Heritage custodians

80219801This being National Heritage Month, the government is boosting public awareness of the country’s natural and manmade treasures.

UNESCO, or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has designated several World Heritage Sites in the Philippines: Palawan’s Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park, the Rice Terraces of the Cordilleras, the Historic Town of Vigan, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park also in Palawan, and four Baroque churches – San Agustin in Manila, Miagao in Iloilo, Paoay in Ilocos Norte and Santa Maria in Ilocos Sur.

Last year Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary in Davao Oriental, home of the largest “pygmy forest” of naturally dwarfed or bonsai trees estimated to be about 100 years old, was included in the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The government has drawn up 19 more sites for nomination to the tentative list, including natural parks, five more Baroque churches in the provinces, the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, Batanes, mummy burial caves in Benguet, archeological sites in Butuan and Cagayan, petroglyphs and petrographs in five provinces, and Palawan’s Coron Island, Tabon Cave and El Nido-Taytay protected area.

Policy makers may want to take a look at the handful of sites that are part of our heritage right in the National Capital Region. We may even aim for UNESCO World Heritage recognition for a treasure right in the heart of the crowded and polluted city of Manila: Intramuros, the Walled City.

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It’s no wishful thinking. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, has its own walled city, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. An earthquake, illegal demolition and uncontrolled development prompted UNESCO to put the medieval Old City on the list of endangered Heritage Sites, but this was withdrawn in 2009 after the Azerbaijan government moved to correct its shortcomings as a custodian of an international treasure.

Baku’s Old City features a palace, ancient baths, burial sites and a cylindrical tower that looks like it was originally built in the 7th or 6th century BC as an astronomical observatory or fire temple. The Old City’s defensive walls with cannons, built in the 12th century AD, reminded me of Intramuros.

The Old City has its own mayor, appointed by the country’s president. Like Intramuros, Baku’s Old City is just a few minutes’ walk from the seashore, and a leisurely walk of 15 to 20 minutes from major hotels and a seafront shopping mall. The Old City, which has a buffer zone, has narrow streets and alleys lined with traditional houses and small courtyards.

Unlike Intramuros, the Old City is clean. I didn’t see any informal settler anywhere. All the dining areas and the few fastfood stalls within the walls offered only local cuisine, which is a mélange of Azeri, Turkish, Middle Eastern and Russian fare.

Also unlike Intramuros, which suffered from Japanese and American bombardment during World War II and poor restoration, the Old City has preserved its medieval cobbled streets. In Intramuros, only a short stretch of cobbled road beside Sto. Domingo church remains.

Olive, peach and pistachio trees line the Old City’s streets and an ancient well that has been turned into a wishing well.

Souvenir shops display native “flying carpets” and many of the touristy stuff are adorned with one of the national symbols: the Maiden Tower in the Old City. There are various stories about the origin of the tower’s name. The most popular is that a maiden jumped to her death from the top rather than obey her father’s order for her to marry someone she did not love. It may not be true, but visitors like romantic stories.

I climbed up the narrow winding steps built along the tower walls on a weekday. The place was packed with grade school pupils accompanied by teachers, on a field trip to learn about their country’s history and enjoy a panoramic view of the city from the top of the eight-story tower.

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From the top of the boutique hotel Bayleaf, Intramuros looks scenic. You can see the possibilities of turning Manila’s Walled City into a Heritage Site.

A group aiming to restore Intramuros as a showcase of Filipino heritage has formed the Friends of Intramuros. One of its most passionate members, nonagenarian Elon Sison, emailed me earlier this month a passage from National Artist Nick Joaquin’s book “Intramuros” in which he declared: “Rebuild Intramuros, you rebuild the Filipino Nation!”

From the ground, however, it’s obvious that among the major problems in restoring the Walled City, apart from the chronic air pollution in Manila, is that many portions of Intramuros have been taken over by squatters. No one has mustered the political will to relocate the informal settlers. Those who push for resettlement are painted as heartless and, worse, human rights violators.

Sison has offered a family property in Northern Luzon as a resettlement site. The estate is large enough to be developed into a viable community with decent mass housing, livelihood opportunities and access to public education and health services. But the government must buy the property although at friendly rates, and it takes time and substantial funds to develop viable relocation sites. Also, most of the squatters in Intramuros are likely to be working in nearby sites such as Manila’s Port Area or possibly Divisoria and Chinatown.

The Intramuros Administration is said to be considering relocation within or close to Metro Manila for the informal settlers. But with only a year left for the Aquino administration, the final decision may have to wait for a new president.

By that time, the informal settlements in Intramuros would have grown further, considering that politicians have no appetite for relocation or stopping squatting during election season. There will be more pedicabs and vendors of fishball and banana cue in the area, and garbage collection will further deteriorate with congestion.

Authoritarian regimes such as that of the Aliyev dynasty in Azerbaijan tend to be more effective in dealing with these types of challenges. China has several ancient enclaves that have been well preserved or restored, and have gained recognition as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

But preserving our heritage should not require authoritarian rule. What it needs is a government that can efficiently exercise authority. There’s a lot of support from the private sector so transforming Intramuros need not be a pipe dream.

Read more: http://www.philstar.com/opinion/2015/05/18/1455932/heritage-custodians

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