BeGood Cafe-Archive » #9 BUT, YET, STILL



Photo Credit: TAO Philippines

Palawan, the island on the south west part of the Philippines known as “the last frontier” was the stage of inspiration for two backpackers, Jack and Eddie, who started island-hopping in this region in 2006. They were so mesmerized by the raw beauty and remoteness of this area that they started planning sailing trips for other likeminded travelers.

Eventually, their passion for nature and adventurous island spirit gave birth to TAO Philippines – a boat expedition that allows tourists to visit more than 200 remote islands along a 150 kilometer route between El Nido and Coron, Northern Palawan. The growth of their island venture has been phenomenal and after nine years, the concept has expanded beyond their wildest dreams.

TAO, which translates into “people” in the native Tagalog language, embodies the central focus of their business. Here, tourists become visitors to a Filipino family home and they integrate into the daily local activities in the areas they visit.

Jack and Eddie developed a program that equally shares the benefits brought by their eco and people-centered tourism activities to the whole community. In 2007, they set up the TAO Kalahi Foundation to help, educate and sustain the local islanders and their communities. Since then, many daycare centers for pre-school children, and womens’ livelihood groups were established.

The beautiful training center on “the farm” built in 2014
from bamboo and native materials.
Photo Credit: Jack Foottit

But as with every rapidly growing success, they are having to adopt to the changing challenges of the times. So, about two years ago, TAO Philippines approached us while we were settling in at our new coffee farm located in Lipa, Batangas and asked us to determine if we could help them with growing concerns.

We explained what we were doing with permaculture and the social tools like transition initiatives and how this could be adopted to tailor-fit their local community.

And before we knew it, a month later, the exciting first journey started-off in Coron after a short flight from Manila. The devastating typhoon Yolanda –internationally known as Haiyan – had just passed and there was still a clear scar through the landscape and the human settlements as we traveled by boat along the coastline. Due to TAO’s close relationship to the community and their fleet of touring boats, they were one of the first groups out after the storm, assessing the vast damaged area and the crying need for water, food and shelter as they were connecting with the people. All the blue tarpaulin roofs along the shoreline –literally hundreds- were a sign of the quick aid they were able to disseminate as they coordinated very effectively where things had to be brought and a transportation network insured safe and fair distribution of medical aid and other goods.

Some of the devastation that Yolanda left behind.
Photo Credit: TAO Philippines

After spending hours on the open calm seas, we arrived at one of the basecamps where we learnt about the loss of boats and the idea emerged of starting to build fiberglass boats for the fishermen as they are more durable and less wood was required for the project of replacing some of the lost “bancas” –small boats.

While doing some interviewing to explore different traditional ways of boatbuilding and waterproofing their vessels, an amazing natural solution seemed to emerge. There is a native tree that grows abundantly on the islands and the sap or resin is collected from these “sahing” trees. It is used as a glue to bond the wood in the boat construction; it can be used as a waterproofer but can also be utilized as a fire starter due to the oils in the sticky white sap. Later we found out that it has great healing power and it is converted into a very expensive tincture but can also be an effective lacquer.

An amazing vessel called a Paraw- native double out rigger sailboat- was built by
TAO to educate youngsters about their heritage.
Photo Credit: TAO Philippines

Our journey lead us past amazing mangroves, found thermal springs in lagoons and experienced breathtaking sunsets while drinking the refreshing water from a coconut and eating freshly caught fish that had just been grilled on an open fire.

The traditional drink that they serve on the expeditions is rum and pineapple juice from a can. Observing the local communities and their cooking habits brought the rocket stove into the picture, sharing the benefits of a cleaner burn and more energy efficiency. Hence the conversion of the “waste” pineapple cans into the base material of the stove with the help of aviation snipes, we taught the TAO “lost boys” how to help everybody ingenerating a new awareness of what resources are.

On our return a year later the project had grown into an effective result, bigger and more experimental models were around of the rocket stove burning coconut shells and offcuts of bamboo in the smokeless and energy focused stoves.
Photo Credit: TAO Philippines

One of the most memorable experiences would be a massage on the beach of the base camp called “the farm,” in the open air with the revitalizing fresh breeze from the sea and a smell of tantalizing home made coconut oil. The TAO Foundation set up a program to empower the local women in fishing communities addressing several concerns all at once.

Due to the dwindling fish population more men are forced to stay home resulting to boredom, drinking and more pregnant women. So the incentive of TAO through their foundation started to educate the local women to make coconut oil for massages and gave them an excellent training, thus making them less dependent on resources. Due to the tours they would have a steady income as almost every other night a boat will visit the island during the warm dry season.
To insure social monitoring, the massages are given on the beach, avoiding mistrust from their husbands. Also, the TAO Foundation requires the masseuse to not be pregnant while they are working. By introducing this program they encapsulated many concerns and have used a clever way of protecting the women as they now have rights in the households due to income they are bringing home and giving them a voice and more importantly, empowering them to take control of their reproductive health.

Because “the farms’” location is not too remote, supplies can be sourced easily from the local village, which are then delivered by boat or motorcycle and then passed on again to the fleet. The beach has become an active scene for refilling the boats with drinking water, replenishing food stocks as the boats pass, but cement or iron wares like deep well pumps or nails, plumbing stocks and lumber also leave from here often too. Diesel fuel can also be bunkered here but future visions can change many old approaches with new attitudes inspired by old lost customs.

The Paraw in the bay of “the farm” close to El Nido
Photo Credit: Scott Sporleder

If we were to look closer at the air picture that was taken by a drone, we see a vast coastline filled with coconuts. This is the first classic image that we would see or have of a tropical island, but the real life of this sandy beach has another story to tell and it dates back to not too long ago, an astonishing truth that will make your jaw drop!

Up until fifty years ago, there was a dense tropical forest on that exact location, with lush vegetation and wildlife that could make a zoo owner lick his lips for; reptiles, fish, birds and insects. All had been taken for manly profit and then replanted with coconut to produce controlled healthy environments “we” could flourish from.

During our first visit to “the farm” we were invited to assess the productivity of the vegetable gardens, which were already been fertilized with bokashi. The biggest flaw we were able to address was the bare soil being exposed in the challenging tropical sun, drying out the soil and sterilizing the microbial life in it. By adding layers of mulch, a microclimate is developed where moisture retention is increased and this makes place for diverse bacterial and fungal growth aiding in the energy exchange of living matter leading into higher yields and long-term investment into the soil.

A proud group of TAO staff sharing their abundant produce after improving the soil condition of their gardens
Photo Credit: TAO Philippines

So, a year later we were again invited by TAO to help resolve a much bigger challenge, a water crisis or shortage. As permaculturists, we looked at the phenomena from many angles and the predominant point that came to mind was El Nino with it’s warmer period that has been occurring more frequently in the last few decades around the Pacific area. The impact of this pattern results into warmer and drier periods than normal recurring weather systems.

At the TAO farm, the springs along the higher mountain slopes that would feed into the storage tanks were starting to flow weakly, sparsely replenishing their water reservoirs. As an emergency resolve, we gave several recommendations and TAO founders readily welcomed and implemented them.The water flushed toilets were now rinsed with seawater, but knowing that it could destabilize the bacterial decomposition due to the preserving character, a separate septic tank was built to store the salty wastewater. This action also prevented the black water from seeping into the ground preventing that the soil will turn brackish and have detrimental effect on the vegetation in the long run.

Drinking water was to be rationed and bathing options were reduced to a few scoops of fresh water after washing in the sea. The garden production came almost to a halt, only the seedlings that had already been sprouted were all brought together to a few growing-beds so that they could survive and intensive shading was created to prevent burning in the hard sun.

A water dowser was brought in to see if there were any other fresh water sources on “the farm” and after searching about for hours there were three new locations that showed potential. Interesting enough, they all seemed to be on the edge of the property where the flatter land met with edge of the mountain.

But to make a long-term impact on the water stability we would have to change the landscape, remediate it as a lot of the original vegetation had been lost either by logging, burning or decay as s result of an unstable fertilization system that naturally is kept in place by a healthy forest.

The first step is to identify the best places on the slope of the mountain to then build in swales using them to then stop or slow down the water, then spread it along the slope on contour of the mountain and then soak it into the ground during the rains.

Digging the swale lines in the dry soil to improve soakage
Photo Credit: Penelope Reyes

Besides cutting swale lines into the soil we chose biomass to build swale lines where there were too many rock formations. Coconut palm leaves were stacked in creative manners or banana plants were pruned to improve the yields and the massive trunks were halved and laid out in a planned fashion to then too create dense swale lines.

In all the research we did in the area of Palawan we were baffled by such startling facts as elders recalling areas that were almost like marsh lands filled with huge trees and water which made way for rice fields that have been around for only fifty years but have turned the land into barren areas of dust.
And slowly the lush green mountains are becoming a quilt of scarred land, exposing the soil to the rains that easily wash away all the nutrients as the forests have been slashed and burned.

Viewing a landscape, victim to slash and burn practices, a painfully sad sight
Photo Credit: Jack Foottit

But how is this possible? Apparently the local government issues a permit to people who want to convert this “useless” dense forest land into productive agricultural areas. With this approach, the wood that is cut is sold at a low cost to cover some of the farmers cost, after which the burning supplies some potassium to the land and helps with the first harvest of rice that is then planted and followed by a crop of cassava. If one does the math it seems ludicrous as to what is gained form all these actions; a few sacks of rice?

The most amazing thing is that if a new and more simple approach would be taught there would be even greater potential as we have tried on our farm in Lipa, Batangas. Here we used a permaculture principle called food forest systems to convert commercial farmland into multi-crop abundance.

Our lush permaculture garden filled with food all around.
Photo Credit: Kevin Velasco

It is easy to imagine the Philippines with tremendous potential as the tropics can yield so much with root crops like turmeric, gingers and sweet potatoes growing underground, pineapples, purslane and morning glory as ground cover, shrubs of citrus or coffee as understory with bananas over it all with coconuts towering high above as bees help in the pollination around us; just a simple example!
And with this all, a new micro-climate has evolved into moist areas that can later insure springs drawing in even more moisture and grow into stable springs flowing with pure life.

Underutilized land seems to be the biggest sin I believe in modern times where so much knowledge and proof has been around to conduct a spreading of goals with gigantic positive outcome, enough for everyone, a fair share.

So the big question is, are we willing to make a change before it is all too late?
Or will we be reminiscing natures’ bountiful abundance? If we don’t act now to restore the Earth, maybe the only thing we can do in the future is stare at its images on pods and pads but never to be able to feel the fresh rains on a face or wind blowing the heat away!