The first time I went to Isla Verde, I was there hoping to change the world.
I was there with a skin diving group called Reef Nomads to train fishers to become tour guides — something that we hoped would boost tourism to the area, which in turn would provide a shot in the arm for underdeveloped rural areas like this island.
Back then, I was on my way toward becoming a freediving instructor while also working as a research assistant for one of the top marine scientists in the country. Needless to say, I was an eco-conscious traveler who always wanted to spread the word. So, for this trip, I readied the arsenal of reusables that I have in my kit: an assortment of toiletry bottles in various sizes, a shampoo-and-conditioner bar, a mess kit with cutlery and straw, a menstrual cup.
Isla Verde, found along the eponymous passage between Mindoro and Luzon, is at “the center of the center of marine biodiversity” in the world. Isla Verde is known to the world’s diving and scientific communities because of its unmatched biodiversity. Just in the last decade, over a hundred new species of marine organisms were found in its waters. Many diving enthusiasts who visit are also powerful advocates of marine life protection. I was not about to be the one to soil this international treasure with single-use plastic. I even had prepared spiels to say when I whipped out my reusables. I hoped that, by example, I could impart some lessons on living zero-waste, on top of supporting the island as a paying guest.
As in many other places in the Philippines, the Isla Verde locals welcomed us warmly by serving snacks every three hours — a perfect chance to promote reusables, I thought. But things didn’t go as planned. Instead, the sandwiches came neatly packed inside square plastic bags. The single-serve soft drinks came in small bottles that were half the length of my steel straw.
Later, when I asked how to wash my reusables, I was shown the deep well some houses away — to draw water, you had to throw a pail tied to a rope down the well, and heave it back up. Showers on the island presented an equally interesting challenge, as I was directed back to the well with a bucket and tabo, or dipper. My handmade, cold-pressed shampoo bar rested on the crook of a tree branch while I lathered under a bathing towel. I thought of offering the shampoo bar to other bathers, but thought better of it — I could see the glint of shampoo sachets from twenty feet away.
You see, I take pride in my creativity to minimize my traveling footprint — whether it’s reducing single-use plastics or carbon emissions. I eat slow food, rent bikes, resist the urge to shop, choose activities that are cruelty-free and products that are rainforest-friendly — these are just some examples of what I personally do on my travels.
As more and more travelers demand information about their own impact, tourist destinations and services are becoming increasingly transparent and proactive. Online, it’s not very difficult to find sustainable practices specific to your travel destination. It’s just a matter of prioritizing environmental advocacies, and choosing destinations that suit your values. Is animal cruelty an important concern? Don’t ride elephants. Do you think carbon emissions are the most pressing issue of our time? Invest in a good pair of walking shoes. Think the mountains need a break? Swim in the ocean instead.
However, there is one impact that we often underestimate as travelers: our presence as visitors also affects communities’ social fabric — but doing the right thing isn’t always as clear-cut as it may seem.
On Isla Verde, for example, San Andres is a barangay that stays afloat because of its aquarium fishing trade. Even if they practice it lawfully and as sustainably as possible, the tourism and scientific communities have been pressuring the fishers of Barangay San Andres to give up this trade. To outsiders, banning aquarium fishing seems to be the right thing to do: it brings back the fish and enhances visitors’ enjoyment of the place — but to the locals, the ban strips them of their livelihood and dignity. A student lamented, “Sinong dapat makinabang? Yung mga taga-ibang bansa? O kami mismong naririto?” — Who should benefit from the fish, he asked: foreign visitors, or the locals themselves? That student, Jeper Legaspi, is one of the oldest and most respected aquarium fishers in San Andres.
When we demand for environmental changes from a community, what we are actually demanding are social changes. And we need to remember that it takes time for communities to fully embrace social changes. It is irresponsible for travelers to pressure locals to prioritize the demands of temporary visitors over the needs of their own communities. And it is arrogant for visitors to presume that they know better about what’s good for the people and places they visit.
There are many different ways to keep our footprint small. We can reduce our plastic use, we can choose cleaner transportation alternatives or we can be more open to learning from each other. Travel is exactly the exercise that allows us to do all three.
My last trip to Isla Verde was to attend the tour guides’ graduation ceremonies. I made sure to bring my beeswax wraps for the sandwiches and snacks. I handed over my smallest wrap to the women who were tasked to cook for us again. I made sure that they put my food in this special reusable wrap this time.
Holding it to the light, they admired the cute print and handiwork of the wrap. It was the first time they’d seen the mighty butanding depicted in art — they spoke about how these whale sharks used to appear out of the blue and dance between their fathers’ fishing lines. But the wrap was so well-made, they graciously said, that they could not possibly soil it with their “lowly” kakanin. Instead, they handed me the sticky rice snack wrapped neatly in banana leaves — a natural, low-cost, low-impact, highly sustainable wrap. I stuffed my beeswax cloth back in my bag, immensely humbled.