Monday, May 23, 2011

Searching for the heritage of water on the perfumed Pasig

HAVING to think about the “heritage of water” for a recent cruise on the Pasig for the annual Unesco-Icomos World Heritage Day reminded me of a question asked by a Middle Eastern colleague, whether “it rains in the Philippines.”

Oh, it does! It rains a lot in the Philippines. We live surrounded by an abundance of water, so very unlike life in a parched desert environment.

Our Filipino lifestyle and culture are influenced by water, something many of us don’t realize from living in an archipelago of islands surrounded by water.

I grew up on an island. Not in a small, Robinson Crusoe-sized one, but in a city on a medium-sized Visayan island where I lived my life within sight and reach of the sea.

When I moved to Manila, the first thing that struck me was realizing this city by the bay limited my access to water. The beach was kilometers away. From being immersed in a Visayan seascape, I had moved to the expanse of the Luzon landscape.

Case for insularity
These days, I commute to Cebu often enough to have developed an internal prompt that signals me when we have flown out of the solid mass that is Luzon, telling me when it is the time to look out of the window, to be calmed by the blue of the water we are flying over, and to see the islands that come into view one after another. Pristine beaches ring each island, just the kind of seascape my islander self relates to.

Many islanders live their lives within the confines and the comfort of their shores. Within those shores live your own kind—people who share the same language, outlook, cultural circumstances, even food preferences.

Because of his definite geographical confines, the islander looks inward, into a life of shared beliefs with familiar and kindred souls.

Therefore, it is understandable that those from other shores or other islands are seen as “different” people.

There rests the case for insularity and its mentality that separates “us” from “them.”

The idea that islanders accept the limitations of their shoreline boundaries came up in a conversation with a colleague in Guam, who asked me when I came “on-island and when I was scheduled to go off-island,” his way of asking when I had arrived and was leaving.

Islanders are not confined to their own islands. Across the sea lie other islands to go to, all just a short sail away, none farther than the horizon.

Water connection
How interesting it is to realize that the same water that separates islands also connects them.

Water once connected different parts of Manila, a city that grew from a network of riverine settlements built on islands on the tributary of Pasig River.

Waterways connected the different parts of early Manila, evolving years later into the system of esteros flowing through the city, providing its main transportation routes when emptied into Pasig River or Manila Bay.

A Quiapo-bred lady told me about the estero behind her house. She and her family would wait for vendors to sail to their back entrance to supply the family with vegetables and produce.

On the estero behind her house, she would row her three sisters to school every day.

When the city of Manila organized a Pasig River cruise for Icomos Philippines and Heritage Conservation Society members and their guests to celebrate the heritage of water, nothing seen from the perfumed river hinted that Manila was once a city built on water.

“The Venice of the Far East,” American urban planner Daniel Burnham called Manila in 1905.
The Burnham vision for his 1905 Burnham Plan for Manila was to blend the elegance of Parisian boulevards with Venetian waterways.

Esteros, Burnham’s Venetian waterways, have since clogged up or have been covered over.
Structures that once opened up to the waterways have been boarded up, the estero and river having deteriorated into hazards rather than urban landmarks.

Water, water once upon a time everywhere in our city, where has it gone? (Augusto F. Villalon, Pride of Place, Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 23, 2011)

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Who is the ICOMOS Philippine Committee?

The global network of ICOMOS membership links closely not only with UNESCO but also advises many national governments on cultural heritage issues.

UNESCO is the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization, the Paris-based behemoth that, among its many functions, takes charge of the World Heritage List, overseeing conservation and management of all inscribed natural, cultural, and cultural landscape properties on the List whose number now comes close to approaching the 1,000 mark.

ICOMOS is the official adviser to the World Heritage Committee on cultural heritage matters, reviewing and evaluating proposed sites before recommending their inscription to the World Heritage List.

To monitor the far-flung World Heritage Properties, UNESCO relies on the ICOMOS network, often requesting assistance from each National Committee of ICOMOS to monitor properties in their countries.

When cultural issues arise in any World Heritage property, ICOMOS member-experts are part of the team sent by the World Heritage Committee to investigate and recommend solutions.

Unlike UNESCO, ICOMOS needs re-introduction to the Philippine pubic despite its having been active in the country, albeit in a very low, quiet key, since the late 1980’s when its primary activity was to advise the Department of Foreign Affairs and the UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines on international and national cultural heritage matters.

The National Commission for Culture and the Arts recognizes ICOMOS as a one of two accredited Philippine heritage NGOs who merit a permanent representative at the NCCA Committee on Monuments and Sites.

Who is ICOMOS and what does it do?

ICOMOS is the acronym for International Council on Monuments and Sites, a Paris-based global organization of professionals in the field of conservation that regulates the conservation practice worldwide through setting procedures and policies for the professional.

The ICOMOS Charter of Venice is internationally recognized as the standard to be followed for the conservation profession.

The organization has a network of approximately 20 International Scientific Committees whose membership focuses on a certain aspect of conservation.

As a sampler of the wide range of interests, some of these Committees are: Vernacular Architecture, Cultural Tourism, Historic Towns and Cities, Underwater Archaeology, Fortifications and Military Heritage, 20th Century Heritage, Legal, Disaster Management, Cultural Landscapes.

Each of the International Scientific Committees undertakes and publish research in their areas.

More importantly, each Committee prepares a Charter defining its priorities, goals, and sets guidelines for members to work towards upholding the Committee’s principles.

The international organization is composed of National Committees in practically every country whose members are recognized leaders in the heritage sector. Its roster of members provides a global network of professionals ready to render service or to provide professional advice to colleagues.

As sole adviser to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee on cultural heritage matters, its members are instrumental in evaluating and recommending properties proposed for inscription to the World Heritage List, and once inscribed, members undertake foreign missions to monitor their state of their conservation and recommend measures to improve their status.

ICOMOS Philippine Committee is a small organization whose members have been vetted by peers to be bona fide conservation specialists whose training and experience qualify them to undertake international and national assignments in various aspects of heritage conservation.

The roster of ICOMOS Philippine Committee members has been submitted to the Department of Tourism, Intramuros Administration, and other government and non-government organizations as professionals certified to undertake conservation work.

What ICOMOS members in the Philippines have been doing is networking with foreign or national colleagues, exchanging professional expertise, advising each other on their projects, and being aware of how its expertise can assist when heritage issues turn up.

More information on ICOMOS can be found at and

Now comes an announcement: Each year UNESCO and ICOMOS celebrate International Heritage Day. The theme for 2011 is the “Heritage of Water”.

To observe International Heritage Day, ICOMOS Philippine Committee, the Heritage Conservation Society, and the City of Manila have joined forces to organize a sunset cruise on the Pasig River.

A presentation on the “Heritage of Water” will be given by one Augusto Villalón, President of ICOMOS Philippine Committee, Vice-President of its International Scientific Committee on Vernacular Architecture, and Member of its International Advisory Committee in Paris.

For those who wish to attend this event on the Pasig River Ferry, departure time is exactly at 4PM on Wednesday, 04 May from Plaza Mexico at the riverbank behind the Department of Immigration in Intramuros.

Space is severely limited; reservations are essential. Please call 3534494 or fax for bookings.

Please help defray expenses through contributing a suggested PhP200 for students, PhP300 for ICOMOS and HCS members, and PhP500 for non-members.

Your comments are invited at (by Augusto F. Villalón, Pride of Place, Philippine Dialy Inquirer, 02 May 2011)