The guardians of Pandin: Locals embrace tourism and conservation

by Klyra Orbien, Ciaell Banaag, and Jose Gabriel Pakingan

San Pablo City residents tell of a legend how a beautiful maiden named Pandin, who was under a curse that forbade her to touch the earth, descended from the heavens to meet her lover Yambo. As soon as the maiden touched the ground, the curse would doom the lovers’ unlikely union. 

As she landed on the earth, terror and a deafening grumble unleashed from the ground. A heavy downpour soon enveloped the skies, until two lakes emerged from the land where Pandin and Yambo stood. 

Scientists, however, have a different story to tell about the lakes’ origins. It is said to have been created through a phreatic eruption, a type of volcanic eruption that occurs when water comes into contact with hot volcanic materials, such as magma or hot rocks. 

This occurred when shallow lava from the nearby Mount San Cristobal mixed with groundwater. The combination caused an explosion that resulted in a depression, resembling a crater, and led to the formation of the lakes.

While the lakes lie adjacent to each other, they remain separated by a narrow ridge, and fall under the territorial jurisdiction of two different towns. Lake Pandin is located within San Pablo City, while Yambo, the transboundary lake, is under Nagcarlan.

Pandin: Preserving her beauty

Today, Pandin and Yambo are part of the famed seven crater lakes of San Pablo City which also includes Lakes Mohicap, Sampaloc, Calibato, Bunot, and Palakpakin. 

In 2005, the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA), the main administrative authority mandated by law to govern the crater lakes,  reported that legend-filled lakes are ecologically threatened based on its water quality.

This means that there are factors that are causing harm to the natural balance of the lake and its surroundings.  When an ecosystem is ecologically threatened, it means that its future and health are in danger, which can have negative effects on the plants, animals, and overall biodiversity that depend on it for survival.

But the future may still hold challenges and uncertainties as findings by University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) scientists from the Institute of Biological Science led by Dr. Vachel Gay Paller in 2021 painted a bleak picture for the seven lakes of San Pablo.

Paller and her team of scientists have identified various potential threats that could pose further harm to the lakes, including pollution, climate change, waterborne pathogens, introduced species, habitat alteration and biodiversity loss, and aquaculture activities. 

While there are no heavy industrial activities directly polluting the lakes, the LLDA acknowledges that the main concerns requiring policy analysis and intervention are likely associated with domestic waste, aquaculture, and agricultural runoff. These factors highlight the need for proactive measures to address these specific issues and ensure the long-term sustainability of the lakes’ ecosystems.

Tourists enjoying a tour of Lake Pandin from a balsa

As Lake Pandin becomes an ecotourism haven in San Pablo City since 2005, the locals, its unsung heroes for preserving the maiden’s unparalleled beauty, are faced with mounting challenges.

Not enough nutrients

According to San Pablo City’s Tourism Officer, Donnalyn Briñas, locals in Pandin used to depend on fishing as their main source of livelihood, but took an unexpected turn when the beautiful Pandin failed to yield bounty.

Ang main source [of livelihood] ay pangingisda, lalo na noong na-meet ko ang mga bangkera way back 10 years ago. Unfortunately, may character ang Pandin na hindi lumalaki ang mga tilapia compared sa size na pang market (The main source [of livelihood] is fishing, especially when I met the boatwomen way back 10 years ago. Unfortunately, Pandin has a character that the tilapias are unable to grow to a marketable size)” Briñas said. 

Tilapia is one of the foremost agricultural products around Laguna de Bay

Almost 50 years ago, in 1976, tilapia farming became very popular around Laguna de Bay, which led to the introduction of the industry in San Pablo’s Bunot Lake in the same year. From there, it expanded to other crater lakes, including Pandin and Yambo. In 2013, the LLDA recorded that there were only 14 registered fish pen cages in Pandin. 

However, in the monitoring of the LLDA in 2005, the agency revealed that Pandin Lake is in an oligotrophic state, followed by Yambo which used to be a prime location for aquaculture, particularly for tilapia farming through floating pens and cages.

An oligotrophic state means that the lake has low nutrient supplies and contains little organic matter. When there is low nutrient supply, it makes it difficult for fish to grow and reproduce, making fishing less productive. 

To gain deeper insights into the impact of oligotrophic conditions on aquaculture, it is essential to explore how fish pens and controlled environments play a crucial role in managing the growth and well-being of fish and other aquatic organisms.

Fish cages are prominent in the Seven Lakes due to aquaculture being a primary source of income in the area

Aquaculture is the process of cultivating fish and other aquatic organisms in controlled environments such as fish pens. In fish pens, water is contained, allowing for better management and control of various factors that can affect the growth and health of the fish.

Nutrients play a vital role in the growth and development of fish in aquaculture systems. These nutrients can come from different sources, including natural or supplemental feed provided by the fisherfolk. In fish pens,the  fish receive nutrients through natural productivity of the water and the addition of feeds.

However, in an oligotrophic environment, the availability of natural productivity may be limited. In this case, the fisherfolk may need to rely more heavily on supplemental feed to ensure the fish receive adequate nutrition. It becomes crucial for fisherfolk to manage fish feeding and close monitoring to maintain the health and growth of their fish.

For fisherfolk and communities surrounding the lake, this could translate to less fish for their livelihood. Fish could still survive, however, this means increased costs for maintaining fish pens as they may need to provide additional nutrients to the lake to support their aquaculture livelihoods.

For Pandin fisherman turned boatman, Adam Borromeo, aquaculture can be profitable, but the expenses outweigh the gains.

Malaki nga ang kita sa pag-aalaga sa isda, pero mas malaki ang gagastusin mo. Hindi ka pa nakakasigurong ‘yung nilagay mo ay maganda ang kakalagyan ng isda, kahit inaalagaan ‘yan (You can earn a lot from raising fish, but you will spend more. You are not yet sure that what you have placed will be a good place for the fish, even if it is taken care of)” he said.

Brought by the lake’s oligotrophic state, Borromeo also emphasized the high costs of tending to the fish traps, bamboo, and ensuring proper feeding of the fish. 

Talagang mamumuhan ka dyan, ‘yung lambat, kawayan, yung patuka mo. Kasi ime-maintain mo ‘yung [isda] na hindi malipasan ng pagkain. Kasi doon ka umaasang malaki ang kikitain mo (You will really spend money there, the net, the bamboo, your fish feed. Because you have to maintain the [fish] that can’t get enough food. Because that’s where you expect to make a lot of money)” he added.

Changes in temperature

Recently, the fisherfolk have also raised concerns about the fluctuating temperature of the lake. Borromeo highlighted the uncertainties of income from fishing compared to ecotourism as their source of livelihood.

“Halimbawa, naiba ang temperature ng tubig, minsan kasi nag-fifish kill dito. Lugi ka. Hindi katulad nito [ecotourism], ‘yung ginagawa namin para sa activities na ‘to, makakatulong ka na sa pamilya mo (For instance, when the water temperature changes, there are times when fish kill incidents occur, resulting in losses. By engaging in activities like ecotourism, you can already help your  family),” Borromeo said.

According to the LLDA, the temperature at the lake varies between a high of 34.7°C and a low of 20.9°C. The peak temperature typically occurs in May, while the lowest temperature was documented in February. On average, the annual temperature in the region stands at 27.4°C. 

This can be reflected in the Paller-led study where concerns about climate change as a threat to the lakes were raised. They cited that the rising temperatures will bring about changes in a lake’s physical, chemical, and biological characteristics, which will affect its overall water quality. 

Other factors that also contribute to fish kills is hypoxia, a condition characterized by low oxygen levels, which in turn can cause fish mortality or fish kill events.

Predation concerns and introduced species

According to Tourism Officer Briñas, the fisherfolk have also expressed concerns about predation of fish species in the lake. Predatory species of fish have targeted one of  the lake Pandin’s valued commodities: the palakpakin shrimp and tilapia.

The Palakpakin shrimp is a small species of shrimp that is used in pinayti, the popular traditional delicacy of San Pablo City. It is about 15cm long and is only harvested in small amounts due to its declining number.

According to Paller’s study, introduced species can have both detrimental and beneficial effects on their new environment. If not properly managed, these species can become invasive, especially if they adapt well to their new habitat.

According to Tourism Officer Briñas, there are growing concerns among the fisherfolk regarding the dwindling numbers of the prized Palakpakin shrimp in Pandin Lake. It is believed that the main culprit behind this decline is the Jaguar fish, which preys on these valuable crustaceans. Unfortunately, attempts to cage or cultivate the shrimp have proved unsuccessful, as their natural habitat in the wild is essential for their survival.

Moreover, fisherfolk have also encountered other predatory species, such as janitor fish and flowerhorn, which pose a threat to the small shrimp and even young tilapia residing in the lake. These carnivorous species have been known to feed on the delicate aquatic organisms found in the wild.

According to Paller’s study, introduced species can have both detrimental and beneficial effects on their new environment. If not properly managed, these species can become
invasive, especially if they adapt well to their new habitat.

Jaguar guapote (Parachromis managuensis) is a fish species known for its predatory behavior. It is native to Central America and is characterized by its striking appearance, featuring numerous black spots and streaks, this fish species exhibits distinctive broken or complete black streaks extending from its eyes to, or nearly to, the upper and lower edges of its gill covers. It feeds on a variety of prey, including smaller fish, invertebrates, and crustaceans.

The Flowerhorn (Vieja sp.), is an aquarium fish known for its bulbous head and for their aggressive and predatory behavior. They have also gained popularity among fish enthusiasts, particularly in Asia.

According to the study of Paller, the exact means by which these non-native species were introduced into the seven lakes remains unclear. But according to Briñas, the non-native species of fish were accidentally introduced through donations from private individuals and NGOs as fingerlings.

Since may mga nag-dodonate sa kanila ng fingerlings, may mga ibang species ng isda na hindi natin inaakala na siya ‘yung nagbibigay problema sa natural habitat sa lake (Since there are donors providing them with fingerlings, there are other fish species that we did not expect to be the ones causing problems in the lake’s natural habitat),Briñas said.

Some introduced species have displaced native organisms and competed for resources intended for the cultivated stocks.

According to the study, the Jaguar guapote (Parachromis managuensis) is also present in Sampaloc Lake while the Flowerhorn (Vieja sp.) has been observed in Lakes Bunot, Calibato, Mohicap, and Palakpakin. The study also identified several other non-native fish species inhabiting the seven lakes,  among them are the Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), Common carp (Cyprinus carpio), Snakehead murrel (Channa striata), and the Red tilapia (Oreochromis sp.).

Faced with these conditions and uncertainty with regards to aquaculture, Pandin’s fisherfolk turned to the lake’s beauty as not just a means to survive but to thrive as a community. Kasi yung panghuhuli ng isda, maghihintay ka ng tamang panahon. Hindi katulad nito [pagbabalsa], araw-araw may kita, (Because in fishing, you have to wait for the right time. Unlike in [rafting], everyday there is income),” Borromeo said.

Embracing ecotourism as a community

Boyet Villanueva is a bangkero who provides day tours of
Lake Pandin

Ang mga bangkero dito magkakamag-anak, (The boatmen and women here are all relatives),” Boyet Villanueva said, a fisherman of over a decade and is currently  a boatman for the Pandin Lake tour.

Tragically, Villanueva’s wife, who was also a boatwoman, recently passed away during the pandemic. In the wake of this loss, Villanueva stepped in to take on the role of his departed wife, continuing the family legacy and ensuring the community-ran operation of the boat tours.

A  2017 study also from UPLB  by Dr. Bing C. Brillo from the College of Public Affairs and Development revealed that a group of women residents living near Pandin Lake, specifically the wives of the fishermen were the initial leaders of the now thriving Pandin Lake Tours. 

They approached Pundasyon ng Kalikasan, a foundation dedicated to environmental conservation, which played a pivotal role in the launch of the Pandin Lake Tour project.

According to Brillo, lacking support from the LLDA and the San Pablo City LGU, the development of ecotourism in Pandin Lake primarily emerged as an internal initiative driven by the non-profitable aquaculture  activities within the lake. 

In 2005, a group of 18 mothers residing in proximity to the lake banded together with a shared purpose: to support the primary providers of their families, who were farmer-fishermen, in meeting the needs of their households and securing their children’s education. 

Recognizing the challenges they faced, these determined women sought a means to improve their livelihoods. That’s when the Pundasyon ng Kalikasan stepped in, extending their assistance to help bring their vision to life.

The project took its first steps with the contribution of a bamboo raft donated by the foundation’s leader, Mandy Mariño. Their expertise supported crucial aspects such as organizing the endeavor, implementing effective management strategies, securing initial funding, and devising promotional initiatives.

Additionally, each member invested P100 towards the initiative. This humble beginning laid the foundation for offering visitors a rafting experience on the picturesque waters of Lake Pandin.

The project evolved into a fully-fledged enterprise, attracting both local and foreign tourists. Encouraged by its success, the locals decided to formally establish the cooperative, SMLP or the Samahang Mangingisda ng Lawa ng Pandin to directly oversee the ecotourism operations.

The locals of Pandin Lake took charge of conservation efforts, embracing their roles as guardians of the lake. They not only serve as boatmen and women but also assume the crucial responsibility of being the lake’s primary caretakers. Just as the boatmen stepped up to support their wives, their children also joined in as boatmen and provided all-around assistance to their parents, including actively participating in lake cleaning activities.

According to Borromeo, the locals have taken it upon themselves to establish a set of rules, diligently clean the lake’s pristine waters, and establish comprehensive guidelines aimed at safeguarding its delicate ecosystem. 

They conduct clean up drives, monitor the lake’s vicinity, and strictly implement rules for tourists to follow.

“Ang namamalakad po nito ay isang coop. Lahat ng expenses dyan mula balsa, life vest, kinakapital pagluluto lahat po iyon sa coop. Halos kami pa nga ang nakakabigay sa LGU, (This is managed by a cooperative. All expenses, from the raft, life vests, to the capital for cooking, are taken care of by the cooperative. In fact, we are the ones providing support to the local government), Borromeo said.

Through the locals’ persistent conservation efforts, the LLDA labeled Pandin as the “most pristine” out of all the seven lakes. According to Brillo’s study,  the transformation of Pandin Lake into a thriving tourist spot is a whole new ballgame. Despite the thriving potential in ecotourism, Pandin Lake remained lacking in terms of necessary facilities and infrastructure to become a top-notch destination. 

There were immediate requirements, such as a well-built road and parking, a surrounding trail that connects both Pandin Lake and its twin, Yambo Lake, a convention center with accommodations, and access to electricity and water supply. 

These needs were too costly for the ecotourism venture of the locals to handle alone and fell within the capabilities of the LLDA and the City Government to provide. 

In 2014, the LLDA and the San Pablo LGU developed the Pandin Lake Development and Management Plan (DMP). The P4-million plan aims to protect the Pandin Lake while introducing livelihood opportunities to the locals.  It aims to satisfy tourists, maintain water quality, develop the forest, boost income, ensure order, and preserve local culture.

Brillo’s study shed light on another challenge faced by the community and the DMP. This concern was the potential concentration of land ownership in the Pandin Lake area, which could occur when a businessman successfully acquires the majority of the surrounding land. 

May plano po talaga dyan sana na hotel, tapos view deck, at private pool, paano ‘yung tubig? Saan pupunta, ‘di ba sa lake? Hindi kami pumayag, (There really was a plan for a hotel, then a view deck, and a private pool. But what about their wastewater? Where would it go, isn’t it to the lake? We did not allow it)” Borromeo said.

According to the study, to prevent this scenario, the LLDA  and the City Government need to intervene and address the issue. The consolidation of land ownership, which currently encompasses about one-third of the surrounding area and includes the entire entry point to the lake, could pose accessibility challenges and impede the further development of Pandin Lake. This, in turn, would jeopardize the sustainability of the ecotourism venture. 

The landowner reluctantly allowed access to the traditional route that crosses his land. However, ensuring the right of way should not be left to the discretion of the landowner alone. According to Brillo, the lake’s administrative agencies should secure and legally reinforce this access through negotiations, encumbrances on the title, or outright purchase of the private land. 

Additionally, the study propounded that if the rumors of the businessman’s plan to establish a high-class resort in the lake are true, the assistance of the LLDA and the City Government becomes even more crucial. 

Borromeo said the whole community staged a strike condemning these business interests and the closure of the road leading to the lake.

Pinaglaban namin ang daanan na ‘yan. Nag welga kami. Nakarating pa kami sa Sta Cruz. Sasaraduhan sana yung private property hanggang sa binili ng LGU ng San Pablo, (We fought for that pathway. We went on strike. We even reached Sta. Cruz. The private property was supposed to be closed off, but it was eventually bought by the LGU of San Pablo),” Borromeo said.

In 2021, this issue was resolved when the San Pablo LGU purchased the 3,842 square meter lot from private owners to pave for the right of way of the Pandin lake community and for the construction of the concrete road leading to the lake.

The locals expressed their concerns about the development of an area, noting that when an area starts to develop, many people become interested and involved. Once they start earning money, more people take an interest. 

“Kaya hindi nagkakasundo sundo, kapag pumasok na ‘yung may mga kapital na malalaki, mawawala na yong namumuhunan na maliliit, (When the big investors come in, the small-scale investors will be gone),”  Borromeo said.

According to the DMP, there are plans to set-up shops and kiosks in the lake to showcase food and local novelty items of Laguna, but locals fear that this would open the lake to private commercial establishments. 

The introduction of large-scale commercial establishments, such as restaurants, raises concerns about the potential environmental consequences, particularly in relation to the lakes’ water quality.

“Mayroon pong masterplan. Buo na po ang masterplan ng seven lakes. May budget po ‘yan. hindi natin alam, baka sa susunod kung ano pa ang gagawin nila dyan. Pero kami po ay tututol jan. Kasi kapag nilagyan ng malalaking kainan, masasaula na ang tubig, hindi na dadating sa susunod na henerasyon pa, (There is a masterplan in place. The masterplan for the seven lakes is already complete. It has a budget. We don’t know what else they might do in the future. But we will oppose that. Because if they put large establishments, it will pollute the water, and it won’t reach the next generation),” Borromeo added.

After almost a decade since the plan was initially proposed and 18 years since the inception of the small Pandin tour project, the fate of the lake remains at the hands of the community who continues to fight for their rights to preserve and safeguard Lake Pandin with their own hands.

“Kapag hindi ka makikipag laban, sa sarili mong lugar paalisin ka? Dito ka nagka edad, nagka apo ka na, mababalewala ‘yung pinag hirapan niyo, sila na kumkita, baka maging private na ‘to, (If you won’t fight, will they drive you away from your own place? This is where you grew up, where you had your coming of age, where you became a grandparent. All your hard work will be in vain, and they will be the ones profiting. It might even become private),”  Borromeo said.

Future ventures

Tourism Officer Briñas assured that no such large-scale development will occur in the seven lakes. As an ecotourism venture, conservation and protection of natural resources will prevail.

“Ang role ng ecotourism, more on conservation and protection of natural resources… Malaking tulong na dinala namin as ecotourism ang seven lakes. Kasi kung sinabi namin na ‘tourism’ marami na siguro ang nagtayo na malalaking buildings, mga resorts, pero since lagi namin sinasabi na agro-ecotourism kami, more on sa pagtatanim, mag conserve, mag preserve ng lakes, (The role of ecotourism is more on conservation and protection of natural resources… It was a big help that we branded the seven lakes with ecotourism. Because if we referred to ‘tourism’ many people would have already built big buildings, resorts, but since we always say that we are agro-ecotourism, we are more inclined to planting, conserving, preserving lakes),” Briñas said.

“Even sa structures sa lakes, very careful kami, as much as possible walang mga huge buildings, construction, (Even with structures we are very careful, as much as possible, we disallow huge buildings, construction),” Briñas added.

Pandin Lake is protected by the Water Code, which states that there is a designated area called an easement of public use along the banks of rivers, streams, seas, and lakes. This easement varies in size depending on the location: three meters in urban areas, twenty meters in agricultural areas, and forty meters in forest areas. 

This area is reserved for activities like recreation, navigation, floatage, fishing, and salvage. People are not allowed to stay in this zone longer than necessary or build any structures. In the case of the Seven Lakes, a 20-meter zone along the banks of each lake should be kept free from occupation or structures.

According to the DMP, several private properties have clearly extended beyond the designated 20-meter easement of the lake. Any structures found to be encroaching on the designated area will be instructed to be removed by the San Pablo City LGU, in coordination with the barangay. 

While the surge of ecotourism in Lake Pandin received positive impacts such as creating employment opportunities for locals, the LLDA’s DMP identified that this development brought disruption to social relationships in the lake.

According to Briñas, the Tourism Office observed these instances where the locals find themselves in conflict with one another. 

Nakakalungkot lang noong lumakas na sila, mayroong internal problems na. Mayroon nang nagkakainggitan, nagkakasingitan, selosan. Nagakakaroon ng breakaway group…we’re hoping na magka sundo-sundo sila, dahil kayo naman ay magkakadugo, magkakapatid, magkakamag-anak. Kasi ang nagyayari, mas marami silang gustong gawin, mas gumugulo” Briñas said.

Aside from these sociocultural concerns and improvement of cooperation with the locals, Briñas hopes for a future where the locals would be more trained and prepared for disasters and the looming dangers of climate change.

But for the boatmen and women of Pandin Lake, they continue to uphold the prevailing spirit of a community in facing future challenges.

Bayanihan ang mga tao dito, (The people here cooperate with one another),” Villanueva said.

With these challenges ahead and what the community in Pandin experienced, Paller and her team recommended that the institutions behind the seven lakes adopt an Ecosystem Approach. At its core, the approach relies on stakeholder participation and propounds that a collaborative effort involving institutions is essential for a comprehensive approach to lake management. 

This comprehensive approach is yet to be seen through the establishment of the Pandin Development Cooperative as mandated in the DMP. The proposed institutional arrangement underscores the community-focused approach to ecotourism involvement in sustainable projects and will play a vital role in implementing the DMP.

The Pandin Development Cooperative will also establish its own Board of Directors, comprising representatives from different sectors, including Barangay Sto. Angel where Pandin Lake is located, Pandin FARMC, local NGOs, churches, women’s organizations, business sectors, and civic organizations based in Barangay Sto. Angel. By including representatives from these different sectors, the cooperative aims to ensure a well-rounded and comprehensive decision-making process that considers the perspectives and interests of various stakeholders in the community. 

The tale of the cursed maiden and her forbidden love evokes a sense of awe and wonder among those who hear it. Yet, beyond its mythical origins, Pandin Lake holds a profound significance to those who rely on her beauty to survive. The ethereal beauty of the lake is more than a reminder of the fair maiden, but is a testament of a community’s crucial role in the preservation and conservation of their natural resources for generations to come.