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Reiterating the "green" agenda for the Cordillera
by Delmar Cariño

LA TRINIDAD, BENGUET – Environment officials are getting worried that the bid to disestablish farmed areas of the Mt. Data National Park would trigger a similar move in other protected areas.

Department of Environment and Natural Resources regional executive director Clarence Baguilat said if other areas would follow suit, government efforts to save what remains of critical forest covers in the region would be compromised.

Disestablishment would mean the segregation of occupied areas within the park to make them available for private claims. “I understand the clamor for these lands to be disestablished. But the move could set a dangerous precedent,” Baguilat said.

There are eight protected areas within the region’s 13 major watersheds. They are the Upper Agno River Basin Resource Reserve (77,698 ha.), Mt. Pulag National Park (11,550 ha), Cassamata Hill National Park (57 ha), Balbalasang – Balbalan National Park (20,864 ha), Mt. Data National Park (5,512 ha), Marcos Highway Watershed Forest Reserve (6,105 ha), and the Lower Agno Watershed Forest Reserve (34,304 ha).

In no way these reserves could be reclassified, the DENR said. 

The issue on disestablishment is just one of the major concerns the DENR, politicians, local officials, and other stakeholders must contend with. And judging from today’s elections, all wannabes suddenly brand themselves as “green card” holders. 

The issues are the same though—the enforcement of the Solid Waste Management Act, the shared responsibility for local government units to manage and protect their communal forests, and the task of shouldering the cost of protecting their respective water resources. Observers said the El Niño phenomenon that has imperiled the region’s agriculture and aquatic resources has caught politicians with their pants down. This has forced them to review their track records, or for newcomers, to come up with novel ideas about saving the dirtied rivers or rebuilding the bald mountains.

Some have performed exemplary though. The fire in the political campaign, however, is different from political will. Much seemed to be devoted to lip service. But there’s still hope.   Abraham Akilit, former National Irrigation Administration manager for the Cordillera, shared this piece – that politics could come in many terms. For one, he said, such willpower could be imposed on the community itself.

His example – Bauko’s waters.  Akilit said that while the reforestation of Mt. Data is laudable, there must also be a parallel bid to push for a community-based water management system.

He said that Bauko, his hometown which hosts portions of Mt. Data, actually bears the headwaters of the region’s four major river systems – Chico, Abra, Agno, and Magat. Thus, he said, the town’s indigenous communities, backstopped by a strong leadership, must be made to realize they are also stakeholders with a role to play in protecting their town’s natural wealth of water.

Akilit said local government units must shy away from being too dependent on their internal revenue allotment (IRA) share by learning to manage and derive something commercial from their waters, be it for purposes of irrigation, potable water, industry, or energy.

Akilit said the park should be on top of any reforestation program since it is the region’s most strategic source of water.  He added, “The town is actually the region’s faucet. If such faucet is destroyed, the waters would dry up or would spill elsewhere and become useless.”

The issue on disestablishment notwithstanding, the Regional Development Council had reiterated calls for the Mt. Data National Park’s massive rehabilitation.   Environment officials said the park – already saddled with problems on timber poaching, soil erosion, forest fires, and expanding vegetable farms – might suffer more if the off limits policy would be lifted in some areas. 

More than 2,000 Igorot families are set to petition the Benguet provincial board to pass a resolution that would ask Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to issue a proclamation that would convert and segregate their lands within the park as disposable agricultural land. The farmers, however, have something to offer in return.

Loreto Buya-an, Benguet Farmers Federation Inc. public relations officer, said the families would be willing to enter into a covenant with the government that they would no longer expand their vegetable farms and they would volunteer to become forest guards.

“If their lands would be awarded to them, they would be willing to be trained as forest rangers,” he said.

A survey the provincial environment office conducted in 2003 showed there were 2,284 households that occupied 1,851.95 ha. of the national park. 

The survey said the households lived in the barangays of Tublay, Buguias, Bakun, Kibungan, Atok, and Mankayan towns in Benguet, and Bauko and Sabangan towns in Mountain Province. The farmers wanted to own the lands since their families have stayed there since time immemorial and thus they obtained prior rights or native title, Buya-an said.

Guillermo Fianza, Benguet provincial environment and natural resources officer, said the issue was not new since the DENR was advised of the clamor as early as 10 years ago.

But the release of the built up areas all depended on the President, he said.  The question is, on which side would our leaders be?

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