Sitio Lantawan in Silay City is one of the more popular and easily-accessible nature destinations near Bacolod. Lantawan has numerous cafes and resorts which offer majestic views of the beautiful Mt. Mandalagan on one side, and another stunning view of the lowlands and the Guimaras Strait on the other.
It only takes half an hour to get there as it is accessible through newly built roads. This is where my problem comes in.
In 2013, before Sitio Lantawan was sprawling with cafes, resorts, and tourists, I participated as a field biologist in a research project which aimed to document biodiversity in Malisbog River.
The river runs through Sitio Lantawan, inside the North Negros Natural Park, which is known to be one of Negros Islands’ last remaining habitats for rare and endangered wildlife.
There, we set up our base camp in one of the privately-owned properties where we had to hike our way through the forest and wade through a river to be able to cross to the campsite.
There was already a dirt road that connected Lantawan to the more-popularly known Patag, but the road was too rough that it was a better option to get out of the car and walk.
It was a grueling hike, considering we were carrying our field equipment with us, but we always thought of it as part of the adventure.
Today, a cement road now connects Lantawan with the rest of Silay and the village of Patag. And with that, it has become easier to reach Lantawan by any form of land transport.
There was already no need to hike to where our base camp was because it was all cemented. This was of course, a welcome development especially for the local residents there.
Before the road, I heard of stories about how long it took for school teachers from Silay to reach Lantawan every week just to be able to teach classes on weekdays and be with their families on weekends.
Now, they can come home almost every day. It’s also become easier to go to the hospital, to transport the farmer’s produce to the market, and all the other benefits a road provides.
Eventually, cafes and resorts started building up not just in Lantawan, but in neighboring Patag as well. Tourists came in. Everybody had their photos taken with the breath-taking view of the forest behind them while sipping iced coffee. Business was and continues to be good.
However, I’ve always been uncomfortable about this new road because of the likely impact it might have on the natural ecosystems.
I was already saddened when I knew about the numerous trees that were cut and some parts of the hills dug out to make the road possible. During the first months after the road was opened and a bridge was built to connect Lantawan and Patag village, I visited (using a car, of course) our study site only to find people having picnics along the river and leaving a frustrating amount of trash just scattered everywhere.
A petty concern, you might say. Sometimes, I think so too. And over the years, I’ve been struggling to convince myself that I might be overreacting.
One of the reasons why I wanted to become a biologist was because I wanted to enjoy nature for the intrinsic value I saw in it.
Like many naturalists, I saw grandeur in nature and felt that it needs to be respected. I used to frown on people who saw our mountains and pristine beaches as nothing but places to build resorts, malls, and party places.
Tourists invariably bring noise, trash, and just basically destroy natural beauty.
I never wanted to consider myself as a tourist. I regarded myself as a tree hugger, a nature lover, a protector of nature.
Not that I was anti-development, but as a biologist, I have already seen how much of nature has suffered at the cost of unsustainable development.
Our forest cover has significantly decreased since sugarcane farming was introduced, driving much of our wildlife to retreat to the mountains.
Urbanization has already polluted much of our rivers, our soil, and our air. And with tourism, there was more demand to build roads and commercial spaces. Previous experience from other countries also show that roads cutting into the forests are eventually used for poaching, more timber cutting, and eventually the slow colonization of vacation houses and commercial buildings into the mountains.
I then realized that one of my frustrations as an environmentalist was that not so many people cared about nature because most of them were confined to the city. The new road however, was also there to change that.
A 30-minute ride from the city to the forests might just help this next generation appreciate nature now that they have easier access to it. I also later realized that I was a hypocrite, because while I had so much regard for myself as an environmentalist, I was also one of the many people who benefited from the Silay-Lantawan-Patag road.
I would use that same road to go on hiking trails with my friends, and sometimes park my car by the road and take my dogs on short hikes in the forest nearby. If I was enjoying the forest, what right did I have to deny others from doing so as well? And while I hike and not do research as a biologist, am I not a tourist as well?
“The people here don’t need to participate in illegal activities such as cutting wood for charcoal or hunt wildlife anymore because they have jobs,” I remember one of the locals saying after I asked him what he felt about the many cafes popping out in Lantawan.
I’d like to think that to be true, because addressing poverty in protected areas has always been a problem for wildlife conservation. The business owners may not have intended it, but somehow, they were contributing to conservation, from a certain point of view.
I’ve had the opportunity to go on hiking trails in other countries like Brunei, Malaysia, Canada, the US, and Australia, and I’d like to believe that these accessible hiking trails contribute to their citizens’ sense of closeness to nature.
But most of these nature parks were responsibly managed by their respective governments, whereas what I see here in Negros are tourism areas with conflicting land titles and no form of responsible environmental management.
This unfortunately leads to unchecked, exclusive business establishments and irresponsible tourism practices. When will the day come when we finally see nature for its intrinsic and cultural value, and not just a business venture?
This road may be a double-edged sword and it has its pros and cons.
It is good to see how it’s benefitting the local tourism industry, as well as allowing us better access to nature.
But we have to be vigilant where this will all eventually lead and we have ask ourselves at what and whose expense will all this be. Is it necessary that this should be a four-lane road? Are we expecting busier traffic?
What more development is planned in Lantawan, which is part of North Negros Natural Park?
And at what cost will nature have to pay?