Travel and Tourism

Agusan Marsh awakens

Ivan Man Dy - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - It pays to plan before you travel. But every once in a while, spontaneous forays provide for the biggest and most pleasant surprises. This we found out on recent visit to Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary hosted by the Tribong Manobo of Sitio Panlabuhan Loreto Agusan Marsh Organization, a loose organization of locally-based community members that is spearheading the development of cultural tourism initiatives within the area.

Located in the province of Agusan del Sur, the Agusan Marsh is one of the most ecologically significant wetlands in the country. It is a government declared protected area that comprises a vast complex of freshwater marshes and water courses that includes 59 lakes which collectively act as a holding basin for floodwaters that inundate the Agusan Valley during the monsoon season. Taken together, the vast expanse of the marsh covers an area approximately the size of Metro Manila and is estimated to contain 15 percent of the nation’s fresh water supply in the form of swamp forests. This ecosystem is also the ancestral domain of the Manobo-Agusanon ethnic tribe. 

Truth be told, getting to this natural sanctuary is no walk in the park. From Davao City, it was a four-hour drive to the river pier in Bunawan town where we transfered to a long narrow banca whose sitting area was so cramped that any little movement would be welcomed by your muscles for the duration of the 2.5-hour journey.

The views along the way is classic countryside: verdant foliage, kids swimming by the river and the ocassional carabao taking a mid-day dip. As we slowly pull into the estuary, the atmosphere noticeably changes,  with the water slowly morphing into a sea of floating lotus, thick shrubbery and peat swamp trees. Soon enough, you start seeing monitor lizards as well as birds flying and frolicking amidst the dense vegetation and before you know it, an assemblage of houses begin to appear on the horizon. This is Sitio Panlabuhan Floating Village, a unique water neighborhood that is slowly waking up to the call of tourism.

We are greeted by members of the community in bright traditional garb who sing vernacular songs before we proceed to a brief offering ritual ceremony conducted by the head datu (chieftain). According to local tradition, this gesture is imperative to outsiders who visit the area to pay respect to the spirits, ask permission for our presence and request for safe passage.  Tourists are advised to follow and respect this community custom.

Visitors to Sitio Panlabuhan should expect bare bones accommodations; in fact, at the time of this writing, there was only one available lodging which stands a few steps away from the recently built floating community center. One can choose to stay at the only room or outside on the open deck. Cheery community members are on hand to provide for basic ammenities such as a mattress or banig, blankets and mosquito nets. Light is powered by solar energy. Surprisingly, as far removed as the place is, mobile and data signals remain strong, a big bonus for the wired urbanite traveler.

Once settled, there is not much to do except surrender yourself to the isolation of this natural environment. You could, as we did, explore the marsh in a Manobo bito (baroto in Visayan), those ubiqitous, slender log boats which the locals use to ply these wetlands. Skill and deftness in rowing is definitely required lest you lose balance and fall into the murky-looking water. It is best to hire a local to take you around. For the bold and adventurous, you may also jump in and swim in the fresh but tea-colored waters of the lake. Take note, however, that this is crocodile heartland,  where the biggest recorded specimens of such reptiles (remember Lolong?) eke out their daily existence. A reassuring thought, as explained by our hosts, is that crocodiles are just as wary of humans as we are of them. With that in mind, we enjoy a quick but refreshing dip in the lake. 

Mornings are particularly magical. On the day we visited, the marsh was blanketed with a thick fog which adds to the ethereal atmosphere of the place. Migratory birds, in squawking flocks from as far as China and Australia, break the stillness of the water. We see graceful white egrets, colorful wild ducks and even an endemic pygmy woodpecker dilligently pecking through its tree abode. It is estimated that there are around 200 species within this ecosystem. In such an environment, one notices even the smallest detail of nature. Even the cobwebs, with their silken but deadly weaves, look delicately beautiful.

In the midst of this verdant wetland atmoshpere, the Manobo-Agusanon ethnic group has thrived, as their ancestors have, living above the wetlands in their unique floating homes.  For the longest time, this community has shut itself from the outside world, shying away from the occassional intrepid tourist who drops by for a few snapshots. Unfortunately, this reclusion has led to cultural conflicts where outsiders are completely unaware of and disregard traditional customs when visiting the community. 

Fortunately, in the last five years, the community has been assisted by well-meaning folks such as the organization Tuklas Katutubo, with funding from the US embassy in Manila as well as project manager and tourism planner Ivan Henares, who have guided local leaders as they slowly open up their domain to the possible influx of tourists who, the community hopes, will help uplift the residents’ meager resources.

With this locally-run cultural tourism program in place,  the once isolated Manobo community of Agusan Marsh has gained a deeper understanding of their ethnic identity, environment and ancestral domain, a heritage and resource that they are now opening up and sharing with those who will make the journey to Agusan Marsh.

To visit and arrange for stays at Sitio Panlabuhan floating village, contact Marites Babanto at 0930-5287194. Photos by Ivan Man Dy

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