As the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) gears up for the celebration of National Heritage Month, we take a look at the cultural and natural properties of the Philippines that have been inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. There are eight locations in the Philippines which have been inscribed in the World Heritage Sites list and each of them forms part of our nation’s patrimony. They are testament to how our country is richly blessed with an abundance of nature. They show how we as a people learned to work with nature to create landscapes and landmarks that are a world marvel. They demonstrate how the Filipino creativity has blossomed such that it has been able to create architectural wonders that are so unique that they can only be found in our country. They are our legacy to the world.
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park
We begin our trip with the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park in the Sulu Sea. Pristine and primordial, there are very few places on earth where the wonders of the sea are displayed in such grandeur. It was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1993 and it consists of two coral atolls separated by an 8-km channel. North of the ranger station on the north reef is the bird islet which is a nesting place for some of the world’s birds and marine turtles, come of which are threatened species. Tubbataha covers about 33,200 hectares making it the Philippines largest marine habitat and marine biologists believe that the underwater gardens of the reef are at the top of the world list in terms of biodiversity. In fact, it is believed to be the most diverse in the world. It is a food basket which contains more than 400 species of fish. It is also one of our country’s premiere diving destinations.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
Travelling to Puerto Princesa, we find the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. It has a magnificent limestone rock formation carved into carste topography with an underground river system that is close to the sea. Shells of tiny sea creatures and mud built up to create limestone which slowly dissolved by rain and water creating the unique topography known as carste. Beneath the mountain of St. Paul are ecosystems that are highly diverse such that it represents almost all types of forests found in the Far East. The most preserved mangrove forest in the country is found in the park. At least 149 vertebrates are found in the park and a third of them are endemic to Palawan. The plant life is so rich that 280 different trees thrive in the forests of the Park. It is 22 hectares big while the subterranean river is believed to be the longest in the world made even more unique because it emerges directly into the sea.
Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras
Northward to the mountains of the Cordilleras are the Rice Terraces of the Philippines which was inscribed by the UNESCO in 1995. It is believed to be the most extensive rice terraces system in the world carved out of the mountains by the proud Ifugao people. It covers 22,000 sq kms and extends across five provinces. It celebrates the genius of our forefathers who developed a system of agricultural, engineering and environmental practices to grow our staple food. The Ifugao used water ingeniously to carve the terraces out of the mountainsides. A ring of forests are found at the top of each cluster of terraces which begin the water cycle that irrigates the terraces, a system so sophisticated but totally sustainable making it one of the best soil and water structures ever built by humans. The terraces manifest the roots of our heritage as a people.
Historic Town of Vigan
From the Cordilleras we head west to Vigan, a symbol of the first colonization of the Philippines. Founded by Spanish conquistador Juan de Salcedo in 1572, it was first called Villa Fernandina. It was once the leading trading hub in the Philippine north besides being the religious center of the region. The delta of the Mestizo River is where many trading ships berthed carrying goods from China. It also participated in the Manila-Acapulco Galleon trade. It is not surprising, therefore that the architecture and lay-out of the town reflect the influences of China, Mexico and Spain. It remains the only town in the Philippines that retains most of its colonial architecture. It is hailed by UNESCO as the best preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia. To the Filipino, what Vigan represents is his adaptability and ability to combine foreign ideas creating a style that is uniquely is own.
Baroque Churches of the Philippines
The four magnificent structures grouped together by UNESCO under the title the Baroque Churches of the Philippines is a further testament of the Filipino adaptability. Under the instruction of the Spanish friars, Filipino artisans and carpenters built these unique churches, thus combining the Baroque style that was very popular in Europe and Latin America at the time to Filipino artistry and craftsmanship. The result was an architecture that is Western in appearance but very Filipino in spirit and context. The Paoay Church is built with a conscious effort to protect the church from earthquakes that occur frequently in the region. It has given birth to a style called Earthquake Baroque. The Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion is situated on top of a hill and is a truly magnificent structure. It has very thick walls and a line of buttresses much like those in Paoay aimed to protect against earthquakes. The Church of Miag-ao or the Church of Sto. Tomas de Villanueva represents an architectural style known as fortress baroque and also stands on the highest location of the town. Its facade is exuberantly decorated with vines, leaves, tendrils and festoons carved from stone. Its facade gives the church a very folk image despite its baroque style. The oldest stone church in the country is the San Agustin Church. It is said that the entire building sways during an earthquake because of its raft-type foundation. The outside buttresses of the Paoay Church and the one in Sta. Maria was brought in because of lack of space. A choir loft makes the church truly unique as it is the only one you can find in the Philippines.
As we travel through these World Heritage sites in the Philippines, I am left with a feeling of sadness and awe. I am awed because the value of these sites to the Filipino as a people is priceless and I am sad because I see the need to educate our countrymen to learn to appreciate their value. Very few can appreciate them in these modern times. In the end, these sites are a testament to our nationhood, our heritage, our patrimony and our identity, but above all, it is a testament to our humanity.