BAGUIO CITY – Common sense tells most people that roads lead towns to economic success.
But an alternative map detailing a rudimentary trail system, which links 500 kilometers of rich forest land in interior Cordillera, may be all that rural communities need to bring modern trade to them.
Ibaloi naturalist Jose Alipio of the Ateneo de Manila University offered experts this alternative road map at the first International Conference on Cordillera Studies sponsored by the University of the Philippines Baguio last week.
The National Economic and Development Authority spent two decades negotiating for funds to complete the Cordillera road improvement project, a network of roads that connect Baguio City to Benguet, Mt. Province, Ifugao, Kalinga, Apayao and Abra.
The region counts most of its towns as poverty-stricken communities.
But instead of pining for concrete roads, government should start developing earthen trails instead, said Alipio, a grant beneficiary of the National Geographic Society.
Trail development “brings money into remote villages without [resorting] to the cost of building roads,” he explained.
The primary industry that could make good use of trails is tourism, he said, because foreign tourists who visit the Cordillera have been drawn there by government’s eco-tourism marketing campaign.
Alipio said most of these community trails have been used for decades to haul market goods for trade with neighboring towns.
Most villagers in interior Cordillera have been waiting for government to build them proper roads, he said.
According to the Department of Public Works and Highways website, the Cordillera has 1,844 kilometers of road.
But only 510 kilometers of these road stretches are paved with concrete, and about 105 kilometers are covered by asphalt.
The public’s attention has been concentrated on Halsema Highway, the main artery between Benguet and Mt. Province that is used to transport the region’s daily supply of salad vegetables to Metro Manila.
In the latest assessment made by the Regional Development Council, capital gaps still compel government to suspend paving plans for these road networks.
Alipio offered a reason for the delay: “If I were a businessman, and I would build P50 million [worth of] road [benefiting only] five houses in a village, how would I get back that P50 million?”
The alternative road map “brings the outside economy to the village instead of bringing the village to the market.”
A master’s degree holder in environmental management, Alipio admitted that his primary concern was the region’s dwindling forest land.
Reducing the amount of concrete should protect the region’s natural landscape, and allow interior communities to harness their water, land and floral resources at their own pace, he said.
He said his initial survey suggested a correlation between the high consumption of forest resources to a local economy.
He said many Cordillerans have migrated to the cities or abroad to work, and the money they remit back home determines how much trees are cut for fuel near their villages.
The proposed trail system requires communities to develop their own “cultural maps” because the villages become “pseudo-protected areas.”
“What we want to present here is tourism where tourists learn from the local community instead of impose what they want from the local community,” Alipio said.
He said he and fellow environmentalists have mapped out the primary trails that already lead to popular Cordillera tourist haunts.
But before the trails can be “commercially activated,” villagers must also develop mechanisms that would address problems that accompany tourism, he said.
He said communities should also determine their respective “carrying capacities” for tourists.
Bhutan in the Himalayas, for instance, requires tourists to spend a minimum of $500. This helps reduce the number of visitors there, he said.