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Tao Philippines: The immersive island-hopping expedition that helps to sustain and enhance Palawan's environment and island communities

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It all began with one fishing boat on a 200-kilometre journey across Northern Palawan. Now, over a decade later, Tao Philippines employs over 200 islanders who guide travellers as they embark on a raw expedition through Palawan’s remote islands.

However, at Tao, their goal is not just to share their home with people from around the world but also to preserve and sustain the natural environment to ensure that Palawan can be experienced by generations to come.

Formed of 1,780 islands, Palawan is a tropical archipelago at the heart of South East Asia, a dreamscape of mountainous jungle and a haven for diverse tropical marine wildlife. A myriad of limestone islets, wildlife sanctuaries, and hidden lagoons, the region was untouched apart from fishermen until the 1970s, and still remains relatively unexplored.

Onboard the Tao expedition. Image credit: Katie Treharne

The only expedition of its kind in the Philippines, Tao is an immersive exploration of Palawan’s paradisal islands guided by those who know them best, trained islanders nicknamed the “lost boys”. Departing from Coron and arriving in El Nido, explorers can choose from a three-day or five-day expedition snorkelling over coral megalopolises, drinking quintessential jungle juice (rum with pineapple and mango), and falling asleep to the lull of the ocean in beachside bamboo tuka huts.

Tao, meaning human in Tagalog, is a resilient and innovative community who operate with a sense of pride and passion which motivates them to sustain and preserve the environment while still offering travellers an insight into life in Palawan.

Image credit: Tuka huts at Tao base camp. Image credit: Katie Treharne

The company originates from an adventure into homestays with isolated island communities in 2006, which laid the foundation for the strong bond between Tao and Palawan’s island communities today.

As trained crewmembers with roles ranging from drivers, chefs, and guides, the islanders are the essence of the Tao expeditions, sharing their “bahala na” (life is to be lived) attitude to life with everyone onboard and divulging local knowledge.

In turn, Tao creates jobs, supplies food and safe water as well as schools and scholarships to the island communities, encouraging an alternate means of livelihood to fishing, which has inflicted so much damage on marine wildlife already.

The lost boys. Image credit: Katie Treharne

Whilst Palawan is renowned for the biodiversity of its marine life, currents bring in waste from elsewhere which poses a threat to many species of animals, including sea turtles and whalesharks. At sea, the lost boys retrieve plastic hauled into the region by currents, and, onboard and at base camps, they enforce strict waste regulations which segregate rubbish from recyclable plastics.

Their hands-on approach to combatting waste is encapsulated in the moment Expedition Leader Jeff Deniega grapples to rescue a whaleshark entangled in a stray fishing rope.

“Not often do we happen to meet creatures under the sea. If they need help, do something to set them free,” Jeff says.

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Most of Tao Philippine’s work for sustainability is concentrated at the Tao Centre Camp, based on a secluded 700-meter-long sandy cove in San Fernando in El Nido, known to the locals as Pangaraycayan.

Surrounded by hillsides previously devastated by harmful slash-and-burn farming techniques, Tao has since helped to bring back the fertility of the soil through gradually re-educating local farmers and villagers in sustainable farming and fishing methods, as well as offering alternative means of earning a wage to help preserve the ocean’s fish stocks.

Tao Centre Camp. Image credit: Katie Treharne

Sustainability at camp is encouraged by solar panels and a generator that is only turned on between 6pm and 10pm to conserve energy. The traditional tuka huts where expeditioners sleep are constructed out of natural bayog bamboo, with bamboo nails and saltwater treatment to withstand monsoons and deflect falling coconuts.

Food served in the Kantina and onboard the expeditions is sourced from the organic farm or caught fresh at sea. Founded in June 2011, the Organic Farm Project harnesses indigenous knowledge combined with new research into new techniques to produce their own vegetables and meat through principles of permaculture. Working with nature rather than against it, the project has involved eight years of growth, experimentation, innovation.

Worms are used to process manure and toilet paper at the Tao Farm. Image credit: Katie Treharne

Tao Centre Camp is also the source of Tao’s community projects, which are funded directly by the Tao expeditions. A symbiotic relationship exists between Tao and the island communities, where products are shared back-and-forth through barter. Island families are Tao's partners, who helped to spread the word of Tao in the Philippines and have been crucial in helping to construct base camps, lead expeditions, and offer local indigenous knowledge

In the low season, the focus shifts to giving back to the community through projects focusing on education and women’s training.

Children from the isolated island communities previously struggled to complete primary education only offered in larger towns, accessible by long journeys on foot or by boat. Tao supplies materials, employs teachers, and builds learning centres that train children in social responsibility. So far, they have supported eight students at college-level, two at high-school level, and produced four graduates due to take up pursuits such as business and agriculture through Tao-funded scholarships to universities in Palawan and Manila.

A family home at the Tao Centre Camp. Image credit: Katie Treharne

Furthermore, since the formation of the Tao Kalahi Foundation, Tao has trained over 40 hilot massage therapists, providing families with an additional income and promoting social change where women can sell their own coconut and cashew products and receive a salary for massage services or sewing schoolbags and bedding to support the community health programmes.

‘Becoming a masseuse for Tao has had a great impact on my life. We now have extra income for bringing up our seven children and I also really enjoy meeting such a wide variety of people. I’ve even learned English from doing massage,” says Gemma Fabrigas, the daughter of a traditional hilot therapist in Pangaraykayan Village.

Preserving and sustaining the environment extends from waste management and wildlife protection to enhancing local communities. A model of sustainable travel, learning and growing through experimentation and innovation, Tao Philippines provides travellers with a way to uncover Palawan while giving back to its communities and ensuring the natural paradise can be experienced by other generations.

Learn more about Tao Philippines' expeditions and their vital work to sustain and preserve Palawan on their website.

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