SABTANG Island—Where have the traditional Ivatan houses gone?
Simeon Hostallero counts himself as one of the obstacles to the dream of Batanes province to be recognized as a World Heritage Site for its famed stone houses here.
He was the first in his tranquil community in Chavayan, one of the few settlements on the island, to build a concrete house, doing away with the traditional Ivatan home made out of thick limestone walls and thatched cogon roofs.
“The representatives from the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) were so mad because I tore down my old house to build a new one made of cement. They’re blaming me for the application that has not prospered,” he told visiting reporters here.
“To make matters worse, my house is right at the corner of our street. It’s the first thing you see in the row of native houses,” he added.
Since Hostallero had his modern two-story house constructed in the late 1990s, others in the village followed suit, further disrupting efforts by heritage advocates to preserve the unique architecture of Ivatan communities.
It may be a lost dream.
It’s now virtually unlawful and prohibitively expensive to build a traditional Ivatan house, residents here said.
“No one builds the traditional house anymore. What we’re now trying to do is maintain the existing Ivatan houses,” said Marcial Armando Alavado, vice mayor of Sabtang town.
For one, building the house is a tedious process. Lime is extracted from coral by “cooking” or heating this for hours using firewood, and applying the resulting powder to bind boulders or corals packed tightly together, which form the walls of the house, sometimes as thick as 2 to 3 feet or more.
Stronger with time
It takes at least a year of waiting for the limestone to be strong enough and for the house to be considered stable enough for people to move in. “It becomes stronger as time passes,” said Alavado.
For another, the declaration of the entire Batanes provinces as a protected landscape and seascape has practically stopped all harvesting of limestone, as well as the logging of trees used as fuel to cook it. It is also inconvenient to latch the cogon roof as a precaution against strong winds whenever storms come, and to change these periodically.
“But if you ask me, the traditional house is better. It’s very cool inside in spite of the hot weather,” community leader Clemente Ladreza said.
Traditional Ivatan houses are built that way to withstand storms.
Located on the northern tip of Luzon, Batanes is composed of a chain of 10 islands with both the smallest land area (219 square kilometers) and population (16,604 as of May 2010) in the Philippines.
Due to its location in the overlapping waters of the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, the Batanes island group is often on the flight path of big storms and typhoons, around 20 of which arrive in the country every year.
Until recently, it was considered to be the province most visited by tropical cyclones.
But the arrival of strong storms on the islands, which used to be an annual affair, has become less and less frequent over the years, striking instead in parts of the country that rarely experienced them, such as Mindanao in December 2011 and 2012 with Tropical Storm “Sendong” and Typhoon “Pablo,” respectively.
The last storm to hit Batanes was Category 5 Typhoon “Odette” in September last year.
No other big storm has directly hit Batanes since Typhoon “Neneng” of 1987, said Juan Redondo, chair of Barangay Kaichanarianan in the capital town of Basco on the adjacent island of Batan.
In the 10 years since, he said, “there were no more storms that actually hit us.”
That storm-free decade led to dramatic changes in Batanes and its people.
“In the past, the residents could only plant root crops like ube and sweet potato. But now they could actually plant rice and corn, as well as fruit trees like mango and banana,” provincial environment and natural resources officer George R. Reyes said.
There was also an influx of tourists with more airlines opening flights, as well as more regular trips by ship to and from the mainland, he said.
The scarcity of tropical cyclones on the country’s northern tip is both a blessing and a curse, Reyes said.
On the one hand, commerce, agriculture and tourism have flourished, he said.
More flights and ferry trips have opened to and from the province; access to education and business opportunities has improved, and the Ivatan people now regularly enjoy rice and mangoes, when these were just luxuries 10 or 20 years ago.
On the other hand, residents have become complacent in the face of a changing weather, more dependent on modern amenities, and less appreciative of their cultural treasures, Reyes said.
Cultural values have eroded, and the upward mobility of residents has led to slow birth rates and a declining population, Reyes added.
But perhaps the greatest casualty of the changing times is the old Batanes landscape, which used to be dotted with only stone houses against a backdrop of island greenery, grassland and beach forest.
Alavado said there were efforts by private groups, particularly the Batanes Heritage Foundation, to preserve the traditional Ivatan neighborhood.
“For example, there are clusters of houses that they want to preserve. They are trying to convince the families to maintain their stone houses, instead of demolishing them and building modern houses,” he said.
In Hostallero’s village, for example, there are about 40 houses, “but 10 of those are already made of concrete,” he said. “There are also others that are a mix of the traditional and the modern.”
“As much as possible, we would like to preserve our old houses. But we can’t really tell people what to do with their private property,” Alavado said.