by Gideon Lasco
For many years now, the collection and payment of registration fees has emerged as a contentious issue for hikers. Now, with the emergence of hiking as a mainstream recreational activity of the Philippines, the urgency of dealing with this has also emerged.
The case of Mt. Apo remains a strong example of how unregulated and disorganized authorities have led to the spiraling of costs – and a Mt. Apo traverse now costs over a thousand pesos, in registration fees alone. Considering that thousands of hikers climb Mt. Apo every year, where does all this money go? As hikers who are the source of money, and as taxpayers, who are the supposed beneficiary of government funds, we have the right to demand accountability and transparency.
It will also be remembered that Mt. Arayat was once a big turn-off to hikers because of the exorbitant fees imposed by the people at the Mt. Arayat National Park area. Until now, Arayat remains not-so-popular among hikers partly because of its unsavory past.
Moreover, there is also the issue of who are legally authorized to collect fees. There are many informal “caretakers” who collect fees without receipts or authorization from the local government; they earn a lot every weekend without any form of regulation or accounting. Some of these local caretakers claim that they indeed are working hard to maintain the mountain, and perhaps in some instances, their claims are credible. However, in other cases, setting up a registration area and a logbook has become more of a money-making activity.
How shall we deal with these? First, we need a set of guidelines by which we can evaluate the validity of a registration area. For a registration fee to be valid, the following parameters must be considered:
(1) Authority. Does the fee collector have the legal authority to make the collection? Under what authority are they doing the collection? If the mountain is on private property, the caretaker must represent the owner. If it’s public property, is there a PAMB directive, a municipal ordinance, or any government-issued document that backs up this authority?
(2) Transparency. Are receipts provided? Are contact numbers, addresses, and names of persons provided? Is there a breakdown of where the money goes? Of course there are some instances where receipts are not available, and this is understandable. But, especially when the registration fee exceeds P50, receipts become more of a requirement.
Even if there are receipts, are the fees collected reasonable and affordable? Are they fair considering what is being offered to the hikers? Of course, it is hard to quantify “fairness” but a reasonable measure of fairness would be to compare the mountain in question with other mountains of similar nature.
The collecting authority must be accountable to the stakeholders in the mountain (the environment, the local communities, and to the mountaineering community). Are the fees collected benefiting these stakeholders? Do they provide the services that the promise, including policing and taking good care of the mountain? Can they be depended on in case there is a need for help in the mountains?
We demand that all these four principles be met and observed by all collecting authorities in all entry points in all mountains in the Philippines, and urge all concerned to help us in this ensuring that these principles are met, for the benefit of all involved, including the environment and the local communities.
These demands cannot be met by disobedience, or by refusing to pay these fees. We would like to still place our trust in the government, and thus, our recommended form of clamor is to raise the issue to higher authorities, such as the DENR or the LGU concerned. Another way of clamoring is by telling the locals that many hikers are avoiding the place because of the costs. Also, raising the issues in public arenas, including the Internet, will be helpful. Most local governments also have their eyes and ears online and hopefully, they would listen.
There is nothing wrong about locals earning money from hikers. In fact, to some extent, it can be argued that they deserve some benefit from the hiking activity that somehow affects their lives as well. What we are arguing for is a fair and transparent collection of fees that are reasonable.
Subang Jaya, Malaysia
June 17, 2012