of P30,000, which they used to buy uniforms for their members and renovate the DEMA office.
The Dewil Eco-Mangrove Tour features are now being discovered by tourists, vloggers, and groups interested in experiencing their tour and activities. Their members are filled with renewed hope.
Ondo, Pinky, and other DEMA members are more than tour guides and CBST managers. They are also a vital source of traditional and indigenous knowledge. From the local history of mangrove species diversity to the ebbs and flows of the tides, these all translate to local knowledge that has crucial implications for community development and environmental conservation.
For instance, Pinky and Ondo are well aware of local issues related to mangrove cutting. Wood from mangroves makes the best-quality coal, so combined with rising fuel prices, many locals often turn to illegal mangrove cutting. Pinky hopes for their community to have alternatives to coal to prevent further mangrove loss.
With their success in overcoming the challenges of the last six years, DEMA has great potential to create an even bigger impact in the future. The group now has 30 new members and has garnered the interest of more tourists, non-profit organizations, and local governments. Ondo recounts some of the changes they have observed:
“Noong na-establish na ang aming organisasyon, naitatak ng Pilipinas Shell Foundation ang kahalagahan ng mangroves…Dahil dito, naging aware ang mga tao. Ito rin ay nagdulot ng pagtigil ng pamumutol ng mga mangroves…Ngayon, meron pa rin pero kakaunti nalang ang gumagawa nito.“
DEMA also initiated the first Bakawan Festival in El Nido in June 2022, where they celebrated local culture and planted around 5,000 mangrove saplings. They were keen on making this a regular event and hosted the festival in 2023 as well. They managed to have a memorable festival by celebrating indoors and bringing together both the private and public sectors, though the festivities were beset by heavy rains and flooding.
The Dewil Eco-Mangrove Tour is beautiful, both visually and in spirit. Rather than being “untouched” or “unchanged” by man, it is a place that the local community has responsibly developed and does its utmost to protect from misuse. It offers all that ecotourism promises — conserving the environment, immersing in local culture, supporting communities, and discovering a different world.
Ondo invites everyone to explore their mangrove forest, though DEMA will be careful to manage their guest numbers to ensure that environmental conservation comes first:
“Iniimbita ko po kayo na pumasyal kayo dito sa El Nido. Hanapin niyo po yung New Ibajay, DEMA. Makikita niyo kung gaano kaganda ang aming mangroves. Iniisip din po namin na ‘di po talaga dapat magkaroon ng biglang daming tao, ‘yung kaya lang naming i-accommodate para hindi mapabayaan yung kapaligiran natin.”
Pinky aspires to further develop their CBST and hopes that more organizations will also find the solidarity and empowerment they have in DEMA:
“Harinawa’y mag-bloom po ang Pilipinas Shell para mas marami pa ring matulungan. Hindi lang kami, [kundi] ibang panig ng Pilipinas, lalo na ang mga mahihirap na nangangailangan, mga pursigido na dedicated sa kanilang organisasyon.”
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