How national parks form the Philippine identity

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The symbolic value of national parks, which invokes history, religion, and myth, has been an important component in forging national identity. In photo: Rizal Park in Dapitan. Photo by RIC CANIZARES/CC BY-SA 3.0

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “She was a fantastic creature, half nymph, half sylph, born of the rays of the moon of the Philippines, in the mystery of the august forests and to the lullaby of the murmurs of the neighbouring lake.”

This is how José Rizal immortalized Mariang Makiling, the beautiful goddess of bountiful generosity said to live in the mountain of his beloved hometown. There are many versions of this popular folk legend — Mariang Makiling is a protector, provider, and restorer of life and tranquility — but Rizal’s narration is significant in that it reveals much about the political and social reality of his time. “To explore a people’s lore,” the historian Resil B. Mojares wrote, “is to understand something of the shifting ideological configuration of changing times,” and Rizal’s depiction of Makiling as a vanishing Eden — a lost world of reciprocity, faith, and harmony with nature — is rife with the sense of disillusionment shared by the ilustrados and propagandists over Spain’s failure to meet its political obligations to Filipinos.

When Rizal wrote “The Legend of Mariang Makiling” in 1890, he popularized folklore as an expression of local knowledge and sentiment, and as a way for the idea of Philippine nationhood to take root in the public imaginary. Several stories and legends that constitute the rich pantheon of Philippine folk mythology are set against the backdrop of our country’s national parks.

These parks are exceptional for more than just their natural beauty: they are spaces endowed with religious and historical significance. Mount Banahaw, for example, a once-active volcano 100 kilometers southeast of Manila, has long been a sacred pilgrimage site revered by various religious sects. It was made a national park in 1941 for being a spiritual center and a symbol of Philippine popular religiosity.

Parks.jpg The first national parks to be declared were formerly forest reserves created by the Americans — Mount Makiling, for example, which also served as the testing ground for students at the UP College of Forestry, was made a national park in 1933. Photos by CLARA ASENIERO

Biak-na-Bato National Park in Bulacan, declared in 1937, was the impenetrable natural fortress of the Katipuneros and the one-time seat of the revolutionary government. The nearby Pamitinan Cave, also known as the Cave of Bernardo Carpio after the legendary figure in Philippine mythology, also had a significant role in the revolution as the site where Andres Bonifacio and Paciano Rizal sought refuge for nine days prior to the outbreak of the war against the Spaniards.

Rizal’s version of the Bernardo Carpio legend in “El Filibusterismo” speaks of a man with Herculean strength whose attempts to free himself from the chains that imprison him in this cave set off earthquakes and tremors. Like the legend of Mariang Makiling, the myth of Bernardo Carpio served as a salient metaphor for the struggle against oppressive forces and helped define the nationalist projects of the ilustrados, and subsequently the Katipunan — but they are also stories that are rooted in physical spaces and landscapes that have since become symbols of nationhood.

The national park as a public garden

The symbolic value of national parks, which invokes history, religion, and myth, has been an important component in the forging of national identity. There are around 80 national parks in the country today and the Philippines was, in fact, the first Asian nation to establish a national park system through the National Park Act in 1932.

Initiated by Sergio Osmeña and signed into effect by Manuel Quezon, the act defined a national park as a portion of the public domain to be preserved for its “panoramic, historical, scientific or aesthetic value.” Two decades earlier, Rizal Park in Dapitan, the small town on the northwestern tip of Mindanao that served as Rizal’s home in exile, had been declared the first official national park by the American Governor-General William Cameron Forbes in 1910.

There are around 80 national parks in the country today and the Philippines was, in fact, the first Asian nation to establish a national park system.

While the national park finds its roots in the 18th century European notion of a public garden or common ground for popular enjoyment, it was the Americans who gave form and substance to the concept in its modern sense with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 as the world’s first national park.

A key word that came to life together with the national park concept was “conservation,” and American colonial administrators were some of the first advocates of conservation in the Philippines. It was a concern born out of the United States’ own experience with rapid deforestation at the close of the 19th century, precipitated by unfettered logging and the mass conversion of forests to agricultural lands.

How we protect our national parks

When the Americans annexed the Philippines, they were careful not to commit the same mistakes. The U.S. colonial government enacted legislation regulating the use of public forests and their products. They also criminalized any practices they deemed economically wasteful or harmful to the environment, including caingin, or slash-and-burn cultivation.

It is not surprising then that some of the first national parks to be declared were formerly forest reserves created by the Americans — Mount Makiling, for example, which also served as the testing ground for students at the UP College of Forestry, was made a national park in 1933.

 

 

Biak-na-Bato_National_Parkjf6166_03.JPG Biak-na-Bato National Park in Bulacan, declared in 1937, was the impenetrable natural fortress of the Katipuneros and the one-time seat of the revolutionary government. Photo by RAMON FVELASQUEZ/CC-BY-SA-3.0

Rapid deforestation throughout much of the country in the post-war period has exposed vast areas to weather vulnerability and made an impact on our biodiversity. By declaring a choice segment of our natural heritage as a national park, the nation is committed to preserving and protecting that area from human exploitation and environmental degradation, to treasure it as heirloom for future generations.

The National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992 vastly enlarged the scope of national parks to embrace some 5.4 million hectares of diverse ecosystems as protected areas that fall under the control and administration of the Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR). The NIPAS Act has done much to streamline protected area management, which decades of institutional and administrative changes had left mired in bureaucratic confusion, but the system is understaffed and underfunded.

Moreover, there remain jurisdictional overlaps and boundary issues between the different types of management: from the national government to local government units, as well as indigenous communities who, through the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act of 1997, were granted more autonomy over the management of their domains.

Manila's oasis

While the incorporation of indigenous people in state conservation strategies is certainly a crucial step towards a more inclusive and equitable model of conservation in the Philippines, there is undoubtedly room for improvement in the preservation and management of our natural heritage. Now more than ever, a national awareness of the ecological, historical and cultural significance of our national parks is crucial to enhance economic and environmental sustainability, to assure biodiversity, and to allow future generations to enjoy the natural beauty of the country.

Rizal_Monument_at_Rizal_Park.jpg Luneta, declared a national park in 1955, invokes a feeling of liberation that is both physical — escape from the heat and the stifling conglomeration of the concrete jungle — and symbolic, for the monument that stands there marks the spot of Jose Rizal’s martyrdom for the nation’s freedom. Photo by MAYNARD RABANAL/CC BY-SA 3.0

For a metropolis that is losing its green lungs fast to choking urban development, there lies at the core of Manila’s one oasis, declared a national park in 1955 by Ramon Magsaysay: Luneta. This sprawling open public space by the bay invokes in park-goers a feeling of liberation that is both physical — escape from the oppressive heat and the stifling conglomeration of the concrete jungle — and symbolic, for the monument that stands there marks the spot of Jose Rizal’s martyrdom for the nation’s freedom.

With a diversity of national parks all over the archipelago, the Philippines has in its historic heart a national park that is aesthetically pleasurable, culturally memorable, and spiritually uplifting. From the Makiling of his birthplace to the Dapitan of his exile and the Luneta of his death, Rizal’s life is marked by national parks that Filipinos can visit to enjoy the tranquility of nature and the prize of freedom.

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Clara Aseniero is pursuing a postgraduate degree in International History at the London School of Economics.