Caving for curiosity and conservation

POINT OF VIEW - Michele T. Logarta - The Philippine Star

People of a certain age will remember the Crystal Caves of Baguio.  I do.

For the longest time, the caves were a popular tourist attraction in the City of Pines. Today, the caves seem to have receded from collective memory.

A friend remembers going to the Crystal Caves in the 1990s. “Maraming bahay na ang nakapaligid!”

A Google search will yield bits and pieces about the caves’ history. It is bruited to have been an old Igorot burial site.  In its glory days, it shimmered with the crystals that formed on its walls. Stalagmites and stalactites grew on its floors and ceilings.

With time, all that glittered was taken and sold off. Everyone wanted a piece of the caves and got it.

A traveler writing in his blog – and that was more than 20 years ago – lamented that the caves survived WWII bombings and the 1990 earthquake but not the marauders who stole its crystalline treasures.

The Crystal Caves of Baguio are still there. But no one goes to Baguio anymore to cave. Farther afield, the enchanting and mysterious Sumaguing caves of Sagada have been drawing visitors to the town.

I came across a news story in July about the DENR reclassifying four caves in Abra, Quezon and Albay provinces. Reclassification would ensure the caves would be properly managed and conserved. The reclassification also identified and ensured different levels of protection for the caves concerned.

“Caves,” according to the DENR, “are important natural resources because of their unique beauty, their history and their role in a healthy environment. They play key roles in groundwater movement, serving as habitat for threatened and endangered animal species. They provide outstanding opportunities for studying and gaining a better understanding of our history through the bones of prehistoric animals, the artifacts left by our ancestors as well as the geology of our country and the relationships between the environment we see at the surface and the one that is hidden underground.”

It was only 21 years ago that the law protecting caves  was created. This is The National Caves and Cave Resources Management and Protection Act (R.A. 9072).

At the time, I wonder if anything had been done to save the Crystal Caves of Baguio, or was it too late?

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Before caving for adventure, exploration and sport came into vogue here in the 1990s, it was primarily an economic activity, Mark Dia, president of the Philippine Speleological Society and founder of Gaia Exploration Club, said. People went into caves to get guano, to hunt for treasure and extract minerals. He estimates there are a few hundred active cavers in the Philippines. Many of them are mountaineers, rock climbers and divers.

“Caving, for a lot of us, is about exploration. We have a saying that ‘Exploration is Curiosity in Action.’ If you want to go where no one has gone before, you have three options: outer space, the depths of the ocean and the caves.”

A pioneering spirit drives people to go into the caves, Dia believes. There is the wrong notion that caving is dangerous and physically demanding, he pointed out.  “It is actually a very mental activity. Your focus is yourself and the cave.”

Cavers, said Dia, are discovering new caves all the time. There are around 2,000 identified caves in the country but there definitely are many more. Caves are not easy to find.

“We rely on the local communities to tell us about a cave’s existence,” he said. Folklore also can provide interesting clues about a cave’s location.

When a cave is identified, it is assessed and classified, Dia explained. A Class 3 cave would be open for general tourism; Class 2 also would be open for tourism but a trained guide is required and Class 1 would be closed to the public as it could contain important or sensitive archeological/geological materials or it could be “delikado.”

One of the major problems in cave conservation is the lack of education about caves. People said Dia, don’t know how to enjoy a cave without causing harm to it.  “When you damage a cave, it is permanent.”

People don’t realize that the glittering shard of rock they brought home from the cave took millions of years to form. That’s why education of cave guides is crucial.

The Cave Law imposes a hefty P1-million fine on those who take geological material from a cave. But, Dia rued, the law is hard to implement. Many of the guides are faced with financial hardship. “Ecotourism faces a big task. It must not be destructive.”

My brief conversation with Dia has made me curiouser and curiouser about visiting a cave some time in the near future.

What’s a cave that casual visitors like me can go see and that’s within reach of Metro Manila?

Instantly, he replied: The Biak na Bato National Park is just one and a half hours away. “They manage their caves very well. Mahal nila ang kweba. And that is important!”

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Email:t[email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @thegreentailedwalkerph

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