The volcano might have been upset when the Augustinian friars first came in 1572 to establish a township on the shores of the lake in Batangas province. She erupted, most likely not in welcome, and blew her top in obvious agitation of disturbed peace and the intrusion into her sacred territory. “Ta-al” was what the natives called the volcano-island, “sin ta-as ng langit” (high as the sky) and queen in their primitive Nature-worship.
The friars carried on the name of Taal for the volcano, the surrounding lake and the town on the shore, perhaps unadmittedly intimidated by the unwelcoming fireworks and the noticeable restlessness of the strange volcano with its crater-lake within a lake. A historical account of Norbert Lyons tells that the volcano displayed such great activity that Father Torna de Abreu had a huge cross of native anubing wood erected on the brink of the crater. An exorcism?
Taal volcano continued to rattle her “intruders” with regular eruptions until her exasperation vented in the great 200-day eruption of May 15 to Dec. 1, 1754. Taal’s fury destroyed the old poblaciones (town centers) of Lipa, Taal, Sala, Bauan, and Tanauan. These were abandoned and reestablished several kilometers away from the lakeshore after volcanic activity had subsided (Knittel, Ulrich: 1999. “History of Taal’s activity to 1911”).
Taal Lake was once open to the Verde Island Passage and the South China Sea as part of Balayan Bay, Batangas. The 1754 eruption of the volcano deposited so much volcanic debris to the southwest that Taal Lake was absolutely cut off from the sea. The waters of the lake rose from sea level to five meters above sea level, with its once-saline waters becoming freshwater after the Pansipit River, Taal Lake’s sole outlet to the open sea was blocked. A happy concession from this are the specialty fishes that evolved unique to Taal Lake which adapted from salt water species to the tasty, sought-after fresh-water delicacies of the rare maliputo (trevally) and the overharvested Sardinella tawilis, the only freshwater sardine in the world.
A little sulfurous and ever-so-slightly-salty body of water, up to 600 feet deep and measuring as much as 32 kilometers across, Taal Lake — where the majestic Taal Volcano dips her skirt hem — had become perhaps the most beautiful lake in the country, and the most abundant in marine ecology in the protective Taal Caldera formed by very large volcanic eruptions from 500,000 to 100,000 years ago. The Taal Lake basin was declared as a national park, the Taal Volcano National Park, by Proclamation No. 235 on July 22, 1967 covering 62,292 hectares.
Is beauty an excuse for raping? Is abundance a reason for taking more than what is needed for survival? Folklore about Taal tells about the Lakan (an old sage) who guarded the volcano and guided the townspeople in peaceful sharing of the abundant natural resources of the forests and the lakes — everyone was happy and content, and there was no envy and deceit where there was no greed. Then Lakan tested them: he was going away, and leaving them to abide in honor not to go up the mountain beyond the forbidden area near the crater of the volcano. The Lakan left, and the townspeople followed the rules at first, but they could not help it anymore when he was gone too long and thought he was never to return. They went up to the crater and found glowing gemstones. And the volcano erupted in anger, and spewed dead bodies with its fire and ash.
Such was the deadly wrath of Taal in 1911, erupting for 14 days — Jan. 27 to Feb. 10 — when 1,335 people were killed and ash covered places as far as Manila City, 50 kilometers away. Until last year (2019) there had been 33 recorded eruptions at Taal since 1572, the year the friars first came and disrupted Taal’s equanimity. The total death toll from Taal’s eruptions is estimated at 6,000 by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology or Phivolcs.
There was a period of hyperactivity from 1965 to 1977, culminating in the last major phreatic eruptions of 1976 and 1977. Since that time, Taal Volcano Island has been declared a high-risk area and a Permanent Danger Zone (PDZ), hence habitation is strictly not recommended. But many poor families live in the PDZ because of the rich volcanic soil for subsistence farming, the lake that gives generous supply of daily fish, and the forests that offer easy picking of most of whatever else might be lacking.
And in the relative quiet of the Taal volcano, economic activity boomed around it, urged by the increase in population and the urbanization that created needs from easily-satisfied wants proffered by vigorous commercial strategists. Organized tourism brought people to view the beauty of the lake and the volcano in the cool temperature of Tagaytay and Alfonso in Cavite, until businesses and vacation homes elbowed themselves onto the ridge that provided a panoramic view of the majestic Taal.
But the rich seem to have taken over the benefits in the Taal Basin. The small fisherfolk have been whining to dismantle vast tracts of fish pens in Taal Lake which are owned by private individuals and big fishing firms, and for regulators to order operators to comply with the lake’s carrying capacity and prioritize the fishing rights of small fisherfolk who have been deprived of their traditional fishing grounds due to the privatization of the fishing water, a newspaper report showed (Business Mirror, June 5, 2019).
Taal Lake has been choked with some 6,000 commercial fish pens — the maximum number allowed by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) after 2006, when the lake had 14,000 pens owned by big businessmen cultivating mostly bangus (milkfish) and tilapia (St. Peter’s fish). The province of Batangas has produced more than 16,400 metric tons of bangus, which is 4% of the country’s total production in 2018. But in May to June 2019, a total of 605 metric tons (MT) of tilapia and bangus were lost to a fish kill in Taal Lake. The damage could easily cost around P50 million. Fishermen’s group Pamalakaya said in the news that this was the third fish kill to hit Taal Lake since 2018, citing incidents that happened in November, which affected 60 MT or equivalent to P5-million worth of tilapia, and the following January that killed 99.8 MT of fish (Ibid.).
BFAR reported the continuous plummeting of the level of dissolved oxygen (DO) in Taal Lake, which has reached 0.33 parts per million (ppm) at the surface of Taal Lake and 0.66 ppm at the bottom when the normal DO level should be between 5 to 6 ppm at which fish breathe. All this was caused by the overstocking of fish in the commercial fishpens. Did we not listen and understand, when the Lakan, caretaker of Taal, said to the townsfolk: take and enjoy the bounty of Mother Nature, but “Moderate Your Greed”?
Taal has lost her patience. After 42 years, on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 12, 2020, Taal Volcano erupted again, spewing miles-high atomic blooms of dense sulphur and silica ash over Batangas and Cavite, blown by strong winds over Metro Manila and threatening Central Luzon. Some 160,000 evacuees gathered in 300 centers as lockdown (no-man’s-land) was imposed on Aguinaldo, Alitagtag, Bala, Cuenca, Laurel, Malvar, San Nicolas, Sta. Teresita, Taal, Talisay, parts of Lipa, Mataas na Kahoy, and Tanauan. No fishing was allowed in Taal Lake. The National Disaster Risk and Rehabilitation Management Council (NDRRMC) is taking care of 22,472 families of 96,061 individuals, the Philippine Star reported.
Reactive measures will not prevent further horrible calamities. The only way would be to go back to the beginning of peaceful, beautiful Taal — the town, the Lake, the Volcano, and humbly admit to the extreme exploitation that we humans have done to her. And from there, change our attitude and relationship with Nature, vowing to follow rules of balance and restoration.
Humans are no match to Nature’s wrath.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.