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Malico: The focus of my Personal Social Responsibility journey

Perched on a glen atop the rugged Caraballo mountain range, at Nueva Vizcaya’s remote border with Pangasinan, Malico lies in blissful seclusion—the perfect haven for tired souls seeking solace in this hurried world.

Rising up at 1,348 meters above sea level, the quaint village enjoys crisp, cool weather for most part of the year. The best times of the day are the early morning when the surrounding is blanketed by a fine white mist and the grasses are still wet with dew; the late afternoon when the setting sun turns the Western horizon into a canvas of vivid colors; and the mid-evening when all is dark and still, and you are lulled by the deafening sound of silence.

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Malico teems with pine trees that beckon you to put on your trekking shoes and go on a slow hike and pristine waterfalls that invites you to take a lingering dip in the natural pools below. Or, if you feel like not doing anything, simply head out to the edge of the ridge and take in the panoramic view of the lushed Pangasinan plains and distant peaks of Caraballo in varying shades of blue.

Laid-back ambience

It is quite palpable to imagine Malico as Baguio in the early 1900s when this popular summer destination was in its flawless condition yet, free from the smoldering pollution, the bursting population and stifling over-development.

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In many ways, Malico’s tranquility and laid-back ambience will entice you to return to the old, long-forgotten practices of going out on picnics, communing with nature and wandering aimlessly to wherever the paths may lead to.

Rustic beauty and idyllic way of life are by no means Malico’s only attactions though. Visitors are often surprised to learn that on two occasions, this sleepy-looking town played pivotal roles in our country’s history.

During the Spanish colonial period, an intrepid missionary, Father Juan Villaverde, blazed a nine-mile trail through treacherous mountain passes, thick forests and deep ravines that connected Pangasinan to Nueva Vizcaya and opened the whole of the Cagayan Valley to trade and the Catholic faith.

The mid-point and highest elevation of that scenic passageway is Malico. In honor of Fr. Villaverde’s exploit, the mountain track was later named Villaverde Trail.
At the tailend of World War II, when the American forces landed in Lingayen Gulf in their drive to complete the liberation of the Philippines from four years of Japanese occupation, the retreating Japanese army put up a defense line stretching from Baguio to Nueva Vizcaya to thwart the Americans’ further advance.

Malico was a strongpoint of that defensive alignment and was heavily fortified with artillery, machine gun nests, foxholes and caves bristling with men and weapons. The US Army’s 2nd Division, more famously known as the Red Arrow Division, crisscrossed the Villaverde trail to reach and overpower the Japanese elite force stationed there. It took the Americans more than three months to dislodge the Japanese from their stronghold at the cost of thousands of lives lost on both sides.

Vestiges from that gruesome battle are still evident in Malico today. The shattered remains of an American Sherman tank lie abandoned along the old Villaverde trail. Countless fox holes and man-made tunnels built by Japanese soldiers are still scattered along the slopes and ridges of Mount Malico.

Sacrifices

A shrine dedicated to the bravery and the sacrifices of the soldiers, on both sides who fought there, has been erected on top of one of the hills in the village. All those World War II historic sites and relics are a reminder of the war’s brutality and the earnestness to strive for global peace.

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Since time immemorial, Malico has been the home and ancestral domain of the Kalanguya Tribe. These indigenous people form part of a diverse group of tribes from the Cordillera Region collectively called “Igorot.” In reality, the “Igorot” is made up of several distinct tribes, like the Ifugao, the Bontoc, the Kankana-ey, the Kalanguya and others. Each tribe has its own distinct dialect, deities, norms and traditions.

I got my first glimpse of Malico in 1995. Immediately, I fell in love with its backcountry charm and pleasant clime. At the same time, though, I was intimidated by its remoteness and isolation.

Back then, it took more than six hours to get there from Manila. From the town of Sta. Fe alone, you must navigate 19 kilometers of rough road, with a single lane most of the way and with no protective barriers to safeguard you from the deep ravine at the sides. Fortunately, the difficulty in accessing the place is now a thing of the past. Progress has finally found its way to Malico.

In my subsequent visits there, I got to know the tribe members well and develop a particularly close relation with their chieftain, Taynan Omallio. Mr. Omallio would later sponsor my initiation into the tribe as an adopted son, with all the attendant traditional rituals and ceremonies that went with it.

I embraced my membership in the tribe with utmost pride and respect. I therefore took the initiative to be of service to the community in whatever way I can. It has been my long-held belief that all of us who have attained certain advantages in life must give back something to our hometown. It can be through sharing one’s wealth, expertise, connection or whatever that will benefit the community. Even the act of volunteering your time in some community undertakings can make a big difference in advancing the welfare of our society. This, to me, is the essence of Personal Social Responsibility.

In the beginning, my projects were simple and modest. These include mundane acts, like funding some scholars, giving regular value formation talks to the children (with free snacks as incentive), extending cash gifts to honor students at the end of each school year, donating supplies or equipment to the school or the barangay office, raising funds ffor the construction of barangay infrastructure and beautification projects, and the like.

Constant discussion

In the course of my stay in Malico, I became like a brother and a close confidant to the chieftain. Our constant discussion would focus on how we can uplift the tribe members’ station in life.

At that time, the residents’ main source of livelihood was farming. But the plant they produced were the low-value variety, like sweet potato, ginger, etc. The income from those crops was only enough for subsistence living. Later, chayote (locally called sayote) was introduced and became the dominant product of the community.

Although they brought in better earnings than the traditional crops, chayote posed a threat to the environment. It is usually planted on the slopes of the hills and mountains to drain run-off rainwater, thus preventing the roots from rotting. The native trees and other vegetation growing in the slopes were cut and slashed to make way for chayote. The environmental cost of losing those trees and other native plants are disproportionate to the profits derived from the harvest. An alternative livelihood must therefore be found to wean them away from chayote farming.

Untapped wealth

The chieftain and I agreed that the untapped wealth of the community is its ecotourism potential.  Being steeped in history, tribal culture and nature, Malico can easily attract a good number of visitors to jump-start a local tourism industry. For as long as the tourism development is low-impact and sustainable, we can improve the lives of our tribe members while at the same time preserving the topography and landscape of Malico. We have learned so much from the mistakes of over-developed places, like Baguio and Tagaytay, that it would be foolish and indefensible to replicate them.

With the above objectives in mind and with the help of other volunteers and some local officials, we launched the “Hulpon Festival” five years ago. Hulpon is a Kalanguya term that means to share or sharing. It is a tradition that is practiced during special tribal events, like weddings, wakes, etc. Each member contributes material or nonmaterial resource to the occasion to ease the financial burden of the host family.

The main goal of the festival is to showcase the rich and colorful culture of the Kalanguya as a way to attract visitors to Malico. Notwithstanding the initial birth pains, the festival proved to be a considerable success. It has become an annual event that both locals and visitors look forward to.

The holding of the festival has been put on hold since last year because of the pandemic. However, the organizers are confident it will be revived in 2022. Because of the interest created by the festival, tourism is starting to emerge as a promising income contributor to the community.

There are two critical events that might impact the future development of Malico and veer it away from how we envisioned it.

The first is the passing of chieftain Taynan about two years ago. Taynan was a leader who can be relied upon to fight for the long-term welfare and interest of the community rather than for short-term gains. He is respected not only in his own tribe, but also by the leaders of other tribes as well as by high government officials. His shoes are not that easy to fill.

The second is the expected completion of the Pangasinan-Nueva Vizcaya Road from San Nicolas, Pangasinan, to Malico within the year. This will cut travel time from Manila in half, from six hours to three hours.  Although a welcome development as it will make Malico more accessible to tourists, it might embolden unscrupulous developers, unprincipled local officials and short-sighted land owners to conspire and to over-develop the area.

I can only hope that the values imparted by chieftain Taynan and other departed leaders, like pastor Delbert Rice, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines missionary who introduced Christianity to the tribe, will continue to dwell in the hearts of the Kalanguya. Embedded in those values are the importance of the ecology and the preservation of the environment to the well-being of the community. Consequently, these same values will help protect the purity and attributes of Malico.
Otherwise, I’m afraid greed will reign and the unfettered development of Malico will ensue. A natural treasure will again be lost, a gem of a place gone with the wind. INQ

This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP. The author
is Member of the MAP Agribusiness Committee, and Adviser to the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation.

Feedback at [email protected]

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