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Beautiful Tawi-tawi

Story and Photos by Beau Baconguis

When the call for volunteers to go to the Turtle Islands for the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (iCSC) came up, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. Not many get to go to the Turtle Islands because of the difficult travel it entails. Sure, I had reservations about personal safety but the pull to experience the culture and the environment that these islands present outweighed my earlier concerns. In addition, I wanted to explore possible permaculture support that can be provided to iCSC’s advocacy partner, Turtle Conservation Society of the Philippines.

Tawi-tawi sunrise.

Tawi-tawi sunrise.

Then there’s the bigger issue of impacts of climate change on these islands. Kester Yu, Executive Director of Turtle Conservation Society of the Philippines, explained that climate change could mean gender imbalance on turtle populations as higher temperatures (upwards of 29.2C) will hatch mostly female turtles. There are also creeping signs of coastal erosion which affect houses along the coast: septic tanks start appearing and trees are being uprooted by intruding sea water.

Houses on stilts in Bongao, Tawi-tawi.

Houses on stilts in Bongao, Tawi-tawi.

Traveling to the Turtle Islands entailed a flight to Zamboanga City and then to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. The more difficult part of the journey was a 20-hour boat ride on a navy cargo boat. Because it is a cargo ship, it does not have the comforts of a passenger boat but the Navy personnel tried their very best to make their more than 200 passengers as comfortable as possible.

However the challenge of the travel is rewarded by the clean, turquoise waters even in Tawi-tawi’s biggest urban center, Bongao. The Islands’ white sand beaches and the biodiversity are amazing. Of course, the turtles, which will be the subject of another blog, is the biggest treat for anyone visiting the Turtle Islands. The Islands also host the only mud volcano in the country and is located in Lihiman Island. There is also a unique mossy beach ecosystem in Baguan Island.

Local fishermen at the Bongao port.

Local fishermen at the Bongao port.

Compared to many coastal regions of the country, the abundance of seafood in Tawi-tawi is unbelievably remarkable. And because of its abundance, seafood is extremely cheap. We also had the chance to taste some of the local dishes, mostly Tausug food such as the Tiyula Itum, a beef dish cooked in burnt coconut milk and other delicacies, many made of tapul or purple sticky rice. Of course, Mindanao’s marang and durian fruits were plentiful.

A fisherman passes huge handmade Tausug wooden boats berthed at the Bongao port.

A fisherman passes huge handmade Tausug wooden boats berthed at the Bongao port.

Most of the people we met were members of the Tausug and Jama Mapun tribes, a majority of them, Muslims, and a few Christians but living in peace together. While the Turtle Islands is a fifth class municipality, therefore, some of the poorest and disadvantaged having been neglected and abused by their leaders for decades, they remain some of the most generous people I have come to know.

Beau Baconguis is a board member of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities.

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