In times past when no road connected the eastern part of Samar to the rest of the island, a river served as highway to move people and goods in ways that legends were built on.
The Ulot River, a 520-kilometer- long tributary and considered to be the longest in Samar, meanders through Paranas in Samar and touches 11 towns before it pours into the Pacific Ocean in Can-avid, Eastern Samar.
So dependent were the folks on the Ulot River that it became the stuff of hilarious anecdotes. Like: A student was coming home from Manila and had to notify his parents through telegram.
He wired: Tapo, ulot ako! (Meet me. I’m a monkey!) Ulot is Waray, the local dialect, for monkey. You can just imagine the consternation of his parents.
But if the Ulot River was the lifeline then, it’s still a lifeline now. With the Ulot Watershed Ecotourism Loop, it’s the centerpiece of an ambitious environmental and conservation program that is one of the largest in the entire Philippines.
It is part of the Samar Island Natural Park, a biodiversity project originally funded by the United Nations.
In 2003, then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, through Proclamation 442, created the Samar Island Natural Park that covers 333,330 hectares and a buffer zone of 125,400 hectares or a total area of 455,700 hectares.
It encompasses 34 towns and three cities and contains one of the country’s largest unfragmented tracts of lowland rainforest.
It seeks to conserve biodiversity, provide sustained ecological services and opportunities for equitable and sustainable development and opportunities for the local folks to be involved.
DENR Region VIII manages the day-to-day operations with an on-site manager, the Protected Area Superintendent.
So far, the SINP has helped organize community groups and provide livelihood training to stop local residents from engaging in charcoal making, timber poaching, kaingin (slash-and-burn farming) and hunting wildlife.
With the Department of Tourism, a thriving livelihood project, a boat ride along the river that has attracted foreign tourists and provided additional income to local folks has been in operation since 2010.
Unfortunately, the SINP has hit a financial snag that threatens to scuttle the entire project.
In a recent interview with the local paper, the Leyte Samar Daily Express and with other journalists, it was learned the SINP needs at least a P2.17 billion budget until 2016.
Protected Areas Superintendent Angelito Villanueva said that P1.11 billion is intended for biodiversity management, P1.03 billion for community outreach, P6.34 million for community-based eco-tourism and P13.54 million for stakeholder participation and management.
“Now that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has expired, we have to find other funding sources to sustain management activities,” Villanueva told the newsmen.
In 2001, the UNDP allocated $21 million in grants as part of its worldwide conservation program.
According to the Philippine Clearing House Mechanism for Biodiversity, which provides information for biodiversity projects in the country, the SINP was planned in three phases.
The first phase was from 2001-2005, which focused on planning and policy works required to “formally gazette” the natural park , and institutionalize the proposed community-based management approach.
The second phase of the project ran from 2008-2011 aimed at building core conservation functions, and nurture conservation processes through to maturity. In 2012, the UNDP funding support expired.
The third phase, which is ongoing, will build on the successes of the earlier phases and expand the operations.
Villanueva said that with the limited financial support from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) budget, they have been sourcing out funds from other agencies, local government units and international organizations.
The hope was that eventually the Philippine Congress will pass a law creating the SINP and providing for its funding.
In the current 16th Congress, Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone has filed a bill, SB 358, titled “Samar Island Natural Park.”
“An Act declaring the Samar Island Natural Park (SINP) situated in the provinces of Samar, Northern Samar and Eastern Samar, as a protected area and its peripheral areas as buffer zone, providing for its management and for other purposes.”
It is pending with the Committee on Natural Resources. Evardone, in a message on his Facebook page, said the bill was approved in committee last week.
I filed it also in the last Congress but the Senate did not act on it, apparently because of the strong lobby of influential pro – mining and pro – logging groups and individuals,” Evardone wrote.
” I hope that this time the Senate will act on it favorably, even if there is still a senator who has logging interests in Samar island,” he added.
The side issues in the park project are additional roadblocks to its full implementation. (We’ll tackle these in future stories.)
In his talk with the local newsmen and as reported by the Leyte Samar Daily Express, Villanueva said that the SINP is a weapon against global warming.
He said Samar Island’s cover shrunk to 318,348 hectares in 2001 from 425,200 hectares in 1987, or an average annual forest cover loss of 7,632 hectares.
The major causes are charcoal making, timber poaching, encroachment and unregulated hunting of wildlife species. Commercial logging in the past has contributed to forest denudation.
The protected area supports some 38 species of mammals, 215 species of birds, 51 species of reptiles, 26 species of amphibians and over 1,000 species of plants.
For Eastern Samar, the SINP is an important project.
The towns affected are Arteche, Balangiga, Balangkayan, Borongan, Can-Avid, Dolores, Gen. MacArthur, Hernani, Giporlos, Jipapad, Lawaan, Oras, Llorente, Maslog, Maydolong, Quinapodan, San Julian, Sulat and Taft,
Fifty sites in the protect area were initially identified but planners conceded there would be difficulty in developing all of them due to lack of funds.
Instead, they chose important areas in the three provinces and started the social preparations to make them market ready.
• Pinipisakan Falls in Las Navas, Northern Samar
• Calbiga Cave in Calbiga, Western Samar
• Ulot River Torpedo Ride in Paranas, Western Samar
• Sohoton Cave in Basey, Western Samar
• Borongan-Llorente Closed Canopy Forest
• Various falls in Lawaan town in Eastern Samar
V illanueva also underscored that amid reported presence of insurgents in the area, there has been no report of tourists who were harassed or hurt by the rebel group.