Clearly, I am not the first person in the world to have been to Coron. Nor Palawan, for that matter. Enough people have been there for it to be voted Conde Nast Traveler‘s Best Island in The World. So, there is nothing I can say about its (or Palawan’s) tourism that hasn’t already been said.
However, what I can offer is insight on its less glamorous corners. Coron is a beautiful place; one of the most breath-taking in the world, I would assume. But beneath the limestone giants, crystal clear waters, and sparkling shores, like in most places in the Philippines, there is a layer of poverty that has unfortunately not been addressed.
Aside from Coron town, which, I must admit — and I must be frank — I was disappointed to find sort of a hot mess — there is typhoon-worn Barangay Lajala, just 15 minutes away by boat from the town port.
Having been so fortunate for the entirety of the trip, I felt like I needed to do something that wasn’t merely indulgent and purely turistic. They weren’t so much sentiments of moral obligation, as much as it was an exercise in humility to pay it forward. I was compelled to take some time from this trip to do something for someone other than myself. The reason why I have come down with such a bad case of a quarter-life crisis might be that there is this unmet, deep-seated need to accomplish something noble, and greater than myself. And now that I’ve calmed down and arrived at a better headspace, there is an eagerness to focus feelings of gratitude and appreciation on one specific point, that could hopefully be of some positive contribution to my countrymen.
And do something completely off-the-beaten track.
I wanted to do some research on the conditions of the indigenous people, or developmental conditions within the area. I am fascinated by how passionate the Palaweños are at preserving everything the region had to offer — its resources, environment, people, and culture.
I was told about a “housing project” which was supposed to have been triggered by the devastation that Typhoon Haiyan smote upon the area in 2013. Upon further research (hunting might be the more appropriate term), I found Barangay Lajala — a Tagbanua community, 15 minutes off the Coron port. And “housing project” was an understatement! I wasn’t expecting to find an entire community development program.
So, I spent a morning there, privileged to have been toured around the village by two of the warmest barangay councilors I could imagine to find. With the work that has been done and where it is all going, the village is a shining example of how a collective sense of responsibility can turn an upside-down village right-side up again.
A Filipino NGO, the Tamayo Foundation, is working with the local government of Barangay Lajala to rehabilitate their typhoon-stricken area, and develop the community into a self-sustaining, self-managing town. With the financial and livelihood help that the Tamayo Foundation has extended to them, the locals they have been taught to build what are called earth bag houses, made with clay (from the land), mixed with cement. These houses have been made typhoon-proof, so as not to have a repeat of the effects of Haiyan. Currently, they have built 34 houses, with 54 more lined up for building.
Each house is equipped with a solar panel, which enables each household to generate restorable energy. Apart from this, the government has provided them aid by equipping them with electrical wiring. Prior to this, the town had no electricity.
With only tourism boating to sustain them, at least so far, citizens have been taught carpentry as a means of sweat equity within their village, as well to provide them with skills that they can use for as livelihood, to sustain themselves inside and outside of the community. This enables them to find jobs within town. However, according to one of the local councilors, at the moment, their skill set only covers carpentry, and not peripheral jobs, like painting, or plumbing.
Another developmental problem within the community is its lack of access to education. Not an unusual story in the Philippine setting, but an unfortunate truth within the community, regardless. The one school in Barangay Lajala can only accommodate the elementary grade levels, both population-wise, and resource-wise. There are no local teachers; they come in from Coron town proper. For children to be able to continue their education after elementary school, they now will need to attend high school at the Coron town. And this requires them to take a 20-minute boat ride each way. This is economically costly for them in so many ways. For one thing, even if it only required a small fee for these children to take those boats, these add up to expenditures that they don’t necessarily have the money for to begin with.
It is also costly to their health. The waters get rough when the rains come, which can be dangerous. Even without the sea being choppy, just the rain makes them susceptible to illness. Additionally, medical supplies and attention are not readily available in Lajala.
Ironically, on top of a hill, rising above Barangay Lajala is a gorgeous white church overlooking the Coron Bay, large enough to be seen from out there in the water, and an obscenely stark contrast to the impoverished village. Quite an ostentatious sight. If I had to make a guess, I would say that this was one of the first structures that was tended to after Haiyan struck. While I do understand that Filipinos, a predominantly Catholic nation, will need a church to bind the community, and give them hope after an experience as traumatic as typhoon Haiyan (aside from the municipal office, the plaza, and a basketball court), the fact remains that majority of the village population live in unbuilt shanties, some in unpainted clay houses. And then there is this imposing edifice, sitting on top of a hill, with a manicured lawn, electric candles, marble Holy Water dipping dishes.
It’s a skewed mindset, clearly. One that needs to be changed, but is a reality, nevertheless. I suppose when we have nothing tangible to hold on to, we cling to the intangible instead.
Among other things, the Tagbanua are extremely proud of their heritage, and the Palaweños are doing quite a lot to empower themselves. Ironically, the indigenous people here still call themselves “minorities.” It is possible that this is because everyone else refers to them as such, when in fact, they make up most of the Palawan population. They are 70% of Barangay Lajala alone. They own the land. They own the culture developed around it. They own its heritage.
As proud as they are, I’m afraid that this is endemic to this tiny corner of the world. Still, they are “minorities.” Just the fact that they are constantly reminded of this is quite problematic. This goes to show how they are regarded outside of their little community — within the context of the real world, they are still underdogs. To me, this is a very telling symptom of Filipino self-perception and views on identity. I hate to say it — and I say this as a Filipino myself — but it seems to me that Filipino self-esteem ranks quite low. And this is a strong hindrance to our cultural and economic development.
But, all things considered, Lajala seems to be a shining example of what it means to rebuild and regain. Its current state is promising! But there is a lot left to be done. If you would like to help, Barangay Lajala is more than open to donations. You may get in touch with them directly, for any help you’d like to extend:
(+63) 920 329 8164
If you’d like to visit, you may either join Expeditions Ecotours’ Las Islas Tribal Ecotour package, for just P750. Having been made an adopted community by the company, the Lajala Cultural Village is one stop included in the tour, in addition to other sites, like Barracuda Lake, Siete Pecados, Dimanglet Beach, and Coral Triangle.
Otherwise, you can just hire a boat and ask the boatman to take you there, yourself. The daily rate for boat rental is P1,600, but it will be at your absolute disposal all day.