A peace advocate for ecotourism

DONSOL, Sorsogon (April 19, 2007) – This coastal town, which calls itself the whale shark capital of the world, was shocked to hear that Julia Campbell, the friendly US Peace Corps volunteer who used to walk and ride bicycle daily around the town proper to teach children and lecture on saving the habitat was dead.

“I cried when I heard about what happened,” said Mayor Salve Ocaya, referring to her friend Julia whose lifeless body was discovered at the Rice Terraces in Batad, Ifugado province on April 18, several days after she was declared missing on a trip to Cordillera. Donsol was celebrating the Butanding (whale shark) Festival on the same day, but the festivity was met with sadness on the news of her passing.

Tourism Secretary Joseph Ace Durano, who was actively promoting the Philippines as a safe and beautiful destination for international visitors, said he was saddened by the fact that Campbell died while on a trip to a famous tourist spot.

Campbell a former New York Times journalist, who took the time to learn Filipino dialects in less than two years she was in the Philippines, taught at the Donsol National Comprehensive School last year and organized an eco-tourism center in Barangay Dancayan, the jump-off point for whaleshark interaction that caught the attention of international tourists.

“Almost everyone knew and liked her, because she was friendly and always smiling,” Ocaya said. “She greeted the people with smile and hello. She felt safe here.”

One of her students described Ms. Campbell as a kind-hearted woman who dedicated her life to teach about protecting the natural habitat.

The 40-year-old Campbell, a native of Virginia, USA, was a frequent visitor to the Donsol municipal hall where she walked in slippers. She spoke Tagalog, learned to dance some native dances, and loved travelling to different tourist destinations in the Philippines particularly Donsol, Ocaya said.

Whalesharks have brought thousands of foreign and international visitors to Donsol, which have been upgraded from a fifth class municipality to a third-class municipality in 2006, because of its booming tourism industry. 

There were concerns, however, that the influx of tourists could affect the habitat of the whalesharks and drive them away from Donsol.

Ocaya said Campbell loved Donsol so much that she convinced her parents and about 20 members of the US Peace Corps to visit the town and experience the whale shark interaction in the summer of 2006.

“She liked it very much,” said Joel Briones, the Butanding interaction officer, who guided Campbell when she first dived to see the awe-inspiring gentle giants of the sea.

People here said Cambell built a house in Barangay Dancayan, where she stayed for about a year, and left it to a family when she transferred to Legaspi City to teach at the Divine Word College.

Ocaya said Cambell asked the support of her friends to build a library in Donsol with donated books. Her project earned the respect and admiration of the people whom she touched with deep concern.

Campbell was supposed to return to finish another project, her eco-tourism center in Barangay Dancalan, which will have materials and books about protecting the natural habitat of whalesharks.

That project remains unfinished, and Ocaya said this will be left to the barangay for completion.

This town will miss her, said Ocaya. Roderick T. dela Cruz

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