BUNAWAN, Agusan del Sur?The three bawto (wooden canoes) glide through the seemingly infinite water world, their graceful paddle strokes only slightly disrupted by the white lily pads floating in the sparkling marsh waters.
One woman gripped the edges of a vessel, so small it could carry only four people.
As the boats slowly approached the bosom of Lake Mihaba, a bird that the Manobos call the manaol flew out of nowhere?enthralling everyone despite its fleeting presence.
To a spellbound tourist, this could be the perfect place to take a girlfriend, perhaps to propose marriage, plighting his troth on a bamboo raft on a night lit by countless fireflies.
Never mind that Lake Tagsubon, known as the crocodiles? nest, is nearby, or that the entourage may well include a beautiful goddess who dwells in the Agusan Marsh?the same goddess who, legend has it, has incessantly expressed her love to a native.
In the summer, thousands of egrets, herons, storks, sea eagles and other migratory birds, seek shelter in the marsh, apart from the resident birds that darken the sky even before the sun can set in the evening, according to Rey Calderon, an ethnic Manobo.
?They would dive on us as we paddle around,? he says.
As darkness falls, the place glows with the luminescence of fireflies, which makes some of the local stories about the marsh?and the residents? encounter of the unknown?even more enchanting.
?There were times we would hear someone call out our names but no one was there. These were voices we would hear in the middle of the night from the woods or from the waters. They must be the gods. There are nights when we would see lighted floating houses far from our village but nothing was there when we checked the next day,? says Claudio, Calderon?s elder brother.
Life with crocodiles
The Calderons and their relatives were born and raised in the marsh. Their parents and ancestors once lived in houses built on treetops, before illegal logging came.
The tiny community of mostly ethnic Manobos have made their permanent homes deep within the marsh, living on floating homes. The marsh provides virtually everything the Manobos need.
The Calderons understand how the crocodiles behave. ?We need to recognize them and respect their presence in the marshland. That is very important. They have to be understood and given their own space. Their territory is their territory,? says Calderon.
The Lake Mihaba Fisheries Association (Lamifa), a grassroots organization, has declared Lake Tagsubon off-limits to the villagers so as not to disturb the crocodiles.
?What is necessary is that we lessen our encounters with them. They are just there, living with us. They have their sanctuary and so we give them that,? says Calderon, the Lamifa chair.
He told stories of close encounters with the crocodiles and the mysterious forces at play in the marsh.
?I was about 6 years old then, fishing with my father at dawn, when I first saw one. The crocodile?s mouth was wide open, waiting for the prey, perhaps waiting for any of us. It was scary, but now, I realized that they were playing their role in protecting the marsh?just like we do,? he said.
Wrath of the gods
The vessel was already traversing the narrow Binatlawn Creek, the gateway to the floating village at Lake Mihaba. Last year, the place had to be abandoned after a crocodile attacked and killed a 6-year-old girl who was paddling her bawto one night.
The girl, who was bringing rice and provisions, was approaching the floating literacy center where she was a student.
?She was singing when suddenly the crocodile attacked. I saw it. I tried to save her, but it was too late,? said villager Roy Dagaas, 23.
For three days, the villagers searched in vain for the body. It was only after they sought the help of the baylanon (elders who are guided by the spirits) that they were able to find the little girl?s body floating under the lilies in Lake Malindong.
?The baylanon told us that the gods were enraged over the desecration of the place. A villager somewhere far from the floating community built a house and used a galvanized iron sheet as roof. The iron sheet disturbs the water with its bizarre reflection?that enraged the gods. The attack was a warning, a very scary warning,? Calderon says.
The people only returned to the floating village in March after holding a religious ritual called manubad-tubad to appease the gods.
?Some things are too difficult to explain to others but that?s how things are here. Ultimately, I believe that we are being taught to show respect to people, nature and those we cannot see or explain,? Calderon says.
The Agusan Marsh, one of the most ecologically significant wetlands in the Philippines, is found in the heart of the basin that forms the central section of Agusan del Sur province in northeastern Mindanao, an area that is filled with swamps and lakes.
This vast expanse of marsh is one of the largest in Asia, occupying 113 hectares, roughly the size of Metro Manila. It is a wonderland for adventure-seekers, for the spiritual and the romantic. Here, nature and mysticism dictate the flow of life.
The Calderons and their floating village have taken it upon themselves to look after Lake Mihaba and six other lakes?the Taywanon, Pagusi, Ambago, Malidong, Kangbungo and Paho. There are 59 lakes in the Agusan Basin.
They act as tourist guides and guardians of the marsh against ?unwelcome? tourists and hunters.
In another part of the marsh is a group of Manobos who have formed themselves into the Katiguman hong mga Mangingisda hon Kelobedan (KMK), to defend themselves and Lake Kelobedan from intruders.
Estimated to measure 100 hectares, Kelobedan is also carpeted by floating houses.
Members of the Lamifa were formally recognized as tour guides only in June. The floating village at the mouth of Lake Mihaba has about 50 residents who take turns in squiring guests and doing guard duty.
?Those who wish to enter the marsh must respect the people of the marsh and the marsh itself as the people?s provider of life,? says Calderon.
A guest pays P100 for a tour around the seven lakes. For an overnight stay, a visitor has to pay another P50.
In 2007, Agusan del Sur and Bunawan municipality partnered with the Heed Foundation and the government of Australia, through the Philippines-Australia Community Assistance Program (Pacap), to protect the Agusan Marsh and its people.
The partnership came up with a community-based eco-tourism project, called Enhancing Community Capabilities in Protecting the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary and Benefits from Eco-Tourism.
This resulted in the creation of the Bunawan Eco-tourism Group (BETG), a special body to coordinate efforts of government agencies, civil society groups and funding institutions to protect and promote the Agusan Marsh.
The project expects to offer guests a unique experience while staying at the floating center in Lakes Mihaba and Kelobedan. The Mihaba facility?with three guest rooms?is in the middle of the floating village.
The stories of the marsh and their proud tellers will be the main tourist draw. The stories of the tour guides are unrehearsed and taken straight out of their having experienced first-hand growing up in the marsh.
?We are the people of the Agusan Marsh. It is our life. Without the marsh, we are nothing. If we want protection, we know that the best way for us to do is to protect the marsh because if it dies, we will also perish,? says Calderon.