December 8, 2022

GUARDING THE FORESTS AND WATERSHEDS OF BENGUET

AThe Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ putting its foot down in implementing the conditions set in the Permanent Environment Protection Order (PEPO) over Mt. Sto. Tomas forest reserve in Tuba, Benguet should set the tone for concerned stakeholders especially local government units and host communities to realize that protecting the environment is not the responsibility of just a few entities.
There is a reason for the safeguards being imposed at Mt. Sto Tomas – to avoid a repeat of the influx of people at the site when the area became an instant tourist attraction and the community being a major participant in the area’s destruction by conducting business thereat and not lifting a finger when stores mushroomed in the once secluded area.
With the current lobbying efforts by people affected by the PEPO, it appears that interest in protecting the biodiversity at Mt. Sto. Tomas is waning, if not totally gone, in favor of human settlements and business. We hate to think that only a few people care now.
Despite incessant lobbying by people affected by the order for the agency to relax the PEPO’s implementation, it is a relief to know that the DENR stays true to its mandate of safeguarding the environment. However, complaints on the selective implementation of the conditions is something the DENR should explain or investigate and if necessary, hold accountable those who circumvent the rules.
We have heard about the expansion of vegetable gardens as well as the haphazard use of chemical farm inputs that seep into the ground and eventually find its way into water sources. There were also incidents in the past of the intentional killing of trees through girdling.
The rigorous conditions on the repair of houses and the holding of public activities at Mt. Sto. Tomas should also apply at the agricultural areas.
We focused the spotlight on Benguet because among the Cordillera provin-ces, Benguet’s forests and watersheds are the most threatened, owing to the fact that because of urbanization and increasing economic activities, human settlements are finding its way to the protected areas.
The issue in Mt. Sto. Tomas is also happening in other critical forest reserves and watersheds such as at Mt. Pulag, the Benguet side of Busol, and the Puguis communal forest, among other areas. If human activities are unabated, then it is inevitable that in only a few years, the disasters that Benguet has been experiencing as a result of the loss of forest cover and massive excavation of its mineral-rich mountains will bring more destruction.
When a ranking official asked the DENR to ease the restrictions, he should have done his research first so he will understand why the PEPO was issued. The better approach would have been to educate the people on how they can help conserve the forest and watershed, not to violate a court-issued decree.
When they are able to prove that they are one with concerned authorities in protecting and conserving the forest, then perhaps rules might even be relaxed.
There is a mountain of literature proving that Benguet is one of the areas in the country that is vulnerable to disasters. The focus now should be to mobilize the communities and make them do their part in protecting their home.
In some areas, the indigenous ways of protecting forests are still being practiced. We hope the people of Benguet will continue to practice any of these indigenous knowledge systems so that future generations will still set foot on its forests, bathe in its waterfalls, and bask in the natural beauty that the province has to offer.

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