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The Historic Towns and Landscape of Taal Volcano and its Caldera Lake

Date of Submission: 07/02/2024
Criteria: (ii)(ix)
Category: Mixed
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Philippines to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Provinces of Batangas and Cavite, Luzon Island
Ref.: 6714

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Taal Volcano Protected Landscape — Taal Volcano: 14°0' N, 121°0' E and Taal Caldera Lake (Cities of Lipa, Tagaytay, and Tanauan, Municipalities of Agoncillo, Alitagtag, Balete, Cuenca, Laurel, Lemery, Malvar, Mataas na Kahoy, San Jose, San Nicolas, Santa Teresita, Taal, and Talisay): 13°59' N, 121°0' E

Historic Town of Taal: 13°52' N, 120°55' E

San Nicolas Ruins: 13°55' N, 120°57' E

Taal is an active volcano within a massive caldera, with at least 38 recorded eruptions in the last 450 years. Its most recent major eruption in 2020 prompted evacuations in its surrounding communities while spreading ash across neighboring provinces and regions, including Metro Manila. This eruption had a significant impact on transportation, government, business, and education activities, affecting tens of millions of individuals.

The caldera is believed to have formed during a series of prehistoric eruptions between 140,000 and 5,380 BCE. It presently holds Taal Lake, a picturesque expanse of water 100-150 meters deep, spanning approximately 265 square kilometers. Within Taal Lake lies Volcano Island, which covers an area of about 24 square kilometers. Volcano Island cradles Crater Lake, which is 1.2 square kilometers and contains a prominent rock formation known as Vulcan Point.

This interplay of land and water – as a product of a 1911 eruption – has led to the description of Taal Volcano as “an island within a lake, within an island within a lake, within an island” respectively referring to Vulcan Point, Crater Lake, Volcano Island, Taal Lake, and finally, the island of Luzon itself, in the Philippines.

Volcano Island is divided between the towns of Talisay and San Nicolas, and together with the Cities of Lipa, Tagaytay, and Tanauan, Municipalities of Agoncillo, Alitagtag, Balete, Cuenca, Laurel, Lemery, Malvar, Mataas na Kahoy, San Jose, Santa Teresita, and Taal, collectively comprise the Taal Volcano Protected Landscape (TVPL) communities in which over 1 million people reside.

TVPL, which is approximately 623 square kilometers, was included in the National Integrated Protected Areas System through Presidential Proclamation No. 923 in 1996 and was classified as a National Park under the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System in 2018. The landscape is managed by a Protected Area Management Board comprised of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), relevant local government units, and other stakeholders. There are 52 migratory marine faunal species present, two of which are endemic. While other avian and reptilian species have been documented in TVPL.

The area is a cultural landscape.  It has been settled for centuries, and its communities have been well-connected to the precolonial trading routes of Southeast and East Asia.  The volcanic activity of Taal played a significant role in the ecological dynamics of the region, contributing to the fertility of the soil. During the Spanish colonial period, the fertile soils of the region have supported diverse agricultural activities, including the cultivation of crops such as rice, corn, sugar, cacao, and coffee, and the development of many cultural products anchored on the local environment, agricultural production, and distinct to the region, such as the cultivation of specific varieties of coffee, or the development of weaving and embroidery traditions with local fabrics. The religious folk dance Subli captures the deep faith of the community amidst the volcanic hazards.

The prosperity of the region generated by this agricultural productivity is reflected by the many heritage structures dating to the Spanish colonial period, such as the houses of prominent families in the población (town center) of the Municipality of Taal, the cities of Talisay and Tanauan, other lakeside towns, and what is recognized as the largest Catholic church in Asia, the Minor Basilica of Saint Martin of Tours. The Basilica is a declared National Historical Landmark under Presidential Decree No. 260 (1974), whose management as a heritage site is under the supervision and control of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.  Local legends associate the appearance of St. Martin with impending eruptions.

The location of the Municipality of Taal itself reflects its dynamic relationship with the volcano.  Previously located along the shores of Taal Lake itself (and in the current location of the Municipality of San Nicolas), it moved to its present location in response to a massive eruption in 1754.

The eruption of 1754 also significantly shaped the ecology of the landscape of Taal Volcano. Taal Lake was, prior to the eruption, a saltwater environment, being connected to Balayan Bay through the Pansipit River, which was then a navigable channel. The eruption cut off this connection to the sea, and the Lake and its ecology evolved into a freshwater environment. Two species in particular reflect an evolutionary adaptation to a changing environment – Hydrophis semperi, a rare species of sea snake, and Sardinella tawilis, a species of sardines, are both originally saltwater species that have now evolved, and are only found, in the freshwater environment of Taal Lake.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The geological interaction between an active volcano and a crater lake in shaping active ecosystems and living, vibrant communities is globally rare. As a lake of volcanic origin located in the tropics, it is among 1 percent of all the known lakes in the world.

The transition of Taal Lake from a saltwater to a freshwater environment – in a relatively recent occurrence in the scale of geological processes – fuels the continuous evolution of flora and fauna and presents opportunities for ongoing scientific discoveries.

The lake's origin can be traced back to a series of eruptions culminating in that of 1754, which filled the navigable channel that connected Taal Lake to Balayan Bay. This relatively recent event nevertheless has already created a unique ecosystem and the evolution of new animal species particularly adapted to this environment – such as the globally threatened endemic Hydrophis semperi, a rare species of sea snake that has adapted to thrive in freshwater conditions found only in Taal Lake, and the endangered endemic Bombon Sardine Sardinella tawilis, (locally known as Tawilis) the only sardine species known to survive entirely in freshwater. The presence of these unique species substantiates the ongoing ecological processes and continuous adaptation and evolution of terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems in the region. 

Moreover, the communities surrounding Taal Volcano have, for centuries, lived with and adapted to the volcano’s temperament, yet remained anchored on the richness of the region’s agricultural soils. Even with frequent and severe volcanic eruptions, the communities around the Volcano have remained and thrived.  The agricultural productivity of the region fueled the wealth and prosperity of communities and anchored the development of their own tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

Criterion (ii): The towns of the landscape – particularly in Taal – demonstrate the blending of different cultures as a result of colonization in architecture and urban planning, reflected in grand houses and places of worship, including the largest church in Asia, the Basilica of St. Martin of Tours, and underscore the richness of the agriculture of the area, and the intangible heritage of its products of Barako (coffee), Burda (embroidery), and Barong.  The built environment, however, reflects and provides a setting for a deeper exploration of the relationship of the community with the volcano. The historical relocations of Taal, Lipa and Tanauan, and the continuing settlement of Agoncillo, Alitagtag, Balete, Cuenca, Laurel, Lemery, Mataas na Kahoy, San Nicolas, Santa Teresita, and Talisay is a response to Taal’s historic eruptions and its land’s richness. These movements and developments exemplify the adaptability of one’s created physical environment — an idea parallel to the biological phenomenon of plasticity or the capacity of individuals’ physiology to adapt in response to changing environmental conditions. The relocations moved outward from the lake to the outer ridge, and the ridge in turn naturally acts as a barrier from volcanic activity. Architecture and building technology were also strengthened using more resilient materials and sturdier structural frames as initiated by the churches. These relocations and architectural strengthening show that resiliency of communities exists in the dimension where adversity triggers protective factors, alongside adaptability to the existing environment. Even in the face of regular and catastrophic volcanic activity, the area had been and remains settled, cultivated, and developed by their communities, a testament for one’s love of the land and a deep and abiding Catholic faith that anchors the communities’ sense of resilience, captured in cultural expressions such as the Subli.

Criterion (ix): The natural landscape of Taal is an outstanding example of significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of ecosystems.  The transition of Taal Lake from a saltwater to a freshwater environment as a result of historically recent volcanic activity – and the resulting endemism and adaptation of its unique fauna – is unique in the world and captures the dynamism of the processes of evolution as a response to rapid geological change. This includes the globally threatened endemic Hydrophis semperi, a rare species of sea snake that has adapted to thrive in freshwater conditions found only in Taal Lake, and the endangered endemic Bombon Sardine Sardinella tawilis, (locally known as Tawilis) the only sardine species known to survive entirely in freshwater. The volcanism of Taal will continue to alter the local environment and fuel evolutionary processes, providing a rare opportunity for greater study, investigation, and deeper appreciation of the impact of significant geological changes upon ecosystems.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

As a natural landscape, Taal’s geological characteristics and evolving ecosystems are adequately recognized and protected under the Philippines’ Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (ENIPAS), which is the national system of registration and management of natural protected areas.  The TVPL’s Protected Area Management Board (required by law) involves both the DENR, the local government units, and other stakeholder groups. 

As a cultural landscape, Taal has key built heritage sites and intangible heritage. The Minor Basilica of St. Martin of Tours is a National Historical Landmark the conservation of which is under the jurisdiction of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.  There are local ordinances to protect the heritage structures of the Municipality of Taal (Municipal Ordinance No. 3 of 2009), and various initiatives by both the national and local government to recognize the cultural heritage embodied in products as the recognition and protection of Tawilis, the cultivation of Barako coffee, weaving and embroidery of traditional fabrics from locally grown crops, among others.

Comparison with other similar properties

The natural and cultural landscape of Taal offers a variety of distinctive qualities that distinguish it from other renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Taal's distinctive ecological transition from saltwater to freshwater ecosystems within its volcanic setting introduces an aspect of evolutionary processes and biodiversity distinctiveness not found in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, especially in terms of aquatic life.

The landscape can also be differentiated from other volcanically active areas like the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve and Morne Trois Pitons National Park by recognizing its volcanic elements with a freshwater lake and its surrounding surroundings. This interaction of geological and hydrological factors gives its environmental composition depth and complexity. Taal also differs from El Pinacate in terms of socio-ecological relevance due to its critical function as a supply of water for places downstream.

Taal's closeness to human settlements highlights the unique interaction between humans and their volcanic environment in comparison to the Volcanoes of Kamchatka, which are renowned for their active volcanic presence. In addition to its geological significance, the site's rich cultural landscape – exhibited through agricultural practices, traditions, and the resilience of the local populations – adds a specific human aspect that distinguishes it from Kamchatka.