Friday, June 10, 2011

Isabela’s Abuan River is the Philippines’ Next Big Whitewater Destination

“It’s one thing to memorize the history of a Church, or even a city – but a river is different,” explains Anton Carag, certified Pinoy rafting Jedi. “If you don’t know how to read her, you’ll be in big trouble.”

Violently churning six seconds away is either the end of the Earth – or a giant washing machine. I white-knuckle my paddle, shoot him a swift glance and prepare to meet my maker. “Big trouble!” repeats Anton with a chuckle.

We plunge, paddle, curse, laugh and paddle even more as we cross the swells into calmer waters. In seconds the roaring river transforms into a gurgling rivulet of relaxation. The side-scrolling scenery is glorious to behold, adorned with dramatic cliffs, provocative fire-trees and flitting waterbirds. We are in the country’s next big rafting destination – Isabela’s Abuan River – and we love every dripping minute of it.

To spare the Sierra Madre’s forests from further deforestation, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines), Coca-Cola Philippines and the Local Government of Ilagan are tapping Isabela's tourism potential by developing a sustainable eco-tourism program for the Abuan River.

Isabela’s forests remain the oldest and richest in the country. From within, it is a verdant vision of plant and animal life – where Philippine eagles (Pithecophaga jefferyi) soar and Philippine crocodiles (Crocodylus mindorensis) skulk. Though still dependent on groundwater, pollution might soon force some 130,000 Ilagan families to rely on the Abuan watershed for fresh water. Without it, corn and rice fields may one day be left without irrigation.

However, the watershed is under threat from small-scale but widespread logging, charcoal-production and swidden farming. Although illegal, many residents continue with these activities due to a lack of better livelihood opportunities. The Abuan River has traditionally been a transit point for illicitly-cut logs piloted by Bugadores – daredevils who literally ride pre-cut logs to downriver caches.

“Fortunately,” explains Carag, “The skill needed to steer and helm a humongous pile of logs lashed together with rope and sinew is surprisingly similar to rafting.” Locals who made below P70 per day as local guides or porters can now make three times more as accredited guides.

The project aims to spur alternate livelihood opportunities for loggers, charcoal-producers and Bugadores which have been displaced by tighter public and private sector enforcement over illegal logging.

In June of 2009, combined units of Tanggol Kalikasan, the Armed Forces and the Provincial Government seized an estimated 300,000 board feet of lumber during a series of raids. The total volume represents close to 100 ten-wheeler truck-loads of timber. Averaged at P24 per board foot, the haul is valued at over P7M.

“Many of our stakeholders have been logging the Sierra Madre’s forests for decades and find it hard to switch livelihoods. If we don’t stop the logging however, then farming communities which depend on the health of the watershed will eventually suffer,” says WWF-Philippines Isabela Project Manager Luis Caraan.

The system follows equity principles to ensure that money flows directly to local communities. “River-tourism requires pristine scenery – so illegal loggers and charcoal-producers will be pressured to protect and not annihilate remaining forests. Moreover, Isabela’s people are both hard-working and honest – so swapping illegal livelihoods with viable pro-conservation jobs will make many lives both safer and easier,” concludes Caraan.

WWF-Philippines, Coca-Cola Philippines and the Local Government of Ilagan invite both simple nature-trippers and white-water rafters to meet the Abuan River’s frothy swells, wild waterfalls and gentle people by emailing Trip activities include trekking, swimming, scaling cliffs and waterfalls, rappelling and of course – either rafting or kayaking through Mother Nature’s washing machines. So douse your fear and grab your gear – your river rendezvous is just an email away!

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