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Our Cordillera forefathers have an answer to Climate Change
by Harley Palangchao

Long before scientists and environmentalists warned of Climate Change with an urgent plea for mitigation measures, our great forefathers in the northern highlands have adopted traditional forest management systems which are now considered most practical and doable mitigation activities against the global phenomenon.

Passed through generations involving families and clans, these old forest management systems are now being encouraged to be replicated by indigenous cultural communities in various parts of the Cordillera region while the government is encouraging for possible replication of these practices in other parts of the country.

Despite threats by human activities and large-scale developments in the northern highlands, indigenous communities were able to practice five traditional forest management systems which greatly contributed in preserving the grandeur of nature.

These traditional practices are called muyong in Ifugao; tayan or batangan in Mountain Province; lapat in Abra and Apayao; imong in Kalinga; and kidjuhan or kijuwan in Benguet.

Except for the lapat system that includes the bodies of water, the commonalities of these indigenous community-based forest management systems is that tribesmen adopt a forest, plant it with trees, enrich it further, and protect these woodslands to ensure their long-term sustainability.

The muyong system has been integrated in the Eco-Walk program that aims to preserve and protect Baguio’s most critical Busol watershed since 1992 but more efforts have to be done to convince more Cordillerans, especially those in urban areas to take a stand and act to mitigate the impacts of Climate Change.

If a random survey on Climate Change will be conducted today, only a few people would care to answer questions and you would expect poor results in terms of level of awareness on this global phenomenon.

In fact, when former Baguio mayor Reinaldo Bautista Jr. warned two years ago that this mountain resort and other urban areas in the northern highlands would suffer most from the effects of Climate Change, only a few quarters were motivated to act.

The reason: There is an “inconvenient truth” of an apparent lack of interest and time for people to listen to Climate Change issues because technicalities and scientific issues only known to experts are overshadowing the human face of the phenomenon.

To remedy the problem, the former youthful mayor did his best to humanize Climate Change by telling people in series of public speaking engagements that the more than 300,000 daytime population of Baguio is likely to increase once the temperature in the lowlands rises because of global warming. He added there’s a possibility of unabated migration to areas with relatively temperate climate like Baguio and other urban areas in nearby Benguet province.

Professor and chemical engineer Aurora Felisa Jonson-Reyes, a consultant on Environmental Education for Sustainable Deve-lopment, agreed with the former when she said Baguio is likely to become a site for “environmental refugees” as the migration of more people here looms if no holistic Climate Change mitigation and adaptation measures will be adopted both by the city and the local government units in the lowlands.

Reyes also said that one possible negative effect of Climate Change in areas with high migration rate is the spread of more diseases.

Experts earlier warned of the spread of vector-borne infectious diseases including dengue and malaria due to rising temperatures and humidity in developing countries like the Philippines.

“And if Baguio will reach the point of being not able to contain a population beyond its maximum capacity, this may cause a change in pattern of consumption as more people will be in search for clean water, food, and safer land for human settlement beyond what the city can offer,” Reyes said.

With Baguio starting to feel the brunt of Climate Change, Reyes, said that people must realize that the global problem can be mitigated if people come together in true spirit of unity and compassion.

“In times of serious problems caused by Climate Change, we do not go beyond division. Instead, it gives us a signal to support the call for change. We must realize that we live our life for the environment and not the other way around,” she said.

Urban sprawl hastens effects of Climate Change

Igorot environmental scientist, Dr. Michael Bengwayan, director of PINE TREE Cordillera Ecological Center, for his part, said that other LGUs, especially in developing urban areas in the Cordilleras must learn from the “urban sprawl” that is likely to hasten the effects of Climate Change in Baguio.

Experts define urban sprawl as the “pattern and pace of land development in which the rate of land consumed for urban purposes exceeds the rate of population growth and which results in an inefficient and consumptive use of land and its associated resources.”

Bengwayan said the city government of Baguio must take seriously the projected effects of Climate Change, saying that by this time, almost 80 percent of the city’s total land area of 57.5 square kilometers is built with structures for human settlement and for businesses while the remaining land area is forest covers and reservations.

“There are more people than trees in Baguio,” he said.

The environmental scientist said that Baguio and other urban areas in the northern highlands lack localized concrete actions on the ground to mitigate the effects of Climate Change. “It appears that only a few locally or community-led reforestation projects are supported by the local governments,” he said.

What saddens advocates for environmental protection is that many LGUs only fund supposed pro-environment projects proposed by legislators or chief executives and not local initiatives.

“We are witnesses on how concerned government offices or agencies spent millions in buying species of trees with no high survival rates in our locality. It’s a waste of money but we can’t blame the government because it was supposed by top officials,” he added.

Bengwayan said there is a noted imbalance in Baguio’s ecosystem, owing it to urban sprawl. “The number one enemy of ecosystem is urban sprawl,” he said, even as he warned that Climate Change might affect the complex set of relationship among the living resources, habitats, and residents in Baguio.

Taking a long leave from works abroad, Bengwayan is currently dedicating most of his time training the youth and elder on eco-friendly farming in his open classroom near his residence at Longlong, Puguis, La Trinidad, Benguet. He also holds journalism seminars with focus on developmental issues.

Less than a kilometer from his house is a road overlooking the La Trinidad valley.

And by some indications, La Trinidad is experiencing urban sprawl as evidence by the presence of houses in areas identified as geo-hazard or not suited for human settlement.

Residents of Barangay Puguis are witnesses to how close to 80 lives were claimed by a huge mountain slide in Little Kibungan during Typhoon Pepeng in October 2009. Prior to the disaster, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources claimed the area has been declared to be unfit for human settlement due to a landslide incident in the previous years.

Undeniably, concerned officials – be it in Baguio or Benguet – know why people in urban areas are taking the risk of dwelling in urban areas not because they do not value their lives and properties reason why they stay in areas not fit for human settlement but because they have nowhere else to go.

Youthful Igorot Napoleon Paris, who attended a Climate Change seminar in Jakarta, Indonesia in January with Al Gore as the primary speaker, has something to share on localizing climate change mitigation and adaptation.

“Farmers can hardly understand the technicalities of Climate Change. But if you tell them that the dry spell in rivers and increasing temperature levels are caused by this problem, then they will start showing signs of interest to know more about it,” said Paris, who was once a faculty of the Saint Louis High School – Pacdal.

Paris, who is now active with the non-government organization Tuklasan at Ugnayan ng mga Kulturang Lahi at Sining nga mga Katutubo, said that result of a random survey he conducted to more or less 200 local respondents showed a poor understanding about Climate Change. “They have little knowledge about Climate Change while some of the respondents show less care about it because they thought it’s the problem of highly industrialized countries,” he said.

He showed a sample of an audio visual presentation on Climate Chaznge exclusively distributed to the Jakarta forum participants. “The challenge here is how we will localize the presentation to put human touch on it so that it would be easily understood by the public,” he said.

Paris, meanwhile, shared the same view of other environmental advocates that Baguio and other urban areas must be prepared to face the consequences of migration saying that the study shows that at least one million people are affected for every increase by one meter of the sea level.

LGUs starting to respond

As the effects of Climate Change in the region are considered inevitable, city mayor Mauricio Domogan signed an administrative order creating a localized task force on climate change adaptation. The move is consistent to the city’s commitment to support the the implementation of the “Asian Cities Adapt” project which aims to benefit the general public and address the serious negative impact of Climate Change.

The Asian Cities Adapt project is partly aimed to better manage the impacts of climate change; to strengthen awareness and the knowledge about potential riszks at the local level; and to promote the exchange of knowledge between cities.

In Benguet, the provincial government sponsored late last year a Climate Change forum that gathered municipal local government units, non-government organizations, and concerned line agencies to plan mitigation and adaptation measures in response to this global phenomenon.

As a result, participants were able to identify localized adaptation measures like revisiting of national and local legislations, lasting solid waste management, watershed and forest management, regulation of small-scale mining activities, and development of renewable sources of energy.

But as one environmental advocate claims it, these supposed “Western-inspired” adaptation measures requires huge funding and lot of resources compared to the traditional forest management system which requires a little of our time to plant trees and assure high survival rate as our future investment to the next generation.

Thus, going back to age old practices of indigenous communities in the region is a better answer to Climate Change.
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