Coordination: key to ensuring birdwatchers, tourists not caught in crossfire in Kitanglad

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MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews /17 Feb) – Coordination is key in ensuring birdwatchers and other tourists visiting Mt. Kitanglad’s attractions avoid a repeat of  what happened to seven foreigners and two tour guides who got caught in a crossfire between government forces and the New People’s Army last Friday.

All seven foreigners escaped unhurt while one of the local tour guides was wounded.

Bae Inatlawan Adelina Tarino, spiritual leader of the Bukidnon Daraghuyan tribe and head claimant of the ancestral domain where the bird watching site is located, said the foreigners and their tour operators did not seek a free and prior informed consent (FPIC) from the elders of the tribe before entering the bird watching site in Sitio Mangasa in Barangay Dalwangan.

Obtaining the FPIC is one of two conditions stated in the visitors’ permit approved by the Protected Area Superintendent (PASu) to the group on January 29 for their February 11 to 14 visit. The other is to “coordinate with the local government units (LGUs) in the locality.”

Tarino said she has reminded tour guides helping visitors to submit to the consent process to pay respects to the spirits of the area and to avoid problems.

“I hope they will now learn from this experience. They have ignored our appeal before,” she said citing most of the visitors coordinate only with the tour guides.

According to the visitors’ permit obtained from the PASu office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the group planned to go on bird watching in Mt. Kitanglad . The group’s contact person is Peter Simpsons of United Kingdom and tour guide Carlito Gayramara of Dalwangan. The group was billeted at the Del Monte Lodge for the four-day, three night visit.

Gayramara, whom the PASu described as an expert tour guide, was hit on his left arm. After going through an operation for a broken bone, he was moved to the intensive care unit of the Malaybalay Polymedic General Hospital as of February 14. His family told MindaNews, his son-in-law, Danilo Docenos, also a tour guide who assisted him in guiding the foreigners, suffered some scratches.

Coordinate

Tarino, who is mandatory representative to the Dalwangan barangay council, said the tour guide and the visitors also did not coordinate with the LGU.

“The least they could have done was to log in at the visitors’ log book of the village,” she added, speaking in the vernacular.

Forester Daniel Somera, deputy PASu, said the incident is an eye-opener for all parties involved to improve on the process. He added that obtaining the FPIC, for one, is left to the responsibility of the visitors.

PASu staff admitted that the application for visitors’ permit involves emails, calls, and electronic transfers of the US$ 15 per person permit fee. One staff admitted that they don’t even get to meet the visitors as they proceed to the local guide.

Somera said they are willing to submit to a group effort to discuss possible improvements. He said the city government scheduled a coordination meeting on Monday, February 16, to include representatives from tourism, the DENR, the police, the military and other sectors.

Honolo Cruzin, Malaybalay city tourism officer said there is a need to review the guidelines to receive guests, especially foreigners, who will go on bird watching in Mt. Kitanglad to ensure coordination. She recognized that the PAMB, the policymaking body for the Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park, has existing guidelines on the matter.

“Maybe we will just have to check and review to improve so precautionary measures be strengthened and coordination will be established among parties concerned,” she added.

Cruzin said the city tourism did not know about this group of foreign bird watchers because travel operators went directly to the PASu.

First time

But she noted that this is the first time an incident like this has occurred, that’s why it is “shocking.”

“It was OK and smooth in the past,” she added.

The city government has earmarked funds to help improve road conditions to a lodge near the bird sanctuary for better access. She said they are worried about a travel  advisory asking foreigners to stay away from the mountain.

“I hope everything will be OK soon,” she added, citing the luck that the foreigners were not hurt in the incident.

On Friday, the Gayramara family alleged that soldiers physically abused Docenos after they mistook him as a rebel. A family member who spoke to this reporter via telephone said they did not think there was an encounter at the bird watching site.

Major Jennan Montealto, spokesperson of the 403rd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division of the Philippine Army, denied the allegation via telephone Friday and insisted only Gayramara was guiding the group. He said there was an encounter but no one was hurt from the Army’s side.

Montealto said the Army had clashed with the NPA three days before the incident in nearby Barangay Capitan Anghel, also in this city. He cited that they have continued operations to pursue the rebels.

Tarino said although they could hear gunfire from their village she believed it is in the boundary of Capt. Angel and Dalwangan, outside their ancestral domain.

Peace Zone

With over 125 species of birds, about half of them endemic to the area, including the Philippine Eagle, Mt. Kitanglad is one of the favorite destinations of bird watchers, the DENR noted.

An average of 800 bird watchers visit Kitanglad in a year, 4% of them foreigners, Somera said.

In 2012, the 403rd Brigade submitted to a ritual with the Bukidnon Daraghuyan tribe declaring the area a peace zone.

The military vowed to secure an FPIC  from the Bukidnon-Daraghuyan tribe the next time they will enter their ancestral domain in Mt. Kitanglad.

Col. Romeo Gapuz, then commander of the 403rd Infantry Brigade, made the promise in a ritual of reconciliation held at the Mt. Kitanglad Cultural Heritage Center following the protest from the tribe over the bombing conducted by the military in late April 2012 in parts of their territory.

He admitted then that they need to educate their personnel about the need for FPIC if they enter the sacred grounds of the tribe’s ancestral domain. He said they are also willing to declare the ancestral domain of the tribe as a peace zone, and accused the NPA of allegedly violating it.

Tarino, who described the 2012 bombing as a violation of their culture and an affront to their ancestral territory, said there has been no further violation to the “FPIC before entry” so far. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)

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