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Eco–Walk: Like a small seed that has grown into a mighty tree of success
by Harley Palangchao

Long before the Department of Environment and Natural Resources thought of building the ’Green Army’ composed of hundreds of Forestry graduates to oversee the reforestation of the country’s eight million hectares of denuded forest, Baguio City had already been ‘walking the talk’ that practiced a concept envisioned by community members who saw the need to conserve and preserve the city’s critical forest and watersheds.

The concept goes beyond just the tree-planting activity so often done by advocates. It revolves around the whole idea of making kids understand the significance of trees and the role they play in keeping a balanced ecology. This learning part is not inside the classroom, but right in the setting where the water cycle happens – in the Busol watershed, and in a manner every child enjoys – a walk in the forest.

This is the Eco-Walk Program, a concept journalist Ramon Dacawi and some old time journalists formed during drinking sessions in the aftermath of the 1990 killer quake. It was then that this group of journalists decided to ‘walk the talk,’ so to speak, to spare the city from environmental degradation. They then moved beyond reportage and embarked on advocacy journalism for love of the city.

With most highly urbanized cities like Baguio battling to save their remaining green patches, this child-oriented environment learning project is keeping the hope that critical forests can be saved, and more communities and local government units are now inspired to replicate the program.

The program was started and continues at the Busol watershed where children from all ‘walks of life’ here enjoy the camaraderie while silently planting trees and internalizing the values that will help preserve the remaining patches of forest in this mountain resort.

A walk through the forest has several things going to make it doable and sustainable. Children naturally love the outdoors, a respite from classroom doldrums, and thus it does not need big funding to get the children out for a walk to the forest. And as they do so, they learn about the responsibility of preserving the forest not just for the present but for future generations.

"We cannot afford to deny the right of a child to learn simply because of the lack or absence of a budget. Teaching these kids the proper way to plant a tree is enough reason for the program to continue and grow," said Dacawi, who is the program director.

The birth and success of Eco-Walk Dacawi explained the Eco-Walk concept was derived from the traditional forest management systems of the indigenous peoples of the Cordilleras and other parts of the world. It was inspired by the traditional muyong or pinugo forest systems practiced by the Ifugaos that continue to sustain year–round irrigation for the world-famous Banaue Rice Terraces. Similarly, the tayan, lakun, and batangan systems of Mountain Province and the lapat of the Apayao villagers are indigenous practices that preserve their forests and natural resources. The Eco–Walk was also inspired by the "walk–about" of the aboriginal youths in Australia.

These time–tested traditional forest management systems were proven to be effective long before the creation of the DENR. In fact it is mostly in indigenous communities that the last forests of the country and the world remain intact.

While the adults take the lead role in these time-proven community–based forest management systems, the Eco-Walk allows children to lead in environmental conservation, which has inspired leaders and the adult sectors of the community to support the program and heighten community commitment to environmental concerns.

A case study says that Eco–Walk contradicts the traditional notion that children are merely passive recipients of development. They are often viewed as vulnerable and weak. But in Baguio, the children are the primary stakeholders who serve as powerful symbols in saving the city’s dwindling forest.

People who have come to learn of the program also saw the sense in how highly–urbanized cities like Baguio battle to save their remaining green patches, inspiring more and more communities and local government units to replicate the program.

With Eco-Walk, people are realizing that the benefits derived from urban trees provide a return three to four times greater than when cut to pave way for human settlements or business establishments.

A year after its inception, Eco-Walk received the 1993 Gawad Oscar Florendo national award from the Public Relations Organization of the Philippines. Three years later, the program also received the 1996 Galing Pook national award as one of the country’s most innovative and effective local government programs. The award was handled by the Asian Institute of Management and the Local Government Academy of the Department of the Interior and Local Government and is supported by the Ford Foundation.

News about the success of the Eco-Walk came at a time when world leaders and international environmentalists were being alarmed by the global effects of Climate Change. Urban leaders and local government officials started visiting Baguio to learn from the doable and non-capital intensive program that has boosted not only environment awareness here but also the city’s eco-tourism.

In a span of one year from May 1999 to May 2010, more than 170 groups composed of close to 5,000 came up to Baguio to learn the program design of the Eco-Walk. They were mostly officials of other LGUs. The program also influenced the establishments of tree farms like mahogany plantation in Tuba, Benguet; mango plantation in Tadian; and eucalyptus farms in Bontoc, both in Mountain Province.

"Eco-Walk was never intended as a tourism come-on for Baguio, yet thousands of officials and employees from other LGUs in the entire archipelago have been visiting Baguio to learn how the program works," Dacawi said.

For its success, Eco-Walk has been used as a case study at AIM and by the Swedish International Development Agency in its international watershed management course. Inspired, pupils from Rizal Elementary School who pioneered the program together with the journalists-cum-volunteers were motivated to encourage more children of Baguio to take an active role in environmental conservation. Parents find this now a happy solution to their kids’ getting hooked on computer and online games.

A decade later, Eco-Walk received its greatest recognition so far from the United Nations through the Global 500 Roll of Honour Award for Environmental Achievement during the International World Earth Day celebration in Shenzhen, China in 2002. And this came a year after the program won for Dacawi as program director the 2001 Lingkod Bayan award from the Civil Service Commission.

On hand to receive the award in China were Dacawi and Tam Jewel Tibaldo, one of the children who actively supported the Eco-Walk in its pioneering stage. Tam Jewel, who recently graduated from Nursing, was 12 years old at that time. Ten years later, Tam Jewel has this to say:

"Children of Baguio have the same ‘awareness’ as I did and showed before but not exactly the same enthusiasm really when it comes to preserving the remaining watersheds and forests in our beloved city. Baguio is a center of education here in the North, and we have to admit that a great percentage of the youth in the city are not Baguio-born or raised here.

I wonder if they know or have heard of Busol Watershed and its significance to us here." Tam Jewel, who was once the "poster girl" of the Eco-Walk, said that children of Baguio need the enthusiasm to keep the program going. "Enthusiasm is a religious devotion in the pursuit of an interest. Kumbaga po sa ating mga Pilipino, ‘panata’. If you’re enthusiastic about something, you religiously act on it or about it that it becomes part of a person na. As a kid, kapag sinabi po ng mga magulang ko na punta tayo sa Busol, parang ang dating po eh tambayan siya, like the restaurants we go to or it was also like an extension of my parents’ office," she added.

Challenges
The continued encroachment of human settlers to the critical portions of Busol watershed is the biggest threat in this forest reservation, a critical watershed of the city, which serves as an open classroom for children who actually see, touch and identify the trees and plants.

Recent DENR reports revealed that Busol is one of the country’s many threatened forests in the world. The Conservation International recently reported that unabated human activities and years of logging have degraded millions of hectares of forests in the country.

Dacawi said that one of the major challenges in pursuing the program is the lack of financial support either from the government or private sector.

But then again, Dacawi said the program is being run out of volunteerism, adding that the enthusiasm being shown by children serves as an inspiration and a rallying point why the program has been adopted by indigenous villages and in some parts of the globe.

A little funding can go a long way
Over the years, the uphill battle to preserve the remaining forests and watersheds in the Cordillera region has inspired environment advocates to work for corporate sponsorships to support their environmental programs, but little has been done to achieve their objectives.

But for the people behind the Eco-Walk program, a little funding can go a long way if only those who are willing to help preserve and rebuild the forests of the Cordilleras would invest on local existing pro-environmental projects with already a track record for good results.

True enough, even without the much needed funding, the project has drawn close to 100,000 persons to visit Baguio to learn from the Eco-Walk, a proof that the program continues to inspire and change the way LGUs and groups act towards preserving and conserving the remaining green patches in urban areas.

"The program needs funding. But we always believe that funding should not be a major problem. Eco-Walk started without funding and runs within the givens. Funding sometimes ruins a project," said Dacawi, adding that the program started in a simple way but grows with a great impact.
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