A trip to Ilocos Norte (or anywhere for that matter) wouldn’t be complete without visiting heritage and historical sites. Sometimes these means nothing but statue installations to mark historical moments like the blood compact monument in Tagbilaran Bohol, or the Leyte Landing Memorial in Palo Leyte. Other times this means being awed by natural and man-made sites like the Chocolate Hills in Bohol and the Banawe Rice Terraces in the Mountain Province.
The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) provide us with a list of these places of interest. I’ve always wondered why these heritage and historical sites are not necessarily considered as tourist spots, but that is the Department of Tourism (DOT) missing out on an opportunity.
Meanwhile, there are many questions to ask of the NHCP’s and the National Museum’s task of preserving our heritage sites and structures. These are questions I ask because of the recent trip to Paoay Churh.
Something old, something new?
I thought a lot about heritage during my Ilocos Norte trip, and not just because of the kind of heritage that the provincial and local governments were able to maintain in Laoag, but because in Paoay is the San Agustin Church or Paoay Church.
One of four baroque churches in the Philippines that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Paoay Church has a tiangge to one of its sides, not within its property but right outside its (sort-of) fence. This did not surprise me. For this I’ve seen in most tourist spots in this country: any space large enough for a tent and stalls will have a tiangge of some kind. I hoped it was temporary.
What was surprising though was the wide expanse of garden in front of it—and I’m talking grass beautiful enough to go barefoot on (I tried it myself). And Jardin de San Agustin, a serene garden to one side of the Paoay Church, with well-chosen religious icons and flowers in bloom, benches and shade for resting and quiet contemplation. The garden leads to a stand-alone Paoay Church Gift Store selling Ilocos Norte items.
Even more surprising: the façade of the Paoay Church looks wonderfully conserved. So wonderful that when I zoomed in on my photos of it I realized that those finials were on a roof whiter than the rest of the structure. It looked like new cement gleaming under the sun. Against the old and historic coral stones and bricks of the church, ones aged by time, it was a strange—and intriguing—thing to see.
I’d like to think that any kind of restoration must take into consideration the aesthetic of using the new in the context of the old. The finials are a particular characteristic of the Paoay Church that the UNESCO World Heritage Site website mentions about the structure. (Advisory Board Evaluation, UNESCO World Heritage website)
There is no easily accessible information on the Paoay Church restoration on the NHCP website. What is available is one news article from March 2012 about how Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos was “inconsolable” about the ongoing “desecration” of the Paoay Church. It was actually an NHCP restoration (on NCCA funding) of the façade of the Paoay Church, which was being handled by Architect Reynaldo Inovero. (Yahoo News, 24 March 2012)
It was a restoration that was happening without consulting the provincial government—one that had announced the year before (in March 2011) that it was restoring the church given a tourism plan that “consolidates Paoay’s existing infrastructures surrounding Paoay Church like the plaza, the ruins of the Catholic convent and the frontage of a state-run university.” That plan was to be drafted by Architect Felino Palafox. (GMANetwork.com, 16 March 2011)
There is no data on this incident again, and unlike many government websites that have since made available PDFs of public documents, information on NHCP’s restoration projects are not easily accessible on its website. That is granting that this information is actually there.
In December 2012 heritage advocate Ivan Henares called out the local government unit of Paoay (or Ilocos Norte?) for “desecrating” the Paoay Church. After a visit with delegates of the Icomos International Conference on Cultural Tourism Henares reported that “[They] were shocked to see violations being committed during <the> visit, including the construction of an arcade in the buffer zone, and the improper landscaping and construction in the core zone.”
He also asserts that the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) had “after investigating the methodology used by the NHCP, determined that the NHCP paletada work on Paoay Church is correct.” (Interaksyon.com, 30 December 2012)
My one reaction is: wow, paletada to the tune of P1.5 million pesos?
In March 2013, the Jardin de San Agustin was opened to the public for Holy Week. Structures had been taken down because this was part of the heritage site buffer zone, and in its place was this garden. I am unclear if that was / still is (?) a violation as far as Icomos is concerned.
And this is really the thing here: none of these rules and regulations with regards heritage and its preservation / conservation are clear. There is the Heritage Law of 2009, yes. But there is also the lack of transparency with regard its implementation. Too, while all these restoration projects are happening, it’s unclear why the NHCP has generally been quiet about saving heritage structures like the Philam Life Building or El Hogar Filipino.
Could it have anything to do at all with NHCP Chairperson Serena Diokno’s 2012 list of things that are wrong with the Heritage Law? In her presentation at the UNESCO Summer School, she talks about how not all fifty-year old structures are historical and asks: “must every fifty-year old site be preserved in the face of legitimate development demands?” She also asserts: ”The law also has a provision for a compulsory repair order, which in my view is practically unenforceable. Finally, parts of the law could potentially undermine the owner’s right to property.” (http://www.kyotoheritage.jp/PDF/UNESCO_summer_school _2012/Dr.%20Diokono_NHCP.pdf)
But that is at the heart of heritage conservation and preservation, isn’t it? That we are able to educate the populace about the value of preserving property they have inherited, and for heritage to become part and parcel of city zoning and local government priorities?
At the very least, I wish the implementation of the Heritage Law were more transparent given the NHCP (and NM), and that we were in on the process of choosing which restoration to fund, taxpayers money as that is. I wish no LGU were kept in the dark about paletada; I wish for us all a better sense of how and why heritage is important, and why government should be the first to educate us.
Because otherwise, we wouldn’t know how to keep an eye out for santos being changed from original handcarved wooden ones to plaster ones, or when beautiful tree trunk buttresses are changed into steel ones. Without knowing how to protect our own heritage structures and sites, imagine what’s being done when / since no one’s looking.