Know before you go.
1,338 hectares of visually appetizing mountainous forest park. Home to a total of 89 species of birds, 23 species of mammals, 13 species of amphibians, 13 species of reptiles,(1) and at least 105 Philippine flora endemics. (2) And crystal clear river system. Truly a nature tripper’s paradise. No wonder why Balbalasang, Balbalan, Kalinga was declared as a national park by the virtue of RA No. 6463, in 1972. Then part of the National Protected Areas System by virtue of Proclamation 1357 on December 9, 1974.
Considered as one of the key biodiversity areas and priority sites for conservation in the Philippines in 2006. (3) The Balbalasang-Balbalan National Park is also the settlement of the Banao tribe. Who plays the part in protecting and preserving the nature park. Guided by their own traditional and indigenous system, lapat. A legacy they inherited from their forefathers.
Couple of months ago, I got a chance to dwell in the green heart of the Cordillera, the Banao ancestral watershed in barangay Balbalasang. Which is a good jump-off point to explore the nature park. There they have homestays and or camping grounds, then, of course, trained guides for the adventure seekers. Even for the bush food hunters. Though every visit should come with a caution.
Consider this as a warning
Recently, John Allen Chau, a young missionary, was ”killed” by members of Sentinelese tribe using bow and arrows when he tried to enter their territory. At his first attempt, he managed to reach the shore and tried to offer ”gifts” but it angered, what looked like two adolescent tribesmen who then shot an arrow at him which hit a book he was carrying. He was able to swim back at the boat together with the fishermen he hired to bring him near the North Sentinel Island, one of the world’s most isolated regions in India’s Andaman islands, then spent the night journaling his encounter. He went on again the following morning, and it’s when the fishermen said, they saw tribesmen dragged his body away then buried him. Though he came in with peace, according to his journal, but the tribe was clearly reluctant to be of any contact with intruders. (4) Sounds absurd in this day and age, however, common sense could really go a long way when traveling. Perhaps, it’s the only ticket back home and in one piece.
The Kalinga people were known to be fierce warriors and notorious headhunters back in the day. Not just among the mountain tribes but also to any intruder. Because of this, the Kalinga area remained isolated and untouched by Christianity and Spanish colonizers who wanted to exploit their gold mines for centuries. Though through trade and advancement of the colonizers resulted in the acculturation of the natives. The Americans, however, were subtler colonists, they let the natives practice their tribal lifeways and authority. A separate form of government for the northern Luzon mountain region was also formed. (5) Which led to the strong enforcement of the Bodong, the peace pact institution, as a means of resolving conflict and the appointment of Kalinga headmen to police their people. (6) It is said that the Bodong system originated from the Banao tribe who are considered to be the most peaceful among the Kalinga tribes. (7)
In the 1970s, the headhunters made headlines when tribes forged the bodong in order to defend their bogis, their ancestral domain. Such instances were during the Chico River Basin Development Project (8) and Cellophil Resources Corporation’s logging activities. (9) It’s clear that natives will protect their bogis no matter what. For the Banao tribe, it‘s their consensus decision to practice and observe the Lapat agreement/conditions along with sanctions in cases of violations, with Kabunian, the supreme God and unseen spirits as guardians. Other tribes and visitors are asked to respect the Lapat forged by their forefathers.
Follow the Lapat trail
I couldn’t think of any other activity that’s perfectly suited at the Balbalasang Balbalan National Park than this ancient Japanese tradition, the shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” It’s the act of merging with the natural world. Savoring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the landscape in. Building a strong connection with nature. (11)
This practice is a great way of conserving the park which is the essence of the Banao lapat system. Lapat is a general prohibition against the destruction of forests, waters, watersheds, trees, and wildlife. It may also be a specific prohibition of methods or techniques of harvesting that indiscriminately or massively make catches or harvests such as fishing methods or animal traps called vito. Lapat prohibits forest burning or introduction of swidden farms in watershed areas. It is a traditional, indigenous mechanism with multiple purposes: of protecting and conserving the environment; of ensuring sustainable supply or use of needed materials; of respecting the future needs of future generations of villagers; of ensuring a dynamic co- existence and respect with diverse needs of fellow villagers; and of respecting a healthy habitat of other species. (12)
Then every 1st week of March, the tribe opens their ancestral landscape to tourists during Manchatchatong Festival means “to gather” to commemorate the municipality’s foundation. And let travelers see and experience the natural beauty of their town. To date, there are a few must-visit places during the festival, like the Ugid underground river, Mangabngab cave and Mt. Panitet (Mt. Calvary).
To go forest bathing or to join the festivities via Tabuk, catch the jeepney ride at around 6:30-7 a.m. to Balbalasang and is ₱250 (US$5). If to bring your own ride, take the Abra-Kalinga road. Better yet to download the route via map app since mobile reception is non-existent there. Then there’ll be a ₱75 (US$1.5) environmental fee to be collected sometime in 2019 at the DENR Ranger Station. For homestay, ₱250-350 (US$5-7) per person per night will suffice and best if to be pre-arranged before your intended trip.
1,3,10,12-Imong Ji-I-Vanao Banao ICCA, Kalinga
5,8-Lawless R., The dynamics of food and the Kalingas: an account of a people in the northern Luzon highlands, Philippines, 2008, Omertaa, Journal for Applied Anthropology
6-Layugan, M. G.. (2016). The Kalinga Peace-Pact Institution, Bodong: Forging Relationships, Resolving Conflicts, and Fostering Peaceful Co-existence p. 3. MST Review, 18(2)