60th Courier Anniversary Issue
60th Anniversary Issue
Supplement Articles
:: Mayoralty Candidates & their vision for Baguio
:: What have we done to our city?
:: Leadership a
la Sudcordillera
:: If I could vote,
I would vote for...
:: A look at the northern youth vote
:: Shanty Town: rethinking
our mountains' development
:: Ma Fok's Secret
:: Ibaloi in international media
:: Preventing cervical cancer
:: Prostate cancer:
a brief perspective
:: Baguio Midland Courier goes online
:: Courier in the '60s
:: Baguio media notes and anecdotes
:: When headline writers become headline makers
:: The History of Baguio City National High School
:: 60 things to do and places to see in Cordi
:: How to make Baguio a child-friendly city
:: Election Cartoons
trisha Shanty Town: rethinking the mountains' development
JP Alipio
Photo by: Harley Palangchao

The day is ending and the sun is slowly setting over the horizon, the view is spectacular with such strange hues, you wonder what it is in the sky that could make such lovely colors… Soon it is pitch black over the mountainside and as you wind your way through the twisty road into the mountains, your headlights illuminating the few meters in front of your car, you turn into a curve and hundreds of little lights slowly come into view past the dark mountains. And as you enter the gateway to the mysteries of the Cordillera you search for that familiar scent of pine and earth, but for some reason the smells are of exhaust fumes, sewage, and rotting garbage.

Our mountain’s future? In fact it is our present – the amazing sunsets caused by airborne particulates; Christmas lights over the mountains, which the morning reveals to be cluttered homes built up all over its slopes; and the familiar smells wafting away from our motor vehicles, human waste, and pollution from our modern devices.

This is not the future. It is now. The question to ask is if this is now, do we even have a plan for our future or are we merely stitching together an incoherent set of funny ideas and hope that someday they would make up an identi-fiable image of our mountain home?

Mushroom Villages
Piles of gray and silver, like persistent fungal mushrooms, grow in areas once lush with green forests and at night you may ask, are they luminescent beings like the fireflies that light up the dark with their own beautiful light? This gray fungus seems to be spreading quickly throughout the rest of the mountains, and you have only to drive through the Mountain Trail (Halsema Highway) to see that the fungus spreads through this road and spills over into the surrounding mountains. It grows beside rivers dumping deadly toxins into the veins that feed our mountains. It blooms on our slopes destroying the mountain skyline, so precious that the destruction of which means millions of pesos in lost revenue from the tourist trade. It replaces the green pine and the twisted oak with shiny metal and dusty gray with only the mountain mists to hide their faces from the rest of the world.

Some have told me, “Let them be, this is self-determined progress” or some of the locals will tell you, “Do you not want us to have the same amenities as you have in the cities like Manila and Baguio? Do you simply want us to live in thatched huts and wear G-strings for your viewing pleasure?” But then is this truly progress?

Manila, Baguio, and our other cities seem to have become our models for development. Like big brothers we put our cities up on pedestals hoping someday to be just like them – big, strong, powerful, and successful. But then these cities may not be the best models at all. In fact if you could compare them to a human’s development they would now be sick with all the toxins running through their veins, their skin all pimply with sores, their hygiene so horrid you could smell them kilometers away, and with values that have become so uncivilized that they beg you to ask the question of why proper etiquette and the notion of civilized emanates from these urban centers, and if these aren’t enough, they seem to leave their excrement anywhere they choose – spreading their disease to everyone around them. That is the picture of our big brothers. Now, is that what we all wish to become? For the sake of our future I hope that this is not the case.

Poverty Eradication
We are now deep into the election period and like any of our elections we hear the words “poverty eradication!” For these mountains, that means farm-to-market roads, mining, dams, commercial agriculture, tourism, and market complexes, development that is aimed at creating opportunities for investment and the inflow of capital into our poor mountainsides.

For most of these forms of development, the environment takes a backseat in providing for the needs of the poor. Roads built without the proper environmental impact   assessments or mitigating measures cause much siltation to rivers and immediate destruction of the newly opened forest areas. Destructive large-scale mining and dams are given priority over more sustainable forms of enterprise. Buildings are constructed without thought of proper zoning or integrating structures with the landscape or even proper sewage disposal. Farmers are left to use pesticides to the detriment of their own health, the soil, and everyone living near and below their farms. Homes are built next to rivers without thought of the riverside scenery or whether their excrement, urine, or solid wastes go straight into the waterway beside them. The list of impacts goes on and on. What is truly ironic here is that the poor, believing that these projects seek to give a better life to them, end up being the ones who bear much of the burden of the environmental damage.

Poverty in the mountain areas is a sign of an ailing environment. For mountain communities, the mountains are the givers of life, and much of their livelihood is sourced from the very soil, forests, and waters that make up their homes.

Environmental Conservation
To be fair to proponents of development we must also look at current conservation strategies being employed in our mountain areas. For the most part, protected areas do not work. The main reason is that protected areas provide little or no livelihood opportunities to communities who live within them besides the seasonal tourism, which is quite often monopolized by a select few.

The concept of closing down protected areas to human activity has also spurred the transfer of livelihood activities from the traditional areas to other regions in the mountains, simply exporting the degradation from these activities elsewhere. Unlike countries like the United States, our protected areas have traditionally been the homes of our indigenous brethren, thus a different system must be created in order to address this special condition.

The lack of livelihood opportunities and alienation of local populations from their traditional environment have been the downfall of the protected area strategy. Maybe it is time we rethink how we go about protecting nature’s special places because in our mountains they are man’s special place as well. Often there is a distinct difference between those environmentalists who look to the environment as something beautiful to be preserved and remain untouched for future generations and for those who live and work within this beauty deriving life from its forests, rivers, and land.

Capitalizing on the mountains
At the very core, all our livelihoods originate from the environment. This is more pronounced for mountain communities who depend on the environment for nearly everything they need.

Yet modern society has created needs that the mountain environment cannot sustain, like the need for money to send children to school, medical expenses, travel, clothing, etc. Thus, in order to meet short term needs, the local resource often suffers and is depleted by the need for quick cash. This rapid depletion of natural resources often stems from a lack of information and programs on available sustainable livelihoods adapted to the environment. Clearly the need here is to provide livelihood activities that are not in conflict with the local ecosystem and will be a force to enhance them.

Our mountains, clean rivers, misty forests, and colorful people are significant resources, which have yet to be explored and developed.

Destination Rough and Remote
You will be surprised at how much people will pay to walk hundreds of kilometers just to be in the roughest and most remote regions on earth. In Nepal, a one week permit to go to the Mustang region costs US$700 and that is only for the permit, expedition costs will set you back at least another US$1,000 per person. Yet even with the excessive costs, hundreds of people from all over the world are still willing to pay for a hard trek through the harsh terrain just to experience their own little Shangri-La.

In the Cordillera, we have mountains and trails that would be bliss for any backpacker, rough back roads that are mountain biker’s paradise, and interesting cultures for the intellectual traveler. All these things are a capital, a resource, which have the ability to provide much needed revenue for local communities while still keeping the environment in a condition to provide for the needs of local villages.

In countries that cater to   areas referred to as the "wild" such as Bhutan, Nepal, Africa, Italy, and the US, the adventure industry has produced its own micro economy with cash inflow not only benefiting the local villages but also producing revenue in associated industries such as trekking agencies, publications on nature, and outdoor gear manufacturing. These industries rely as much on the pristine nature of wilderness and mountain areas as much as the adventurer relies on his equipment to keep him dry, safe, and comfortable. The “wild” refers to nature and a living environment that would promote an air of adventure and a place for quiet reflection, without which the entire outdoor industry would crumble.

Our roads are slowly being paved, eliminating mountain biking areas; our trails become wide roads eliminating any potential trudging through nature’s wild places; and our mountains are bulldozed so houses can be built. However, in many of our mountain towns we still have a chance to take an alternative path.

Water Power
As the water cradle in the north, the Cordilleras provide for the irrigation and water needs of 5,447,500 hectares of land in Luzon and as such we also hold the responsibility to keep this resource in a pristine condition. But like any type of service, mountain communities must also be compensated for those essential resources and services they provide for the lowland populations.

We cannot simply protect and enhance our forests without anything in exchange for the cleaner water and higher stream flow. Protecting forests, planting trees, preventing erosion, and implementing programs that address mountain watershed management all have a cost. For the government it is the cost of implementation of the programs, protection, infrastructure, logistics, and personnel. For the local communities it is the cost of foregoing livelihood activities in the forest areas thereby depriving them of a source of income.

The benefits to lowland people include better quality of water, more water supplies for irrigation, less siltation, and benefits extend all the way to the coastal fisheries, which rely on a high quality of water for the spawning of fish and maintenance of reef areas and spawning grounds. Providing an ecological service to our lowland brothers is one of the development paths we can follow that integrates both environmental values as well as poverty alleviation in one package.

Looking towards the Future
Development must take place, but then it is the type and quality of development that is important, quantity is wasteful if it is merely there to fill the gaps and will eventually cause the erosion of your foundations. There must be limits to growth, with us realizing that we have finite resources and that poverty is not only measured in the pesos you earn every day but in the quality of your environment and the quality of your life. If current trends progress, we may accumulate immense financial resources but we would also have to spend much more in order get the quality of life and the environment that should have been free in the first place. If we just plan things properly, every place would be like Camp John Hay and Baguio Country Club and we would not have to pay expensive fees to enjoy ourselves within these surroundings.

There are more sustainable paths available to our mountains which are equitable to both humans and the environment.  The question is, will we make our plans now for a sustainable future or will we continue with this patchwork path of development and hope that it leads us to a future Shangri-La and not to where we currently appear to be traveling to a shanty town in the mountains.

The author has an MA degree in environmental ma-nagement from an Ateneo de Manila and University of San Francisco joint program. He is a National Geographic grantee in 2005 for his expedition to retrace ancient trails and look into the state of the Cordillera environment. He has just been awarded a new grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council to study environmental conflicts in the region.

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