Monday, October 24, 2011

Foolish beyond words

This post is antedated. I am trying to recover the online version of my columns before the Manila Standard Today deletes the archives for 2011. I made the mistake of assuming the archive will be online for five years. Sigh.

The norm of reciprocity is clear: You reap what you sow. If you submit a clearly ridiculous idea, of course you get pilloried and ridiculed in the process.

So I don’t know what Batangas Governor Vilma Santos Recto and her minions are complaining about. She was all over television last week expressing exasperation (in Tagalog nanggagaliiti) over what she thought was an “overreaction” to what she thought was a brilliant proposal: Putting up a sign on the slopes of Taal Volcano that proclaims to all and sundry that the volcano and the whole area around it belongs to the province of Batangas.

The proponents of the preposterous idea said it was about time that tourists who view Taal volcano from the slopes of Tagaytay City, which offer the best view of the “island within a lake within an island within a lake” are made aware that the world-famous volcano is not a part of Cavite but of Batangas. Taal is in Batangas, not in Cavite, the proponents of the idea want to insist. Someone who supports the idea said it clearly: “It’s time Batanguenos claim their stake in the Volcano.” I wanted to ask out loud: From whom? Who is claiming Taal Volcano as their own? Certainly not Tagaytay City.

But this kind of misplaced sense of ownership is the most harebrained idea I have ever heard.

The idea of putting up a sign on a natural wonder as if it were a property of a provincial government alone is clearly ludicrous. First, because the volcano is not anyone’s property—certainly not of the government of Batangas, nor of the people of Batangas alone. It’s a natural wonder that belongs to the whole country; in fact, if we are to be philosophical about it, it does not belong to anyone—it’s God’s creation and we are supposed to be mere caretakers of the wondrous creation.

Taal Volcano is not a piece of real estate that can be appropriated. What’s next? Will they charge admission for viewing the volcano? A “no trespassing” sign?

Second, because putting up a sign is clearly garish and tawdry and represents the worst kind of visual pollution. The inspiration behind the idea was supposedly the huge Hollywood sign in the United States. Copying an idea per se is not really a crime, but Recto and her supporters seemed to have glossed over the fact that the Hollywood sign does not mar a spectacular natural wonder—it was precisely put up to be an attraction in itself in the absence of anything else there worth gazing at. There’s a difference.

The people who have come up with similar examples of the same harebrained idea are of course indulging in parody, but they bring home the point. Who wants an “Albay” sign over Mayon volcano, or a “Banawe” sign on the slopes of the Ifugao rice terraces, or “Bohol” over the chocolate hills, or a “Laguna” sign on the side of the Pagsanjan falls? Why would we want a “Batangas” sign over the Taal volcano?

I know the other exercises in lampooning the idea bordered on the “personal,” but hey, people cannot be faulted for expressing outrage over what they thought was a personal affront. Taal Volcano and Taal Lake are part and parcel of national heritage and patrimony. Thus, the various parodies of the sign such as the ones quoting famous dialogues from Recto’s movies are par for the course.

Third, Recto and her minions are on the wrong track if their think they can boost tourism in the area merely by putting up a sign. I am aware that they talked about holistic approaches to tourism—although I honestly cannot fathom just how putting up the sign would directly increase livelihood - but tourists don’t come in droves to an area because there is a sign that proclaims where they are. As far as I know, tourists make a conscious decision to go someplace because they have heard of the area and do not just wander aimlessly around and then wonder where they are. And the locals don’t get a heightened sense of identity or love of province just because there is a sign that reminds them of their provincial roots.

Someone even pointed out in a social networking site that the proposed sign is pointless because the proposed dimensions are all wrong. Not that it really matters because adjusting the size of the proposed sign to the correct dimensions would not make it any more viable. But it illustrates just how half-baked the idea is. The proposed sign is supposed to measure 14 meters tall and 110 meters long. Given the size of the volcano, the proposed dimensions make the proposed sign hardly visible. It cannot be read from afar, the sign would merely look like a small house perched on the side of the volcano.

We are told that a parallel idea was to design the various floating restaurants and fish pens on Taal Lake in such a way that they form the famous Batangueno expression “Ala Eh.” An officer of the Batangas tourism office was quoted in some newspapers as gushing over the idea saying it would be “a dazzling sight especially if lit up at night.”

What can I say? The fount of ridiculous ideas seems bottomless. They really must stop ingesting whatever substance it is that they make them, well, stupid.

For the love of God, everyone and his grandmother—except the officials of Batangas, it seems—already knows that Taal Lake is gasping for breath because of the presence of too many fish pens in the area. Have people forgotten that we had a massive fish kill in the area early this year? Scientists have warned that the lake is in the advanced stages of eutrophication, which means more algal blooms and red tide. The solution that was being floated early this year was to stop allowing fish pens in the lake. And now, they actually want to provide the fish pens a veneer of legitimacy by turning them into a tourism attraction!

I am aware that cleaning up the Taal Lake and uprooting those unsightly fish pens is difficult because thousands of people depend on fishing for their livelihood. But it is an open secret that most of the fish pen operators in Taal Lake are foreigners who have introduced sophisticated ways of fish farming including the use of steel rather than biodegradable bamboo as main material for constructing fish pens and the use of sinking feeds that destroy the ecosystem. What we need are more integrated and coordinated mechanisms to save Taal Lake, not more signs.

The provincial government of Batangas should pursue more long-term programs such as cleaning up the lake so that it becomes safe for people to frolic in and for endemic fish such as the tawilis thrive once more. These would draw in far more tourists than any giant sign could.

The funny thing was that a friend actually brought up last week the possibility of someone conceiving of the idea of putting up signs as the only way of identifying natural attractions amidst the mushrooming of structures that mar anyone’s appreciation of their landscapes. Last week I wrote in this space about how Mount Makiling and Banahaw are slowly being covered by houses and other structures. My friend said that in the future, we probably need to put up signs that say “Mount Makiling” just so people would know they are already in front of the mountain. It would be tragic, we thought. Well, what is even more tragic is that there are actually people who think such an idea is brilliant.

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