June 23, 2024

Benguet caretaker Eric Yap has requested the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Cordillera to ease restrictions over the Mt. Sto. Tomas forest reserve in Tuba following a dialogue with the residents.
In his recent visit to Mt. Sto. Tomas with Tuba Mayor Clarita Sal-ongan, Yap said the residents raised some issues concerning lack of economic activities, as they are not allowed to repair their houses that were partially damaged by the recent typhoons.
The residents shared they have a hard time applying for connection with the Benguet Electric Cooperative due to the permanent environmental protection order (PEPO) issued by the Court of Appeals over the forest reserve in 2015.
Yap said he has been hearing about the residents’ predicaments over the past few years due to the issuance of PEPO. 
He then wrote to DENR-Cordillera Executive Director Ralph Pablo stating the rationale for the issuance of the order is to ensure environmental protection, but it does not, in any way or form, remove the rights of the residents to decent living conditions.
The residents are hard up, especially with the online classes of their children due to the lack of electricity. 
“I formally appeal to your office to immediately issue a clearance certificate that will allow for the installation of power supply in existing households for humanitarian reasons. There were efforts made by the residents in the past but it went to naught with the Department citing the issuance of an order preventing human activities in the area,” Yap said in his letter.
Numerous areas similar to the terrain of Mt. Santo Tomas were allowed to be developed, hence, residents of Sto. Tomas should also be given consideration to have a chance of having a decent living condition.
“It will take a much bigger effort pero we will do our best to relax the implementation and enforcement sana to ensure iyong rights to decent living conditions ng mga residents doon. Ilang dekada na silang nandoon, tapos biglang tinanggalan sila ng kanilang mga karapatan,” Yap said.
Last year, the residents organized themselves into a group called United Community Management of Mt. Sto. Tomas, Inc. aimed to lead in the conservation, protection, and restoration of Mt. Sto. Tomas. 
During its launching in October last year, the group said it plans to ensure the community members are willing to work among themselves and coordinate with concerned agencies to bring a solution to the current PEPO imposed.
The group said it is willing to partner with the DENR on the development plan of the forest while balancing the needs of the community. – Ofelia C. Empian