New resort at protected natural wonder stirs fierce debate on conservation in the Philippines

New resort at protected natural wonder stirs fierce debate on conservation in the Philippines - Environment - News

The Controversial New Resort Amidst the Philippines’ Chocolate Hills: Balancing Tourism Development and Environmental Protection

Nestled among the lush, rolling terrain of the Philippines’ renowned Chocolate Hills, the Captain’s Peak Garden and Resort once offered travelers a unique scenery unlike any other. However, this idyllic retreat has faced temporary closure after public uproar regarding what has been termed as an “abuse of natural resources.”

Located in the heart of the central island province, the Chocolate Hills consist of over 1,700 conical limestone peaks that stretch as far as the eye can see. The grass-covered karst mounds, which turn brown during the dry season and resemble pieces of chocolate, are a protected area under Philippine law. In 1997, then-President Fidel V. Ramos declared the Chocolate Hills a protected area, with a legal obligation for authorities to safeguard its natural beauty and provide measures against inappropriate exploitation.

Images of the newly constructed Captain’s Peak Garden and Resort amidst these hills have sparked debate and anger over the country’s environmental commitment. Social media users questioned how such a development was allowed in this national geological monument. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) intervened, ordering the resort’s temporary closure on March 13, 2023.

Senior legislators in Manila are demanding answers regarding the construction of the resort and the approval process that allowed it to be built in a protected area. House deputy majority leader Erwin Tulfo tabled a resolution on March 20, 2023, calling for a thorough investigation into the Captain’s Peak Garden and Resort. The resolution highlighted concerns about potential circumvention of regulations in granting building permits, business licenses, or certifications.

The Captain’s Peak Garden and Resort shared a redacted version of its business permit on Facebook, stating it was a testament to their commitment to responsible operations. They claimed their plans underwent thorough scrutiny and received the necessary approvals from relevant authorities. The resort also mentioned taking measures to minimize ecological footprint during development.

The Philippines boasts over 7,000 islands featuring diverse natural landscapes, including coral reefs, pristine beaches, ancestral rice terraces, mountains, and volcanoes. Many of these beauty spots are prominent in promotional campaigns to attract more international visitors.

Tourism contributed 6.2% to the Philippines’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2022, and the government envisions substantial growth for this sector. With the easing of pandemic restrictions, tourist arrivals jumped from 2.6 million in 2022 to 5.4 million in 2023.

Balancing tourism development and environmental protection is a significant challenge, especially for remote areas where many natural wonders exist and residents stand to benefit from tourist income and job opportunities.

Senator Nancy Binay, who chairs the legislature’s tourism committee, stated in a recent statement that development is essential but there must be boundaries. She believes that if the DENR continues to grant Environmental Compliance Certificates (ECCs) in the name of tourism development, they have misunderstood ecotourism’s true essence and become complicit in defacing natural monuments.

The Philippines has previously attempted to address the impacts of overtourism, notably in the tropical paradise of Boracay, which was once labeled a “cesspool” by former President Rodrigo Duterte. The resort island, famous for its white-sand beaches, fully reopened in 2022 following a prolonged clean-up operation.