Culion is a beautiful and remote tropical island in the western Philippines — but it is an island with a dark history. It was once the world’s largest colony for people with leprosy. At its peak, Culion Island was home to 16,000 patients. But today, as Mary Stucky reports, this place that was once called the land of the living dead, has undergone a remarkable transformation.
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[Sound of a motorboat]
Mary Stucky: As our outrigger boat approaches Culion Island, the vista is breathtaking — jade-colored hills plunge into blue-green water. But on the steep slope above the wharf is an ominous sign: white stones placed in the shape of a huge eagle. That symbol was constructed almost 100 years ago and is a sign of disease on the island.
Nestor Lisboa: “When they reach the wharf, most of them don’t want to get out of the boat. Some even jump to the sea.”
Stucky: Long-time Culion resident Nestor Lisboa is talking about the people with leprosy who were brought here, many against their will, and isolated because of their stigmatized disease.
[Sound of roosters and community sounds and motorcycles]
Stucky: Lisboa grew up on Culion, where his father worked for the telephone company. He did not have leprosy – some people on the island were healthy. The two groups were strictly separated.
Lisboa: “And that is very tragical because the harm, the attitude of the non-leper, that they treat patients, a stigma so deep…sorry” [he is emotional and unable to continue]
Stucky: With that terrible stigma, most people gave up hope of being cured or ever seeing their families again. Hilarion Guia contracted leprosy as a child and was sent to Culion Island when he was just 8 years old.
Hilarion Guia: “I was asking myself what is this place that I was brought? I could see some people and almost all of the people are having this kind of appearance very, very, horrible.”
Stucky: Leprosy can cause horrible disfigurement to a person’s skin, limbs and eyes. It is one of the oldest and most feared diseases. While leprosy is not highly contagious, it was historically believed to be so. It was incurable until the 1980s, when the World Health Organization recommended a multi-drug therapy that was effective against the disease. Dr. Arturo Cunanan is considered a local hero for administering these drugs — though it wasn’t until 1998 that all of the island’s residents were cured.
Dr. Arturo Cunanan: “I call it a transformation. And with the control of leprosy, there is a lot of development both in terms of infrastructures and also in the minds of the people. Stigma and discrimination has no more place in society today.”
Stucky: And with that transformation, the people of Culion are no longer isolated. In fact, they have invited the world to visit them and their island home, which has retained its pristine natural beauty.
[Sound of waves ]
Stucky: There’s a new eco-hotel, and tourists can enjoy a mountainous landscape with diverse species – from anteaters to sea turtles and parrots. The island’s coral reefs harbor 20 species of butterfly fish. There’s a beautiful old Spanish fort and church. And even a history museum with all sorts of medical equipment and mementos, including money, since people with leprosy had their own currency. Tourists are enthralled with the island’s history and its traditional ways.
Tourist: “I see Culion as still a preserved environment; the people itself still the old Filipino hospitality, customs are still with them.”
Tourist: “ I think the history is something that they can be proud of. The people, they are very nice and humble but they are very poor.”
Stucky: Local pastor Father Xavier Alpasa wants to change that. He’s spearheading the new eco-hotel and teaching a course at the local college on entrepreneurial tourism. His efforts seem to be paying off: the number of visitors to the island more than doubled between 2008 and 2009. Father Xavier thinks tourism can bring economic development to Culion Island.
Father Xavier Alpasa: “We don’t want Culion to be a place of noisy bars and hundreds and hundreds of tourists going around. We envision Culion to be more serene, laid back, quiet, secluded. I believe the history of Culion has spoken, and it presents to us a message that Culion is a place for healing.”
Stucky: No one knows that better than Hilarion Guia. After he was cured of leprosy, he became a beloved schoolteacher on the island and then Culion Island’s first elected mayor.
For the World Vision Report, I’m Mary Stucky.
Reporter Katherine Jack contributed to this story.