Our lockdown with Tao and the ‘Lost Boys’ of Palawan
The 15-year-old author voices her generation’s commitment to the future.
When President Rodrigo Duterte announced the Covid-19 lockdown and enhanced community quarantines, our family was blessed to be in Palawan. From a remote island, we made our way to the Tao Philippines main basecamp. Tao is a community that is addressing all the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
As a guest of Tao, you are given the blessing of exploring untouched islands in Palawan and are hosted by locals. You get to discover the beauty of island life, and are engaged in a digital detox.
To be a Tao “Lost boy”—what they call the crew—you must prove you are a local Palaweno. You are tasked to climb up a coconut tree and retrieve fruit without breaking a sweat. Aside from that, you must also swim to Daracoton, a neighboring island. It’s a 2- to 4-hour swim one way depending on how fast you swim, according to one of the Tao Lost boys known as Kuya Bal. Training is hard because the Lost boys need to pass weeks of water safety and lifeguard training with the coast guard.
Kuya Bal (left) and Kuya Marvin, “Lost Boys” on board the Balatik, a traditional Filipino sailboat
When training, teamwork is a top priority for the Tao Lost boys. When swimming to Daracoton, they travel in groups of 30. They constantly check on those around them to make sure they’re not too tired. If someone is tired, everyone takes turns helping them. The teamwork is part of what gets them the job.
As a visitor, I can see that their teamwork really is one of a kind. With very few words exchanged, or none at all, they can get any task done swiftly and quickly, such as putting the sails up or anchoring the boat. Their teamwork is truly special.
Daracoton Island in the distance, seen from the Tao Farm on mainland Palawan
The Tao Lost boys enjoy their job. You can see this in the way they laugh and smile together. I find this is one of the best things about the Tao experience. Everyone is having a good time and getting along. Whether you are a tourist, crew member or lifeguard, you and the others will have a blast.
An option to improve your trip is exploring Palawan in a paraw, a Filipino sailboat, called The Balatik.
“The Balatik is a daydream,” says its builder Gener Paduga, who researched how Filipinos sailed between islands centuries ago. “This is our traditional sailboat that we haven’t seen in centuries. I wanted to see it again.”
With the support of the Tao founders, Gener was able to build The Balatik.
“It’s a collaboration between my imagination, tradition and the ideas of the boat builders,” Gener says.
Meaning Orion’s Belt in the local language, Cuyonon, The Balatik is a beautiful sailboat. It is hand-carved by the Palaw’an tribe and has Tagbanua script on it. The floors are cleverly thought-out, with the small gaps between bamboo slats draining any water that may get in the boat.
Gener teaches young Palawenos how to sail to lessen their dependence on fossil fuels.
A view of Palawan’s waters from the Balatik
View from the Balatik
So what sustainable development goals (SDGs) does this one-of-a-kind company address? To find out I interviewed Honey Leona of the Tao Kalahi Foundation, general manager Jemuel Carumba, and Romano Santos, a writer who has been commissioned to write a book on Tao. I also interviewed Eddie and Jack, the founders of Tao who prefer to use first names only. Eddie is Filipino with roots in the Cordillera. Jack, the creative director, is British, and has been with Tao since he was 19.
When interviewing the founders (through Messenger), I was greeted with lovely and kind-hearted responses.
Here are parts of the interview with Eddie and Jack:
When Tao was first started, which were the first sustainable things that you started doing?
“In 2006, as an island homestay concept, attracting more of the adventurous traveler, looking for more than a tourist destination. Sustainable? Northern Palawan was quite remote then. No roads, private airports and fishing ports. We could only use what was available… the tagline sustainability came quite later on, but we unknowingly were operating under the ethos of sustainability.
We converted fishing boats for our expeditions, trained and educated young islanders to crew our boats. Our food is from local fishermen and coastal farmers. We partnered with families for homestay for our guests.
We figured out that the new ‘sustainable’ tagline in business and lifestyle is going back to when people rely on each other and contentment.”
Which Sustainable Development Goals does Tao address?
“Palawan is dubbed as the last frontier of the Philippines, untouched until the 80s, many immigrant fisherfolk arrived from different parts of the country to settle for the bountiful waters. It only took a few decades to end the Palawan fishing industry with a destructive gold rush, leaving families and communities struggling for livelihood. Tao started during this struggle, offering a much-needed alternative livelihood.
We employ locals: Partnership, training and education convert inherent island skills to work in tourism without sacrificing the island way of life.
The right travelers: We make sure we attract only those who seek a more meaningful journey, those who appreciate real island hospitality and to experience Palawan nature with minimal development.”
What do you hope to accomplish in the next year?
“We are experiencing something that will turn a new chapter of the 15 years of our organization. We are challenged to create a new way to support our community without relying on tourism. The worldwide Corona virus has halted all our operations. In the middle of our employment expansion.
We are now considering to shift some of our operations to expand our food production/farming and watershed projects in our properties, not just as a fall back from disruption in tourism but to have our community realize that land and sustainable farming is the safest investment.”
Here is how Tao is addressing all the SDGs:
1. No Poverty: End poverty in all its forms everywhere
From the U.N.: “Poverty has many dimensions, but its causes include unemployment, social exclusion, and high vulnerability of certain populations to disasters, diseases and other phenomena which prevent them from being productive.”
Tao provides locals with many opportunities to be productive. “Tao is practical and makatao,” says Honey Leona of the foundation. “When Tao started from scratch, the community became their home that embraced them in their ups and downs. And in its progress, the community holds them tightly and believes in their capability to give a lot of opportunities to people, from child to adult.”
In Tao, everyone treats each other with respect. No matter what your job title might be, the Tao community will treat you equally, kindly and like family. Like what the founders say, “We work together with pride, we improve and share our success.”
2. Zero Hunger: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
When meals are served, guests and those who work with Tao receive the same food. The food is cooked by different people. If you are in the main basecamp where they have a permaculture farm, it is most probably going to be cooked by Ann Pansinsoy, the head chef.
Sumptuous meal on board the Balatik
3. Good Health and Well-being: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
Some of the Tao boys play basketball by the seashore.
Being in an environment which requires you to step outside and get sunshine definitely is good for your health. Without vitamin D people are more likely to suffer from depression and other symptoms of vitamin D deficiency.
Being physically productive is also good for one’s health as exercise can increase your energy levels, can help you sleep better, improve your memory and much more.
4. Quality Education: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
Tao builds schools in the communities they are a part of. They build these schools with sustainable materials like bamboo.
They also pay for some of the education of the Tao Lost boys such as Kuya Jimmy who studied marine biology, and expedition leader Kuya Dodo, who was sent to Manila to study how to be a mechanic.
During the off seasons in Tao, some of those from Tao Palawan may get sent to Tao North in the Cordillera and vice versa. This allows them to explore more of the beautiful places in the Philippines and to learn about life there.
5. Gender Equality: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
In Tao they make sure to put both men and women in strong positions. Some examples of those positions being head chef and expedition leader. In addition, 85% of Tao’s top management are women. Tao also started the Tao Women’s Association to give learning and job opportunities to women.
Honey Leona of Tao Foundation arranging shampoo bars and soap made through a foundation livelihood project.
6. Clean Water and Sanitation: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
Tao protects forests in all its basecamps, thus protecting forest and water-related ecosystems. In the Tao Farm, spring water from a natural spring is harvested for drinking water. As an added safety measure the water is also filtered. People from the village have access to clean water from the spring.
7. Affordable and Clean Energy: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
The Tao Farm has solar panels to power solar lamps, fans and USB portals for charging phones. Boats, such as the Balatik, also have solar panels. Tao also limits the use of electricity that isn’t generated by solar energy. In the Tao basecamp that I’m in, power is only accessible from 6:00pm to 10:00pm, but solar energy is always available. All of Tao’s basecamps are off the grid, meaning they aren’t plugged into the grid of power that is powered by fossil fuels that harm the environment.
8. Decent Work and Economic Growth: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
Tao employs locals so they don’t have to travel far from home in order to work. This allows them to stay in the province to take care and support their family, not just financially. Tao also offers the women of the neighboring villages jobs they can do at home, such as sewing, and making vinegar and coconut oil, so they don’t have to leave their children unattended.
To help Palawan grow, Tao gets its fish from local fishermen and avoids buying from the big fishing companies that heavily damage the reefs and over-fish.
9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
Bamboo is sustainable and resilient, because it grows locally and grows much faster than wood, and it is a flexible material. To learn more about the beautiful bamboo structures that surround you in Tao basecamps, I interviewed Gener Paduga, creator of the Tuka design. It is named Tuka because it is built in the shape of a beak.
“For the design, I looked to nature, the environment and the weather,” says Gener. “The stiffness and slope of the roof is very important. There are a lot of triangular joints because they are stronger than square ones. The Tuka is easy to build, simple and strong. You can find the materials in your backyard or you can grow the materials yourself if you want to. It’s very sustainable.”
A “tuka,” or bamboo hut
To further understand, I interviewed David Aga Mos, an architect who is assisting Tao with some projects.
“The roof is a wall angled to let the rain water drain fast enough to avoid water seeping into the inner layer of the pawid. The bamboo is pulled into shape and secured with nylon. The whole structure is mobile with no permanent foundation and light enough to be carried by fifteen men.”
“Like all natural materials you need to work with it and not against it. The locals have been using these materials for many, many years so their intimate knowledge and innate skills are of great help.”
10. Reduced Inequalities: Reduce inequality within and among countries.
Tao addresses the three dimensions of sustainable development—economic, social and environmental—in its operations. Tao brings jobs, social transformation and environmental education and action to disadvantaged and marginalized populations, meaning remote islands in Palawan where jobs and opportunities for learning and education are limited.
11. Sustainable Cities and Communities: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
Tao uses local and sustainable materials in all its structures. Tao builds resilience in people and communities through sustainable agriculture, meaning farming that doesn’t use chemicals that damage human health. They don’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides that end up poisoning rivers and seas. By promoting natural farming, they are teaching communities about food security, meaning ways they can be self-reliant and always have healthy food on their table. The Tao Farm has been planting food forests and experimenting to learn which crops are climate-resilient. They have learned, for example, that talinum or Philippine spinach grows even in typhoons or in drought. This is a very nutritious vegetable that can be easily grown.
12. Responsible Consumption and Production: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
Tao makes an effort not to import food, and grows produce sustainably in a permaculture farm in their main basecamp. They grow produce like tomatoes, eggplants and calamansi, and they source other produce like squash and singkamas from small family farms nearby. Seafood is sourced from fishermen nearby. The food is fresh and none of it is packaged in plastic. To avoid food wastage, Tao composts leftovers and uses the compost in the farm.
Their source of meat is a community piggery that they set up, giving piglets and sows to families, then buying back the meat. To preserve pork, Tao uses a system called brining. Brining is done by putting sea water, salt, ice and then the meat into a container. This lets the meat last for up to 20 days without refrigeration, according to Ann, the head chef.
Tao also makes its own soaps and shampoo out of local, natural ingredients like guava, coconut and calamansi.
13. Climate Action: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
Seas absorb 93% of the warming effects of greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are created by fossil fuel use in transport to ship goods. Another big GHG emissions contributor is the production of beef which produces a gas called methane. Tao does not serve beef, and chooses to serve food that is sourced nearby. This means the food choices of Tao are a form of climate action. The food forest they planted and their permaculture farm has regenerative effects, meaning healing effects on the land. Forests and permaculture farms which are full of healthy soil do something called carbon sequestration. Forest ecosystems and soil take carbon from the atmosphere. This is a form of climate action.
14. Life Below Water: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
Tao allows local fishermen to fish in the waters by the basecamps under three conditions.
Those conditions are:No dynamite No touching of the turtles No anchoring while fishing to avoid corals getting damaged
Although there is hardly any plastic used by Tao, everyone is extremely careful in making sure it doesn’t get into the ocean. I’ve been in the Tao basecamp for months and I haven’t seen a single piece of plastic left blowing in the wind or in the ocean. Everyone agrees that there’s nothing good about littering and trashing the environment.
Tao also does not destroy the corals. When anchoring the boats the crew make sure they don’t damage any corals. They also make sure that no one drags large nets when fishing because it harms the corals heavily. This is another reason Tao supports the local fishermen, unlike the massive industrial fishing companies, the local fishermen Tao buy from don’t harm the corals in the process of getting their catch.
When with Tao, you’ll also notice the absence of single-use plastic water bottles. The crew don’t carry them around, and drinks will be served in glasses or mugs, instead of single use-plastic.
15. Life On Land: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
Tao has its own organic permaculture farm and food forest. Permaculture is a kind of farming that works in harmony with nature to help plants, shrubs and trees grow in food gardens and forest ecosystems. Permaculture supports biodiversity. Tao also protects the forest ecosystems around their basecamps.
16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
Tao recruits youth in remote islands who have limited work opportunities and provides them with training, leadership skills, and job opportunities to become expedition leaders and crew. Tao also shares knowledge and skills with women so they can have income. This contributes to peace and order in their communities.
I remember hearing one of the Lost boys saying that on some islands there’s no need for security because they’ve helped the struggling communities on that island and are well-liked there.
17. Partnerships for the Goals: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
The Philippines is a developing country. Tao is not partnered with the Department of Education. However, the Tao Kalahi Foundation is definitely doing its part to share knowledge and financial resources with women and with children through the schools it builds using income from the expeditions supported by people from all over the world.
Working on this project has taught me that Tao is how we should be living. They support and work with what’s locally available. The community supports each other and Tao does so much to help the environment. Their carbon footprint is extremely low. Tao is a role model for other companies and communities.
If we were all like Tao, and we all did our part, we could solve the climate emergency with ease. There are billions of people living on this Earth. If everyone does their part, the environment will thrive and be able to sustain us all. The Earth takes care of us and we should take care of it. We are all one big community after all.