People & Culture
It’s impossible to deny it: Filipinos have a zest for life that may be unrivalled on our planet. The national symbol, the jeepney, is an apt metaphor for the nation. Splashed with colour, laden with religious icons and festooned with sanguine scribblings, the jeepney flaunts the fact that, at heart, it’s a dilapidated pile of scrap metal. No matter their prospects in life, Filipinos face them with a laugh and a wink. Whatever happens…‘so be it’.
The National Psyche
The fatalism of the Filipino people has a name: bahala na, a phrase that expresses the idea that all things shall pass and in the meantime life is to be lived. Bahala na helps shape the carefree, welcoming nature of the Filipino people – and their tolerance. Travellers of any race, creed or sexual orientation are uniformly received with the utmost warmth and courtesy.
Family and religion are the two most important forces in Filipino society. The close-knit Filipino family unit extends to distant cousins, multiple godparents, and one’s barkada (gang of friends). Almost without exception, all members of one’s kinship group are afforded the utmost loyalty; respect for elders is paramount.
Filipino families, especially poor ones, tend to be large. It’s not uncommon for a dozen family members to live together in a tiny apartment, shanty or nipa hut. Because of this, personal space is not the issue for Filipinos that it is for Westerners. Foreign visitors to Philippine resorts are often amazed – or appalled – when a family of 10 takes up residence in the room next door, complete with pets, videoke machine and cooking equipment.
The most basic political unit, the barangay, is merely an extension of the family-based community unit that defined the social structure in pre-Hispanic times. The idea of working together for the common good, virtually nonexistent at the national level, is alive and well at the barangay level, where it’s known as bayanihan. Originally a rural entity, the barangay today is no less relevant in urban shanty towns, where a healthy cooperative spirit is essential for survival.
Another thread in the fabric of Filipino society is the overseas worker. At any given time more than a million Filipinos are working abroad, and combined they send home tens of billions of dollars. The Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) – the nurse in Canada, the construction worker in Qatar, the entertainer in Japan, the cleaner in Singapore – has become a national hero.
Faith & Superstition
More than 80% of Filipinos are Roman Catholic. While the separation of church and state is formalised in the Filipino constitution, the Catholic Church deeply influences national and local politics. A subtle hint from the church can swing a mayoral race and mean millions of votes for presidential or congressional candidates.
To the chagrin of the Catholic Church, Filipinos are also a superstitious lot. In urban areas, faith healers, psychics, fortune-tellers, tribal shamans, self-help books and evangelical crusaders can all help cast away ill-fortune. In the hinterland, it's a given that caves and forests are inhabited by spirits, ghosts and aswang (vampirelike figures who eat unborn children).
Feature: Prostitution in the Philippines
The sex business in the Philippines grew up around the American military bases at Clark and Subic Bay, reaching its heyday during the late Marcos era. The Americans were booted out in 1991, but prostitution remains rampant around their former bases and in most major cities. Various estimates put the number of sex workers in the country at about 400,000, with up to 20% of those underage. Although prostitution is officially illegal, the police tend to turn a blind eye.
The Asia-Pacific office of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (02-426 9873; www.catwinternational.org) is in Quezon City, Manila. Its website has information about prostitution in the Philippines, and several useful links. In Angeles, the Renew Foundation (www.renew-foundation.org) works to keep former sex workers and trafficked women off the streets by teaching them alternative work skills and providing safe shelter.
Of particular concern is the problem of child prostitution. A culture of silence surrounds child sex abuse in the Philippines. While hiya (shame) plays a big role in the silence, for the most part this silence is bought. There’s big money in paedophilia, both for ringleaders who arrange meetings between paedophiles and children, and for law enforcers who get paid to ignore it.
ECPAT Philippines (02-920 8151; www.ecpatphilippines.org) in Quezon City works to promote child-safe tourism and to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children through child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes. To report an incident, contact ECPAT, the Philippine National Police Women & Children’s Division (0919 777 7377) or the Human Trafficking Action Line (02-1343).
Ethnologically, the vast majority of Filipinos are related to Malaysians and Indonesians, with substantial Chinese influence as well as a smattering of colonial American and Spanish blood thrown into the mix. There are also close to 100 cultural minority groups in the Philippines, depending on your definition, and 170 or so different languages and dialects are spoken in the archipelago. In general, ethnic minorities can be divided into three main, blurred groups: Negrito, Igorot and Manobo.
Often referred to as the aborigines of the Philippines, the Negrito are represented by the Aeta, Ati, Eta, Ita and Dumagat peoples. Now thought to number as few as 30,000 to 35,000, Negrito people are generally the most racially victimised of the Filipinos. The Negrito mainly live in extremely poor conditions on the coastal fringes of North Luzon and in the highlands of Mindoro, Negros, Samar, Leyte and Panay, where the famously festive Ati are said to have initiated the present-day Ati-Atihan festivals in Kalibo and surrounding towns.
The Cordillera region of Luzon is home to the mountain-dwelling tribes collectively known as the Igorot. They include the Apayao (or Isneg), Kalinga, Ifugao, Benguet, Bontoc and Tingguian (or Itneg). While generally considered unbowed by outside pressures, many Igorot traditions were suppressed first by the Spanish and then by the Americans. However, most Igorot rituals, fashions and beliefs remain in some form and some rural villagers continue to live much as their ancestors did, tending rice terraces and living off the land.
The term Manobo is used to describe the major indigenous groups of Mindanao. Of these groups, five regard themselves as Muslim – the Badjao, Maguindanao, Maranao (or Maranaw), Tausag (or Tausug) and Samal. Regarded as the least Islamic of the Muslim groups, the animist Badjao are the 'sea gypsies' of the Sulu sea. Maguindanao people are the largest of all the Muslim groups, famed for their skills as musicians and weavers. Maranao people are the traditional owners of Lake Lanao, and are among the Philippines' most ingenious craftspeople. Tausag people were the earliest Filipino Islamic converts back in the 15th century and as such were the ruling class of the Jolo Sultanate. Samal people are the poorest of the Muslim groups, having long been the loyal subjects of the Tausag dynasties. The main non-Muslim indigenous groups of Mindanao are the Bukidnon, Bagobo, Mandaya and Mansaka peoples.
Filipinos are best known for their ubiquitous cover bands and their love of karaoke, J-pop, K-pop and American pop, but they need not be in imitation mode to show off their innate musical talent.
Dating from the late 19th century, the kundiman genre, with its bittersweet themes of love, fate and death, remains one of the best-loved modes of musical expression in the Philippines. Traditional musical instruments used in kundiman include the kudyapi, a hauntingly melodic lute, and the kulintang, a row of small gongs mounted on a langkungan, a resonating platform.
Filipino rock, known as 'OPM' (Original Pinoy Music), had its heyday in the '70s, when blues-rock outfits such as the Juan de la Cruz Band, Anakbayan and Maria Cafra ruled the roost. They looked and sounded the part, with big hair, bandannas and endless, soulful electric-guitar riffs. The Juan de la Cruz Band is credited with inventing Pinoy rock by busting out lyrics in Tagalog – the first big act to do so. From those humble origins evolved Eraserheads, the country’s first modest international success. This four-man band, known as the Philippines’ Beatles, rose to prominence in the early ‘90s with catchy guitar-heavy alternative rock songs with lyrics about ordinary Filipinos' struggles.
Other styles evolved from this. Tunog kalye, or 'street music', featuring slang lyrics about everyday experiences like drinking, drugs, corruption, and unrequited love, is uniquely Filipino. In the 2000s, three bands dominated the OPM scene, singing in both English and Filipino. This trio was led by the sometimes sweet, sometimes surly diva Kitchie Nadal, who continues to tour internationally. The eponymous band fronted by the singer Bamboo rose to prominence with a heady mixture of political invective and ballads laden with angst-ridden garage rock. Rounding out the big three, the agreeable Rivermaya, formerly fronted by Bamboo, made minor waves internationally with its 2005 hit ‘You’ll Be Safe Here'.
Other good bands, currently thriving, that are part of this legacy are Parokya ni Edgar, Moonstar 88, Silent Sanctuary and Brownman Revival, the latter a reggae band.
There’s also the Philippines’ U2 – The Dawn, a vaguely New Age ‘80s band – and the Philippines’ Elvis, ‘60s actor-singer Eddie Mesa. Another legend is Freddie Aguilar, whose 'Anak', a song about parent-child relations, propelled him to fame at the beginning of the People Power revolution in the 1980s.
Established and up-and-coming OPM artists can be seen playing at Ortigas' 12 Monkeys Music Hall & Pub; look out for Mumford & Sons–esque folk rockers Ransom Collective, and jazzy vocalist Jireh Calo. Seasoned artists such as Joey Generoso, formerly of Side A, and Southborder also perform there.
One veteran band worth checking out in the bars of Manila is Kalayo, which plays a sometimes-frantic fusion of tribal styles and modern jam-band rock. The 11-piece band uses a plethora of bamboo reed pipes, flutes and percussion instruments, and sings in dialects as diverse as Visayan, French and Bicol.
Other extremely popular musicians to look out for are Sarah Geronimo, Jay-R and Kyla, all talented singers combing contemporary R&B with Filipino themes.
Feature: Arnel Pineda’s Journey
He was just a small-town boy, as his favourite band once put it, working on the not-so-lonely cover-band circuit in Quezon City, Manila, as lead singer for a band called Zoo. Arnel Pineda didn’t reckon on achieving more or less fame than any of the zillion other Filipino cover-band singers that keep the crowds entertained in the bars and lounges of hotels from Bahrain to Beijing. One thing was for sure, though: Arnel Pineda could imitate the throaty wail of Journey’s erstwhile lead singer Steve Perry like nobody’s business.
In 2006 something happened that made few waves in the international rock scene, but would change Pineda’s life forever. The ageing rockers of Journey were forced to drop lead singer Steve Augeri, who was losing his voice but had never really sounded like Perry anyway. The next year, after another lead singer didn’t work out, the band stumbled across some clips of Pineda on YouTube. Incredulous, they invited him to LA for an audition.
When Pineda applied for his visa, the story goes, nobody at the US embassy believed his ostensible ‘purpose for travel’ – auditioning to be lead singer of Journey. So they asked him to sing a few bars of ‘Wheels in the Sky.’ He nailed it, they issued the visa, and he was on his way to rock ‘n’ roll infamy.
The band introduced Pineda as their new lead singer in early 2008, turning 90 million Filipinos into Journey fans overnight. In February 2017 Pineda and Journey returned to Manila for a concert at the Mall of Asia in Manila. Filipinos love a good rags-to-riches story to affirm their hope that things can always get better. Pineda, a one-time homeless kid on the streets of Manila, has done more than give Filipinos a good story – he has given them something to be proud of.
Many people would sooner have their wisdom teeth removed without anaesthetic than spend an evening listening to inebriated amateurs pay homage to Celine Dion and Julio Iglesias. But when Filipinos want to unwind, they often do it with karaoke – or ‘videoke’ as it’s known throughout the Philippines.
Filipinos are unabashed about belting out a tune, whenever and wherever, alone or in company. They pursue the craft without a hint of irony, which means that criticising or making fun of someone’s performance is decidedly taboo, and may even provoke violence.
With all that videoke going on it can be awfully hard to find peace and quiet in certain tourist hot spots. If loud, unmelodious singing grates like fingernails on a blackboard, stick to resorts run by foreigners, which tend to be less videoke-friendly.
Long before the Spanish arrived, the simple, utilitarian nipa hut defined Filipino architecture. The most basic nipa hut is made of wood and bamboo, with a roof of palm thatch – cool and breezy in hot weather and easily repaired if damaged by typhoons.
The Spanish brought new forms of architecture, such as the bahay na bato (stone house) and squat, fortresslike ‘earthquake-baroque’ churches. But the basic design of the nipa hut endured. By the 19th century, Filipinos of means were building hybrid residences that mixed Spanish and Asian styles with elements of the nipa hut. These composite structures, distinguishable by their capiz-shell windows and huge upstairs sala (living room), remain the most elegant and distinctive architectural specimens the Philippines has to offer.
Maria Virginia Yap Morales' Balay Ukit: Tropical Architecture in Pre-WWII Filipino Houses explores late-19th- and early-20th-century buildings that exhibit this hybrid style, the vast majority of which have been destroyed or abandoned, overwhelmed by quicker, cheaper and generic concrete structures. The Spanish colonial city of Vigan (Luzon) and Silay (Negros) are the best places to view these houses, although you will sometimes stumble across fine examples in the most remote barangays.
Imelda Marcos, in the 1970s, helped introduce another hybrid style that utilised indigenous materials in grand and opulent ways; the Coconut Palace in Manila is a lasting legacy. These days, most notably in Manila's ever-expanding micro-cities, the anonymous aesthetics of the international high-rise dominate.
Filipino theatre evolved from marathon chants and epic legends, such as the Unesco-recognised Ifugao hudhud, sung in the rice fields around Kiangan in North Luzon to alleviate boredom while planting and harvesting. In the 17th century the Spaniards introduced sinakulos – passion plays depicting the life and death of Christ – to convert the locals to Christianity. Other early forms of theatre were the moro-moro, which glorified the Christian struggle against Muslims in the 19th century, and a light, localised musical form known as zarzuela, which was used to protest American occupation at the outset of the 20th century.
When the Americans arrived, English became the language of the national theatrical scene. The journalist, novelist and playwright Nick Joaquin wrote his signature work, Portrait of a Young Artist as a Filipino, in 1951. Other important playwrights of the 20th century were Rolando Tinio, whose Filipino adaptations of English-language classics such as Shakespeare’s tragedies remain unparalleled in their field; and Rene Villanueva, best known for his children’s books but also highly regarded as a playwright.
Contemporary playwrights blend tradition with the issues of the day. The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA; www.petatheater.com) in particular, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, produces works that blend social satire with cutting-edge style and has an excellent development program for up-and-coming playwrights.
Painting & Sculpture
The most recognisable form of artwork in the Philippines is centuries old and, in fact, wasn’t conceived as artwork: the bulol, the sacred wood figures carved by the Ifugao, have for centuries been used to guard rice fields. The names of the sculptors were rarely recorded, but elder Ifugao can often identify the sculptor of original bulol based on the statue’s style. Reproductions of these powerful statues flood souvenir shops across the country.
Modern Filipino sculpture is epitomised by Guillermo Tolentino’s neoclassical masterpiece in Caloocan City, the resplendent Monumento, honouring the revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio. Davao-based Kublai Millan, prolific in nearly every medium, has installed massive sculptures depicting various Mindanao ethnic and religious groups in a number of cities on the island. Most easily visible are the giant durian at the Davao International Airport and the massive eagle and Bagobo children in People's Park, also in Davao. Another name visitors may notice is Jose Mendoza, whose sculptures adorn the streets of Makati.
Painting in the Spanish era was dominated by the two unchallenged masters of Filipino art: Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo. Luna’s vast Spoliarium and Hidalgo’s Antigone stunned European art circles when they won gold and silver medals at the prestigious 1884 Madrid Exposition.
The early 20th century saw the rise of the masters Fabian de la Rosa and Fernando Amorsolo. De la Rosa’s work is distinguished by disciplined composition and brushwork, while Amorsolo painted quintessential rural Philippine scenes and subjects in a free-flowing, Impressionist style.
Vicente Manansala, Arturo Luz, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Fernando Zobel and Hernando Ocampo were among the great Filipino modernists who emerged after WWII. Zobel toyed with cubism before becoming the country’s foremost abstractionist. The brilliant ethnic-Chinese painter Ang Kiukok, who studied under Manansala, opened eyes with his violent cubist paintings of fighting cocks, stray dogs and tormented lovers.
The contemporary Filipino art scene is ever abuzz. Conceptual artist David Cortez Medalla, based in Britain, has pioneered avant-garde art movements such as minimalism and performance art. In addition to being well received internationally, artist-with-a-conscience Benedicto Cabrera (‘Bencab’) has dedicated considerable effort to the development of contemporary Cordillera art, and created Tam-awan village, an artists retreat in Baguio. Other Filipino artists are experimenting with alternative mediums, including using tuba (coconut wine), coffee grounds and even the sun (the process is called pyrography).
Filipino dance is as rich and varied as the islands themselves. The national folk dance is the tinikling, which involves a boy and a girl hopping between bamboo poles, held just above the ground and struck together in time to music or hand-clapping. Some say this dance was inspired by the flitting of birds between grass stems or a heron hopping through the rice paddies. A version of the tinikling is the breathtaking singkil, in which two dancers representing a Muslim princess and her lady-in-waiting weave in and out of four poles struck together at increasing speed.
Two of the best known and most successful Filipino folk-dance troupes are the Bayanihan National Folk Dance Company, which first wowed the world in 1958 at the Brussels Universal Exposition, and the Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group, founded in 1972. Both are resident companies of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Many Filipino ballet talents have won international recognition abroad, among them Maniya Barredo, former prima ballerina of the Atlanta Ballet, and Lisa Macuja, who played Giselle with the Kirov Ballet in Russia. Macuja now runs her own ballet company, Ballet Manila.
Sport in the Philippines is dominated by one man: boxer Manny Pacquiao (aka 'Pacman'), widely considered the best pound-for-pound prizefighter in the world. Pacquiao, who emerged from poverty in Mindanao to win title belts in five different weight classes, is a tremendous source of national pride for Filipinos. While his hall-of-fame boxing career may be nearing its end – he lost a controversial decision for the world welterweight title to Australian Jeff Horn in July 2017 – other pursuits beckon. He ran successfully for Philippine congress in 2010 and 2013 and was elected to the Senate in 2016, tallying more than 16 million votes. He was the oldest rookie drafted in the Philippine Basketball Association in 2014 – notably, by the team he coaches; he's released several albums of Tagalog songs and acted in a handful of films.
An even quirkier national hero takes the form of stocky, bespectacled Efren ‘Bata’ (‘The Kid’) Reyes, one of the world’s best nine-ball billiards players. The other big sport, besides cockfighting, is basketball. Most midsized towns have at least one concrete court with a corrugated-iron roof, and you’ll find at least a crude interpretation of a court in even the poorest, most remote barangays. The overwhelmingly popular Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) draws many former US college stars and the leagues' games are televised nationally. To learn about the ubiquity and cultural significance of the game in the Philippines, check out Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball (Rafe Bartholomew; 2010), a book as riotous as the title implies.
Football (soccer) is growing rapidly in popularity as the national team, Azkals, has improved markedly in recent years and now competes with the best teams in Asia.
Cockfighting is to the Philippines what baseball is to the USA or rugby is to New Zealand. A couple of times a week, mostly male crowds pack their local cockpit (usually dubbed a 'sporting arena') and watch prized roosters fight to the death. Important matches and championships are shown on national television.
Expensive fighting birds are fitted with 7.5cm ankle blades and let loose on one another. Fights are short and brutal. The winner is whisked away to a team of waiting surgeons, who stitch up any gaping wounds and dose the bird with antibiotics. The loser usually makes his way into the cooking pot.
The practice has its critics, both in the Philippines and abroad, including a range of organisations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Philippines Animal Welfare Society. But as yet animal-rights groups have made little progress stemming a pastime that is so deeply ingrained in the country's culture.
Sidebar: Kublai Ponce-Millan
Mindanao artist Kublai Ponce-Millan’s nine statues of indigenous Filipinos playing musical instruments in St Peter’s Sq, Vatican City, was the first time a non-Italian artist was allowed to participate in the Vatican’s annual nativity scene display.
Sidebar: Here Lies Love
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's Here Lies Love, a rock musical about Imelda Marcos, did a run at the Public Theater in New York City in 2013 and 2014.
Sidebar: Eye of the Fish
Eye of the Fish is an interesting collection of essays by Manila-born, New York–raised journalist Luis H Francia that is a good introduction to the various issues facing the Philippines and its people today.
Aswang – mythical vampirelike figures who eat unborn children – have been the subject of at least one American cult horror flick. Any rural Filipino will tell you in a matter-of-fact manner about the many aswang living in their local forests.
Sidebar: Ghosts of Manila
Ghosts of Manila (1994) by James Hamilton-Paterson is a chilling yet entertaining ‘docufiction’ of life, death and the corrupt chains binding Filipinos in the city’s slums.
The yo-yo, which means ‘come back’ in Tagalog, was invented by a Filipino-American. The original yo-yo was a studded weapon attached to 6m ropes.
Po-on is an easy introduction to Filipino author F Sionil Jose, with all the tropes of Filipino literature: evil Spanish priests, heroic ilustrados, passive resistance and armed struggle. It’s the first in a five-part series.
Tong-its, a three-player card game like rummy, is played for big pesos in backyard contests all over the country. Don't be fooled by the humble setting: players can be cutthroat and square off for the entire day, tossing jewellery and phones into the pot when cash is low.
Sidebar: Carlos P Romulo
In 1942 Filipino statesman Carlos P Romulo became the first Asian to win a Pulitzer Prize, for a series of articles on pre-WWII Asia.
Sidebar: Altar of Secrets
Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics, and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church (2013) is journalist Aries Rufo's damning account of the leadership of the country's predominant religion.
Sidebar: Sari-Sari Storybooks
Sari-Sari Storybooks (www.sarisaristorybooks.com), a publishing venture run by a Brooklyn, NY-based Filipino-American woman, produces bilingual (English and another Filipino language) illustrated children's books inspired by local, regional and Filipino themes, beliefs and traditions. For example, Kalipay and the Tiniest Tiktik, written in Cebuana, is based on a popular mythical creature.
Sidebar: The First Impulse
Filipino-American writer Laurel Fantauzzo's The First Impulse: Notes on Love, Film and Death in the Philippines tells the true story of two young film critics murdered in Quezon City in 2009.
The environment of the Philippines has two very different faces: one is a spectacular tropical-island-topia, home to a global treasure of endemic species; the other is one of the world’s top conservation priorities, due to the many grave threats to its health. The visitor might begin by understanding both, then focus on finding the diamonds in the rough, safe in the knowledge that selective ecotourism can not only be tremendously rewarding here, but also do an enormous amount of good.
The Philippines is the world's second-largest archipelago, with 7107 islands – although when asked how many, locals commonly joke 'at what tide?' This vast network, stretching some 1810km from the tip of Batanes to the Sulu archipelago, is the defining characteristic of the country, shaping it socially, politically and economically. Only its next-door neighbour, Indonesia, offers a larger string of pearls. In fact, combine the two and you could hop to a different island every day for over 50 years!
While the Philippine islands range from tiny coral islets to the sprawling, amoeba-like giants of Luzon and Mindanao, they are all tropical. Think jungle-clad, mountainous interiors, arcs of sandy beach, aquamarine waters and coral reefs. Winding interior roads are typically lined by tin-roofed shacks; rice paddies fill the lowlands and form scenic terraces above; outrigger fishing boats dot simple fishing villages. Concrete provincial cities, clogged with traffic and wrapped in spaghetti-like power lines, are linked by a complex, ever-changing ferry network.
On a map, the archipelago looks like a puzzle that has broken apart, but it actually congealed over tens of millions of years from the complex interactions of various sea plates along the Ring of Fire, the extraordinary volcanic fault line that circles the Pacific Basin. This explains why the wildlife in Palawan, which has drifted eastward over millions of years, is more like Borneo's than the rest of the Philippines'. And why volcanoes are plentiful. At least 17 are active, the femme fatale being highly active Mt Mayon (2462m), with its classic, perfectly symmetrical cone.
Other interesting products of this geology include some of Asia's longest and largest caves, like the Odloman Cave in Mabinay, Negros; underground rivers and springs, such as Malumpati Spring on Panay and the famous Subterranean River in Puerto Princesa, Palawan; submerged volcanic cones, known as 'blue holes' to divers; and stratospheric limestone columns, such as those in Palawan’s Bacuit Archipelago.
When you think of wildlife in the Philippines, one quasi-technical term rises to the top: 'endemic'. Millenniums of geographical isolation from the rest of Southeast Asia has resulted in the evolution of thousands of species found nowhere else on earth, leading biologists to dub the archipelago ‘Galápagos times 10’. In fact, new species are still being discovered at a remarkable rate.
Some statistics tell the tale: the Philippines has 191 species of mammals, of which 16 were only discovered in the last 15 years. Over 100 of these are endemic – even more than in Madagascar. Some 600 species of bird also call the Philippines home, nearly 200 of which are endemic – only much larger Indonesia and Brazil have more unique varieties. Reptiles are represented by about 235 species, some 160 (68%) of which are endemic. The country is also home to approximately 13,500 species of plant; only four countries can boast more. Scientists estimate that 30% to 40% of those species are unique to the Philippines.
The story is the same underwater. The Philippines is part of the 'Coral Triangle', the global centre for marine biodiversity. At the same time, it has a higher concentration of species per unit area than anywhere else in this region, making it the very 'centre of the centre'.
However, while the Philippines is renowned for its underwater life, it's not well known for terrestrial wildlife-spotting. This is because the ecotourism infrastructure doesn't exist and the animals themselves are elusive, particularly in the face of ongoing development.
As you would expect from such a hotspot of biodiversity, the Philippines contains some extraordinary animals. The poster mammal is the lovable, palm-sized tarsier, a primate found mainly on the island of Bohol, and easiest seen at the Tarsier Sanctuary there. Contrary to popular belief, they are not the world’s smallest primate – this is a distinction belonging to the pygmy mouse lemur of Madagascar. However, the Philippines can still proudly lay claim to the world’s smallest hoofed mammal – the rare Philippine mouse deer of Palawan – one of four deer species on the islands. Other furry favourites include the Palawan bearcat, or binturong, which looks like a black raccoon, and the small but charming Visayan leopard, with its big dark eyes.
The most impressive land mammal and the only wild-cattle species in the Philippines is the tamaraw, a dwarf water buffalo whose only remaining refuge is Mindoro’s Mt Iglit-Baco National Park. A century ago their population numbered 10,000; today only 400 or so remain. However, their survival is something of a minor success story since it's double the number from 2014. More common are the eight species of fruit bat (flying fox) that dwell in caves across the country, at least by day. Those visiting Boracay need only look up at dusk to spot the nightly bat migration, including that of the giant golden-crowned flying fox, which has a 1.7m wingspan.
There are a few places around the country where you might spot whales if your timing is right, such as the channel between Negros and Cebu, and the Bohol Sea, between Bohol and Mindanao. However, you’re more likely to spot dolphins; the acrobatic spinner dolphin is a perennial favourite. Less well known are dugong (known locally as duyong), a type of sea cow once found in great numbers in Philippine waters but now relatively rare. Two places where you can spot them (if you’re lucky) are in Malita, Mindanao, and around Calauit, off Busuanga Island, in northern Palawan.
The national bird is the enormous Philippine eagle. A few hundred survive in the wild, mostly in the rainforests of Mindanao, Samar, and the Sierra Madre Mountains of North Luzon. They are more easily seen at the Philippine Eagle Center in Calinan, outside of Davao. Further south, the Sulu hornbill is one of several extraordinary hornbills on the islands, part of a genus known for its blazing beaks. The Palawan peacock pheasant is also a remarkable bird: the males of this species have a metallic blue crest, long white eyebrows and large metallic blue or purple ‘eyes’ on the tail. Now nearing endangered status, these ground-dwellers are found only in the deepest forests of Palawan.
Among the reptiles, geckos are ubiquitous. There are also 10 species of flying lizard, which glide from tree to tree using a flap of skin on either side of their body. More elusive is the rare sailfin dragon, which is just as advertised, with a sail-like fin standing atop its back. Rarest of all is the endangered, and enormous, Philippine crocodile, which can be seen in Sierra Madre Natural Park. There’s also a wide variety of venomous and nonvenomous snakes, including pythons, sea snakes (which can be seen when snorkelling), and the Philippine cobra, which can spit its venom 3m; pack an umbrella.
Of course, divers and snorkellers also flock to the Philippines to see any of the islands' 2500-plus species of fish. Some of the larger denizens include whale sharks, which are typically seen in Donsol, southern Leyte or around Puerto Princesa (whale-shark 'tours' around Oslob, Cebu, have been criticised by animal-welfare groups); and thresher sharks, which use their enormous tails to herd their prey. Sea turtles are often a common sight while snorkelling, with a resident tribe lying off the beach at Apo Island.
While the pretty yellow-flowered nara is the national tree of the Philippines, the unofficial national plant must surely be the nipa palm, whose leaves form the walls and roofs of nipa huts all over the country. The national flower is the highly aromatic sampaguita, a variety of jasmine. For both quality and quantity, you can't beat the some 900 endemic species of orchid, including the waling-waling (Vanda sanderiana) of Mindanao and the red-spotted star orchid (Rananthera mautiana). Another favourite is pitcher plants; climbers exploring at remote elevations may stumble upon rare examples of these.
With so many natural wonders spread out among so many beautiful islands, you might think that the Philippines would have a highly developed ecotourism industry. And below the water, you might be right. In southern Negros alone, new dive resorts are sprouting like hotels in Boracay. Even remote resorts have dive centres now. Along with this upsurge has come the ongoing creation of dozens of marine reserves. Palawan has more than 60; southern Negros over a dozen. This has led to a marked increase in marine life in places such as Hundred Islands National Park and Apo Reef Natural Park. However, there is still an ongoing battle to protect marine reserves from local fisherman, who frequently invade them at night. It can be very distressing to snorkel at Carbin Reef, part of Panay's flagship Sagay Marine Reserve, and not see a single fish larger than your finger.
While ecotourism on land is no less challenged, it is far less advanced, due primarily to a lack of basic infrastructure. At first glance the Philippines would appear to have a robust national park system. Hundreds of land and marine areas are designated as protected and in May 2017 the Philippine Senate voted to bring an additional 92 sites under the protected areas system. However, few actually meet the international definition of a national park and funds for enforcement and protection are generally lacking. According to Conservation International, two-thirds have human settlements, and one-quarter of their lands have already been disturbed or converted to agriculture. Only a select few parks have features such as offices, trail maps, established camp sites or any facilities at all. Just consider the country's largest protected area, the 476,588-hectare Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park in Luzon: it contains roughly half of the Philippines’ remaining primary forest, yet lacks an established trail network. You’ll need serious jungle-trekking skills and an excellent local guide to penetrate it.
This lack of infrastructure extends to local tour companies. Only a handful of enterprises offer the spelunking, jungle-trekking, rappelling, kayaking, wildlife and mountain-bike tours for which the Philippines is tailor-made. Consequently, one has to be downright careful when trying to find a trekking company or guide, or when planning an outdoor expedition of any kind. The necessary accreditation, training, emergency procedures, accountability and professional organisation are scarce. Having said that, the undeveloped nature of the ecotourism industry does mean that the opportunity exists to blaze your own trail – as long as you do it wisely. When assessing key factors such as local weather conditions, remember that your guide's opinion may be driven more by economics than safety, given that a guide's wage is less than $2 a day. If you're not sure where to turn, visit local tourism offices, which are generally excellent.
One rule of thumb is that group van tours generally don't operate with environmental principles in mind. Some operators are attempting to combine ecotourism with adventure sports. In Tibiao, Panay, the local municipality has turned the area around the Tibiao River into the Tibiao EcoAdventure Park. There are two tour companies, basic accommodation, kayaking, hiking and ziplining, all aimed primarily at luring visitors from Boracay. If this municipal model proves profitable, expect it to be replicated elsewhere.
Given its extraordinary geography of 7107 tropical islands and population of 100 million people, many of whom live well below the poverty line, it seems inevitable that environmental issues will arise. Deforestation, soil erosion, improper waste disposal, air and water pollution, overfishing, destructive fishing and coral-reef loss are all of concern. Not all the damage is self-inflicted, however. The Philippine environment is also suffering from some well-known external pressures, from plastic bottles floating ashore from the rest of Southeast Asia to the many impacts of climate change.
There is an ongoing battle between the many sources of these problems, and the many conservation organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, arrayed against them. The environment of the Philippines today is basically the product of this conflict, whose shifting frontline is everywhere to be seen.
Feature: Conservation Organisations
The following websites contain information related to the environmental concerns facing the Philippines. Some of these organisations are Philippines-specific, others work elsewhere as well.
Biodiversity Management Bureau (www.bmb.gov.ph) Links to the various conservation projects of the Philippine government.
Conservation International (www.conservation.org) Partners with the government and local communities to protect threatened ecosystems.
Coral Cay Conservation (www.coralcay.org) Works to protect coral reefs and other tropical forests.
Haribon Foundation (www.haribon.org.ph) Active in preserving habitats of endangered species and other areas.
Negros Forests & Ecological Foundation Inc (www.negrosforests.org) Works to protect various Philippine habitats, focusing on Negros.
Oceana Philippines (www.ph.oceana.org) Dedicated to the preservation of marine environemnts.
Pasyar Travel & Tours (www.pasyarpalawantravel.weebly.com) Monitors illegal logging, mining, fishing and other prohibited activities in forests and waters of Palawan.
Rare (www.rare.org) Works with local governments to responsibly manage fishing zones and promote sustainable practices.
Over the course of the last century the forest cover of the Philippines has dropped from 70% to under 20%, with only about 7% of its original old-growth, closed-canopy forest left. At current levels of deforestation, the country’s forests will be extinct by 2100. Nevertheless, an astonishing 75% of Philippine forest is still classified as production forest. In addition to severe soil erosion, this trend is particularly concerning because Philippine forests are the last home for so many endemic species.
Unregulated logging, mining, massive farming expansion and urbanisation have all taken their toll. Indigenous people’s claims on upland regions have been ignored by urban elites. The government has regularly granted logging concessions of less than 10 years, with loggers having no incentive to replant. From 2011 to 2015 the mining sector is said to have reforested 47,000 hectares. Much of what’s left of Philippine forests is only safeguarded by high altitudes, as they're difficult to reach.
With a coastal ecosystem that stretches for almost 20,000km, the Philippines has become one of the earliest victims of climate change. Indeed, according to the UN, it is the country third most at risk from its effects. The combination of high sea temperatures, acidification and unseasonable storms has done enormous damage to the country's reefs. Centuries-old coral is dying almost overnight. The World Bank estimates that only about 1% of Philippine coral reefs remains pristine, while more than 50% is unhealthy. Snorkellers around Puerto Galera and Boracay now face a coral graveyard; pearl farms are increasingly unproductive.
Coastal development has further damaged the marine environment, including mangroves and seagrasses. Population growth has driven increasing need for construction materials and living space; excavation, dredging and land reclamation have followed. Mangroves have further suffered at the hands of the aquaculture industry, which has reduced mangrove stands by over 60% in the past century.
As the population of fishing villages has expanded, overfishing has depleted fish stocks. Meanwhile, local fishing communities continue to employ destructive methods such as homemade bombs (called 'bong bong'), cyanide and chlorine. The result is a completely unsustainable fishing industry. According to the Asian Development Bank, certain areas in the Philippines have seen a 90% drop in trawler hauls, in what should otherwise be one of the world's most productive fisheries.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) only about 10% of waste in the Philippines is treated or disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. Not surprisingly, water pollution is a growing problem for the country’s groundwater, rivers, lakes and coastal areas. Only a third of Philippine river systems are considered suitable for the public water supply. Poor management, including bad planning and a lack of regulatory enforcement, is largely to blame.
There are an estimated 500,000 small-scale mines operating in more than 30 Philippine provinces, many of them illegal, and, according to Human Rights Watch reports, many also using toxic mercury and child labour. At the other end of the scale are the huge mining conglomerates, which continue to lobby the government for more access. The Philippines is the world's leading exporter of nickel ore (gold, copper and chromite are also in abundance) and there are an estimated 236,000 Filipinos employed in the industry.
The government claims that adequate safeguards are in place to prevent the social and environmental damage that has dogged past mining projects, such as the Marcopper disaster in 1996, which poisoned an entire river system. However, a number of environmental activists were killed during the Aquino administration by forces under military control. In 2007 Sibuyan Island councillor Armin Marin was shot dead on camera, surrounded by scores of witnesses, while leading a picket of anti-mining advocates. After five years of investigations and court hearings, the accused, a plain-clothed mining security officer, was given a three-year sentence for 'criminal negligence', then released early.
More recently, environmental activist turned Acting Environment Secretary Gina Lopez was denied confirmation to her post by Congress after moving aggressively against illegal mining practices. She ordered the closure of 28 operations and the cancellation of 75 government-mineral sharing agreements. President Duterte, to the chagrin of the companies, appointed Lopez and has spoken out against the environmental devastation caused by the mining (and logging) industry.
Feature: Best Wildlife Spotting
Pythons (Danjugan Island, off Negros) Yes, monster pythons do eat bats in mid-air.
Green turtles (Apo Island) You can swim alongside these creatures while snorkelling or scuba diving.
Whale sharks (Donsol, Pintuyan) Spot these giants in their natural habitat in southern Leyte (also around Puerto Princesa).
Tarsiers (Bohol) See these adorable creatures at the sanctuary in Corella, not far from Tagbilaran.
Fruit bats (Monfort Bat Cave, Samal Island, off Mindanao) Just you, and 2.5 million of them.
Dugong (off Busuanga Island, Palawan) Is it a whale, or a seal? This strange hybrid is worth the search.
Philippine eagles (Mt Apo, Mindanao) What better place to spy this majestic bird than the tallest peak in the Philippines?
Sidebar: World’s Biggest Pearl
The world’s biggest pearl was found by a Filipino diver in the waters off Palawan in 1934. It weighed over 6kg and was valued at US$42 million.
Sidebar: Mindanao Trench
The Mindanao Trench in the Philippine Sea, at 10,497m, is the second-deepest spot in the world's oceans.
Sidebar: World Heritage De-Listings
In 2014 Unesco de-listed several World Heritage sites in the Philippines, including Panglao Island, Mt Apo and Taal Volcano, for environmental violations.
A 6.5m-long crocodile, one of the largest in the world, was captured in 2011 near Bunawan, Mindanao.
Sidebar: Bohol Sea
The Bohol Sea, the body of water between Bohol and Mindanao, hosts 19 cetacean species including sperm whales, pilot whales, Bryde’s whales, melon-headed whales and even a blue whale, whose presence was only first officially recorded in 2010.
Sidebar: The Big Five
Environmentalists, in an effort to draw attention to the estimated 640 threatened species in the Philippines, have begun to use creative monikers to highlight the issues. On Panay, the Visayan writhed-hornbill, the flowering plany Raflessia, the Visayan warty pig, the Visayan spotted deer and the Panay monitor lizard are known as the 'Big Five'.
Sidebar: Mt Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary
The 24sq km of Mt Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2014 (Mindanao's first) and an Asean Heritage Park in 2016. The reserve is home to Philippine eagles, tarsiers and cockatoos, as well as an immense number of other fauna and flora species.