Opening the doors of Lalaguna Mangrove Eco-Park to tourists will unlock opportunities in economically-depressed communities here.

Mary Jane Africano, resident of San Isidro village, said people in their community can expect a better future as tourism activities will create new livelihood opportunities.

Africano, a mother of three, is the president of Women’s Association for Inter-island Development (WAIID), an organization formed in 2016 with technical assistance from the University of Eastern Philippines (UEP) Center for Environmental Studies in Catarman, Northern Samar.

WAIID is tasked to supervise the Lalaguna Mangrove Eco-Park at Lalaguna Bay, a mangrove park 20-minute boat ride away from the port area of Lavezares town.

The 300-hectare eco-park is endowed with green and lush mangroves and crystal-clear waters teem with varied fish species, crabs, and sea urchins as well as wild birds and eagles, thousands of fruit bats and wild monkeys, which are part of the Biri Larosa (Lavezares, Rosario, and San Jose towns) Protected Landscapes and Seascapes.

The women’s group picked Africano as their leader since she is the only college degree holder in their community being a graduate of Bachelor of Science in Fisheries, Major in Aquaculture.

From 14 members, the group’s membership rose to 72. Almost all are women who just completed elementary or secondary education.

“San Isidro is the smallest village and also the poorest among the island villages in Lavezares. Most children from this village would leave the island after completing elementary to work in Manila as house helper because parents could not afford to send them to college,” Africano said in an interview Wednesday.

This mindset was changed in April 2016 after some personnel from UEP, Northern Samar provincial tourism office, and Lavezares local government visited their village as part of relief assistance in areas devastated by typhoon in December 2015.

“Before these people came, we were already contended to eat three times a day and sometimes we had nothing to eat for dinner since we only get PHP2,000 monthly from our children who work in Manila. That was already enough for us,” Africano shared.

“But people from the government and private organizations who visited our place convinced us not to be contented with our life and aim for more, to aspire for a more comfortable living,” she added.

The mothers then formed an organization they called WAIID and started with a capital of PHP320, an amount collected from PHP20 contribution from each member.

Since April 2016 until this year, the organization has already generated PHP172,000 savings.

“With the assistance given to us by the government and other groups, through tourism activities, we are hoping that someday our village will become progressive,” Africano said.

“Someday our children will be able to finish college and earn a degree. Someday we will have professionals here like doctors, nurses or teachers because of what their mothers did. We, as mothers, would be proud of our children if this happens,” she added.

Transforming Lalaguna Bay into a mangrove eco-park was a vision of then Lavazares Mayor Quintin Saludaga, inspired by a tour in a mangrove park in Thailand. Saludaga now works as a municipal administrator.

The mangrove area, which is a spooning ground for danggit or rabbitfish or spine foot fish, was also declared as closed for all fishing activities during the months of March, April, and May, identified as the breeding period of fish species.

The former mayor’s project was continued by his brother, the incumbent mayor Edito Saludaga.

“We would like to develop the eco-tourism potential of our municipality. Lavezares has many island villages and beautiful beaches,” the mayor said.

“This one is a marvelous eco-tourism project of Lavezares. I hope that this tourism project will open our town to the world,” Saludaga added. “Knowing that our town is the entry to Biri Island, we would like to offer our town as an alternative destination if it is impossible to cross the sea to the municipality of Biri.”

Biri town, the top tourist destination in Northern Samar, is famous for its seven rock formations. It takes an hour to travel to Biri from Lavezares town.

“Because of this, I hope that everybody will help us in promoting our town as a tourist destination,” he added.

For the local government, Lalaguna Mangrove Eco-Park is a perfect alternative destination for Biri because its location is an alternate passage among motorboat operators plying from Lavazares to Biri when the seawaters along San Bernadino Strait is rough.

The office of Senator Nancy Binay extended PHP10 million for the construction of a more than one kilometer boardwalk, six gazebos, and acquisition of kayaks.

“The provincial government, for its part, has created a plan and will set funds for the establishment of an eco-trail Kaluy-ahan Hill overlooking Lalaguna,” Northern Samar Provincial Tourism Officer Maria Josette Doctor said.

Kaluy-ahan Hill is a sanctuary of thousand fruit bats, wild monkeys, and migratory birds.

Doctor added that included in the plan of the provincial government is the purchase of “unayan boat” — a local boat design without an outrigger to be used in mangrove tour — as well as snorkeling gear, and to have a reception area.

The provincial tourism office said prior to the soft launching, the women’s group was trained through the assistance from the DOT regional office on kayak guiding, community guiding, and food preparation training.

“Ultimately, this initiative is to create livelihood and social enterprise opportunities to the community within this protected areas, help promote environmental protection among visitors and communities, tourism appreciation and added protection and conservation to the environment and the marine eco-system,” Doctor added.

Northern Samar Governor Edwin Ongchuan said a visit in Lalaguna Mangrove Eco-Park is worthwhile for every visitor.

On Wednesday, the governor and DOT Regional Director Karina Rosa Tiopes toured the 1.2-kilometer boardwalk, a combination of concrete pole and bamboo floors.

The gazebos are made of coconut logs while roofs are made of anahaw leaves to compliment the natural setting of the destination.

Ongchuan said the provincial government will also fund the construction of another boardwalk that will connect the mangrove area to the hill for easier access to tourists who want to do boating or kayaking.

The organization that supervises the destination has a big responsibility in taking care and preserving the ecosystem within the mangrove eco-park, in implementing the rules and regulations and carrying capacity, according to Tiopes.

“I trust that we will be able to sustain this not just for us but for our children’s children,” Tiopes told WAIID members.

Tiopes added that the eco-park can be showcased as best practices in eco-tourism in Northern Samar, wherein tourists are brought to the mangrove park and taught the benefits of the mangroves, wildlife, and marine life.

“The most beautiful form of tourism for us is community-based tourism. I hope that you continue to support each other and work harmoniously with each other to sustain this,” she added. (PNA)