There was once a place 12 hours away from the metropolis, with roads paved with rocks, and where waves crashed into shores.
The route from the city to this surfer’s haven is now a lot more accessible — the travel time has been cut by at least four hours.
This place still has raging seas today, but locals attest that the seafront was a lot wider in earlier days.
A few years ago, Baler’s name was foreign to the ears of outsiders. Today, establishment after establishment have been erected in the municipality.
Baler, which has 13 barangays and a land area of 9,255 hectares, has seen an increase in population to 39,562 in 2015 from 36,010 in the 2010 census, or an increase of 1.81% per annum. The number of tourists visiting this place has dramatically increased as well, with reports stating that visitors reached almost 500,000 last year alone.
Many of the locals say it was Filipino celebrity Kris Aquino who made the municipality popular when her television show featured the town. Some argue, however, that the reason was the improved road networks because tourists could come more regularly. Regardless the reason, Baler locals since have been looking forward to the growing number of tourists as job opportunities came about for them.
Baler-born Philip Caliwag shares that since Baler has become more widely held, many locals like him have grabbed the opportunity to rent out homes to tourists.
“Ten years ago nang magsimulang magka-establishments,” 49-year-old Caliwag recalls. “Nagkaka-income ang mga taga-rito.” (Establishments started rising in Baler 10 years ago. Locals started earning income.)
Meanwhile, other visitors like Ben Har Mesana, who is from San Luis, Aurora, started making money out of teaching tourists how to surf.
“Opportunity [ang pagdami ng turista] kasi natuto nga ako mag-surf. Natuto ako magturo,” Mesana says. (Since I learned to surf, and I saw the influx of tourists was an opportunity, I likewise learned to teach it.)
But while the influx of tourists has helped several locals in their livelihood, the phenomenon has resulted in one downside: improper waste management.
“Sobrang dami nang tao. Sobrang daming basura. Mae-enjoy mo pa rin naman [ang Baler] ngayon, pero hindi na siya katulad ng dati,” Mesana shares. (There are too many people. There is too much garbage. You would still enjoy Baler, but it is not the same as it was before.)
The environmental problem
“Tourism equates to more garbage,” Vice Governor of Aurora province Rommel Angara tells NewsNarratives.
With the current state of Baler, the vice governor admits the municipality might not be ready for the rapid growth of tourism. Especially now that the closure of Boracay and the crackdown on business establishments in Siargao, Panglao Island, and El Nido have alerted several residents of tourist destinations about their solid and water waste problems, Baler residents are wary their hometown would have to shut down for tourism as well.
“If we don’t do something about [the garbage problem], we might [end up like Boracay],” Angara says . “We need to be able to provide the necessary facilities for it to be able to be sustainable.”
Aside from the absence of wastewater treatment, as Boracay has faced, Baler has other challenges to overcome to maintain the cleanliness of its environment.
One of the town’s prevailing issues is that the province of Aurora, where Baler is situated, does not have its own sanitary landfill. Residents and hotel and other establishment owners have no clue where their trash goes.
The vice governor discloses, however, that the municipal office is working on constructing a sanitary landfill. An allocation of Php 8.5-M from the provincial office has been made to fence said dumpsite. However, while the money that had been donated has been ready two years ago, the government still faces difficulties acquiring the right of way from the lot owner to commence the construction.
“Unfortunately, with the dispute dun sa (on the) right of way, our timeline is before June starts. Hopefully everything will trickle in because we need a lot of resources pertaining dun sa (to the) sanitary landfill, but then again, we have to start somewhere,” Angara says.
Moreover, the municipality of Baler lacks garbage collection services in several of its barangays. It has been a heated topic among hotel and transient lodging owners that the local government collects monthly garbage collection fees, yet garbage trucks do not pick up waste in about eight barangays. The establishment owners end up not knowing what to do with their trash.
Meanwhile, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has been going on rounds nationwide to monitor various tourist destinations in the aftermath of the Boracay issue.
According to Leonardo Ulsa, DENR Aurora Provincial Environment Management Officer, the DENR-Region III would be issuing notice of violations to more than 60 establishments in Barangay Sabang, where the famous surfing beach of Baler is located.
“The team is not yet finished in the conduct of inspection [in] Baler. However, we already finished inspecting Brgy. Sabang where most of the establishments are located. Inspection of other establishments is still ongoing,” Ulsa informs NewsNarratives through a text message.
Angara discloses that the municipality would find it difficult to face its environmental problems without support from the national government.
“Boracay, with those first-class amenities, kulang pa rin sila ng (is still lacking) water treatments. The same goes with other tourist destinations,” the vice governor says. “Local government units have limited resources, so if the national government decides to implement programs, we will welcome it with open arms.”
However, Angara also says that he believes another major problem of Baler is the lack of discipline among locals and tourists. Some locals argue that the environmental laws and ordinances in Baler are not being implemented strictly enough.
“There are existing laws. There are existing municipal and provincial ordinances, like for example, bawal magtapon (no littering). It’s not properly implemented in the sense that the community has to do its effort as well,” says Angara .
Angara adds that locals and tourists would not listen to barangay officials. The provincial government awaits the integration of the tourist police from the Philippine National Police (PNP) in Aurora’s tourist destinations as they see this move as a solution to the lack of discipline in the community.
The community’s movement
In December last year, photos of mounts of garbage in Sabang Beach circulated around social media. Jovanne Faraon, who took the photos, says that she felt the urgency to alarm the people with the garbage issue here.
“There were too much gabat (thicket) in the ocean and along with that came in trash,” Faraon reveals, adding that she often saw tourists in Baler throwing their garbage along the beach.
“It was very alarming and saddening on my end that I had to share what I was feeling because I experience seeing trash every day,” she adds.
Faraon moved from Manila to Baler right after she graduated in 2015. She has since started a business with her husband in the municipality. Faraon has grown to love Baler, especially now that she is raising her daughter here.
“Obviously, Baler is always going to be my playground, but it’s also now going to be my daughter’s playground that I want her to grow into,” Faraon shared. “Aside from me already knowing what the city is like, I want her to experience what real nature is. That’s something I didn’t get to be exposed to when I was young.”
Faraon took the issue of waste management in Baler to heart, and she would later realize that she was never alone in her frustrations.
As her social media post went viral, people who wanted to act about the town’s garbage problem started approaching her.
“These are mostly surfers, the elderly surfers who live in Baler, who really saw the development of Sabang beach growing infested with trash,” she says. “They really wanted to do something about it, but they can’t do it without the youth.”
And so Ocean Care Movement was founded.
“It was more of a collective effort that everyone who was really interested and passionate about the garbage issue just came together,” Faraon recalls.
The Ocean Care Movement aims to “raise environmental awareness and eco-friendly practices in Baler for the health of the people and that of the ocean.” The movement also envisions a more united community in Baler that is empowered by the same dream to maintain clean coasts for the next generations to enjoy.
Baler prides itself as the birthplace of Philippine surfing. With its world-class waves, Baler is home to numerous talented surfers from here and other parts of the country. Local surfers reveal that they have been surfing since they were very young.
“Yung araw sa sumabay ako sa alon, hindi ko na alam, kasi like six years, seven years old pa lang, kaya ko na sumabay sa alon,” Jerome Faraon says. (I do not remember the day I first rode a wave because I already knew how to ride waves when I was six or seven years old.)
Jerome, Jovanne Faraon’s brother-in-law, was born in Baler and has loved surfing ever since. Today Jerome also makes a living as a surf instructor. He regularly takes part in surfing competitions.
Many Balerenos say that it has only been 40 years since Filipinos discovered surfing. The most famous story tells people that it was through the shooting of the film “Apocalypse Now” in 1979 that locals learned the sport.
Caliwag says that he first surfed using a plank of plywood in 1982, inspired as he saw the first surfers of the Philippines riding the waves.
Several surf enthusiasts, like Manila-based Alvin Pura, have also been visiting Baler regularly.
“Ganda ng alon. Tsaka dito mas consistent, eh. Maraming surf spots sa Pilipinas, pero dito yung pinaka-consistent,” he explains why he chose to be a regular at Baler and not at other surf beaches. (The waves are beautiful. In Baler, the waves are more consistent. There are several surf sites in the Philippines, but it is here that the waves are most consistent.)
In conversations among these surfers, the topic about the trash problem here would frequently arise during their surf sessions.
Shan Alejos, who founded the Ocean Care Movement along with Faraon, moved to Baler two years ago because she fell in love with surfing. Alejos says that she has experienced surfing alongside a diaper [trash] one time.
“After ng typhoon, sobrang dami [ng basura] tapos magsu-surf ka sa river mouth, may diaper,” Alejos reveals. (After a typhoon, there would be so much garbage. Then, you would surf in the river mouth and see a used diaper.)
Baler migrant Ayres Gemora attests to this. Gemora and her two children learned to surf in Baler. They live in Manila but stay in their house in Baler during the break to enjoy the waves. Over time, she has noticed the growing problem of trash in the area.
“Kapag nagsusurf ka, uh, kasama mo siya sa lineup— basura,” Gemora says. (When you surf, garbage floats alongside you.)
Meanwhile, for surf instructors Mesana and Jerome, it is particularly embarrassing when tourists encounter garbage in their surfing sessions.
The garbage problem in Baler has also frustrated many locals when they hear tourists complain about how dirty Baler is.
“Hindi yung talagang expected na nakita sa picture malinis pero pagpunta nila marami palang basu-basura, maraming nakakalat,” Caliwag says. (Baler does not look like how tourists expect it to look like in photos. In pictures, Baler is clean, but once tourists see Baler, they will discover that there is a lot of garbage.)
The local community and the people from all over who have grown to love Baler received the Ocean Care Movement with open arms. When the movement held its first beach clean-up in Sabang Beach on February 21, Faraon and Alejos were pleasantly surprised by the turnout.
“Sobrang successful kasi 300 plus yung dumating na hindi namin ineexpect,” Alejos says, smiling as she recalls. (The beach clean-up was so successful because there were more than 300 who turned up, which was unexpected.)
Chuckling at her belief that Baler was a very small community, Alejos adds, “Ganun pala karami yung tao sa Baler!” (I did not know that Baler had that many people!)
As a result of its first event, the Ocean Care Movement has continued the beach clean-ups, which are held every Saturday.
“It’s been going really well. There would always be positive responses about it and more people are involved in joining the clean-ups,” Faraon says.
Alejos is aware that beach clean-ups will solve only a part of the problem. The trash in the beach would never go away unless the locals learn to reduce their use of non-biodegradable and non-recyclable items, she says. Alejos is a researcher for a Baler-based non-government organization.
“Personally, hindi ako fan ng beach clean-up, pero kung itong beach clean-up na ito is to continue the community momentum na feeling nila they’re helping,” Alejos says. (Personally, I am not a fan of beach clean-ups but they continue the community momentum and [the locals] feel like they’re helping.)
Thus, in the long run, the Ocean Care Movement has also made education a priority.
“The long-term plans that we discussed together is mainly educating the community,” Faraon says .
“Ang gusto namin is to work with what we can control,” Alejos says. (What we want is to work with what we can control.)
Alejos and Faraon’s plan is to promote proper waste segregation and the reduction of single-use plastics. They have also talked with big hotels in Sabang to stop the use of plastic straws.
The two admit that several issues are out of their hands, like the absence of a provincial sanitary landfill and the lack of garbage collection in Baler that are in the hands of the government.
“Kailangan pa rin namin ng coordination with the government,” Alejos says. (We still need coordination with the government.)
“We have to at least try to persuade them,” she adds. “As a small group, we cannot do this sustainably.”
While the local government has been criticized for not finding solutions to the town’s garbage problem, the Ocean Care Movement has tried to coordinate with them.
“One good thing about Ocean Care Movement is that their main objective is to get the community involved [and] to get the community to work with the barangay officials, municipal officials, provincial officials,” Vice Governor Angara says.
“Even though you clean up every day, [and even though] you have the sanitary landfill in the future, if there is no cooperation and discipline in the communities, wala pa ring mangyayari (nothing will happen),” Angara adds.
What they hope for
This town was once a long drive from the big city, where roads were paved with rocks and waves crashed into shores. The rocky roads have turned into smooth pavements. Hotels today sit on the once empty lots. The transient homes have replaced the trees.
Many things about Baler have changed, but there are certainly many things that have remained the same.
Sabang still has raging seas. The older surfers look at its beaches and remember how they used to just feel the waves before learning how to surf on them.
The tanned children on the coast are happy. They splash one another and pretend to be kings and queens of the ocean. These are the children who have inspired many locals to do something to maintain Baler. They want their grandchildren to experience that slice of heaven they call their home and playground.
“We could be the one to initiate and start doing this for the future generations,” Faraon says.
Early in the morning, there is a little boy carrying a broken piece of what was once a surfboard. He rides it on his chest as the waves gently sweep to the shore. He wears a priceless smile, and the ocean carries his small body through its currents.
Text, Photos, and Video by Danielle Uy