By Brian James Lu

Let us preserve our UNESCO heritage sites

Finally, the cat is out of the box. The drone shot of a resort nestled between three chocolate hills undeniably provides proof that one of our valued United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) geoparks has been violated. The uproar reverberated so loudly that several government agencies, including the Ombudsman, are now conducting investigations.

The Chocolate Hills were designated as a National Geological Monument and a Protected Landscape due to their unique geological formations. The hills, located in the towns of Carmen, Batuan, and Sagbayan in Bohol Province, consist of 1,776 mounds of the same general shape. The controversial resort is located in the town of Sagbayan. The UNESCO World Heritage Convention states that the "only other known set of hills of similar configuration is that found in the island of Java in Indonesia. However, the hills found in Java are more irregular in shapes and sizes, although these were in the generic conical forms."

Indeed, our Chocolate Hills are one of a kind in the world. It is, therefore, a mystery how a resort was constructed in between those hills. It turns out that there are two other resorts that are operational. All the resort owners claim they were able to secure a business permit from their respective local government units.

The Philippines is proud to have several UNESCO Heritage Sites. These sites highlight the significance and uniqueness of our country, which attracts millions of tourists every year. Let us name a few:

Rice Terraces in the Cordilleras. These were carved into the mountains by Ifugao tribes using basic hand tools. The terraces showcase sustainable farming methods that have sustained communities for generations. The harmony between human ingenuity and the natural landscape makes the rice terraces a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sadly, however, neglect of the irrigation system and the fact that locals are no longer interested in farming endanger the sustainability of the rice terraces. There is also the unregulated development that threatens the existence of the terraces.

Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. Situated in the Sulu Sea, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a marine sanctuary renowned for its exceptional biodiversity and pristine coral reefs. It is also home to numerous marine species, including endangered sea turtles, sharks, and various reef fish. Tubbataha Reef is a haven for marine conservation. Its remote location and protected status ensure the preservation of its underwater ecosystems, making it a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular destination for diving enthusiasts. The Tubbataha Reef, however, is threatened by shipping, marine litter, fishing, marine pollution, and oil exploration. In 2023, the USS Guardian minesweeper ran aground, causing damage to 2,345 square meters of coral.

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. Located in the province of Palawan. It features one of the world's most impressive natural wonders, the Puerto Princesa Underground River. This underground river flows through a limestone cave system before emerging into the South China Sea. The park also encompasses diverse ecosystems, including limestone karst landscapes, forests, and marine habitats, making it a biodiversity hotspot and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sadly, however, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is facing threats, including pollutants impacting the water quality in the underground river, which are caused by adverse activities in adjacent catchment areas, primarily forest clearing and agricultural activities.

The Historic City of Vigan. It is a well-preserved Spanish colonial town. Its architecture reflects the fusion of Asian and European influences, particularly Spanish colonial and Chinese architectural styles. Cobblestone streets, ancestral houses, and grand churches characterize this city as they provide visitors with a glimpse into the Philippines' colonial past. As much as we admire the majestic heritage houses, they are threatened by the influx of tourists. Many of the traditional houses are being converted into hotels and restaurants. In Calle Crisologo alone, overcrowding poses a negative impact on the place.

While the Philippines is endowed with a rich cultural and natural heritage, there seem to be numerous challenges that threaten its integrity and significance. There seems to be systemic neglect, and we may end up losing the natural and historical sites.

Perhaps the government can come up with comprehensive conservation management plans and effective enforcement mechanisms. It is not just budget that should be considered, but the necessity of having skilled professionals who are trained in heritage conservation. Preservation efforts require a lot of factors, such as maintenance, restoration, research, infrastructure development, and the political will to ensure that heritage sites are untouched by unscrupulous government officials in connivance with private interests.

The government should also control urbanization and development aggression that put pressure on these sites. Unplanned construction, infrastructure projects, and commercial developments pose significant threats. The lack of zoning regulations and enforcement exacerbates the problem, resulting in irreversible damage to cultural landscapes and historical structures.

The famed Masungi Georeserve Park, for example, is experiencing illegal activities, such as quarrying and land grabbing, and its forest rangers are under threat from attacks. The georeserve is important because of its proximity to the National Capital Region (NCR). Recently, it was discovered that a company was undergoing drilling operations in the Masungi Georeserve Park for the construction of 12 wind turbines. As to how a company was able to come up with a permit to put up wind turbines is anybody's guess, but I deem this an abhorrent intrusion into a natural and protected area. The least that concerned government agencies should do is to immediately halt the destructive activities and preserve the pristine condition of the georeserve. It is laudable that the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) has stopped its planned transfer of the New Bilibid Prison and headquarters to the Masungi Georeserve.

Going back to the question of the resort in the Chocolate Hills, we commend our government agencies for immediately stopping its operations. Their action post-haste showed our government's concern for the preservation of a UNESCO geopark. But the question remains: Who should be liable for such grave abuse?

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the foregoing article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Philippine News Agency (PNA) or any other office under the Presidential Communications Office.


About the Columnist

Image of Brian James Lu

BRIAN JAMES J. LU, MMgt, is an entrepreneur, business adviser, government consultant, and is deeply involve in civil society organizations. He advocates good governance, ethical business practices, and social responsibilities. He is the President of the National Economic Protectionism Association (NEPA) and Chairman of the Foundation for National Development (Fonad). His broad experiences in the private and public sectors give him a unique perspective to advance his advocacies.