GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/01 April) — Mt. Matutum, South Cotabato province’s highest peak, has been closed indefinitely to trekkers following a series of grass and forest fires that already destroyed at least 10 hectares of the protected area.
Tupi Mayor Reynaldo Tamayo Jr. said Friday the Mt. Matutum Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) ordered the closure starting on Thursday to ensure its protection in the wake of the continuing long dry spell triggered by the El Nino Phenomenon.
He said the board issued the decision following an assessment of the forest and grass fires that hit at least two critical sites in Mt. Matutum in the last two weeks.
“All trekking activities in Mt. Matutum are temporarily banned while the El Nino is raging,” he told reporters.
The mayor, who sits in the PAMB, said the move is aimed to prevent the occurrence of more grass and forest fires, and at the same time ensure the safety of the climbers or trekkers.
He said the closure order will stand for the entire 14,000-hectare Mt. Matutum Protected Landscape, which straddles the towns of of Tupi, Polomolok and Tampakan in South Cotabato, “until we correct the problem there.”
The PAMB is composed of officials and representatives from the three municipalities, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, provincial government of South Cotabato and nongovernment groups.
Based on PAMB’s investigation, the first major grass and forest fire in Mt. Matutum started last March 23 in Purok 7 of Barangay Kinilis in Polomolok.
The fire, which raged for several days, affected around 10 hectares of mostly grassy portions of the protected area.
Another fire erupted last Sunday, March 27, in Purok Bong Datal of Sitio Glandang, Barangay Kablon in Tupi, destroying about one-fourth hectare of a forest area.
The board noted that the fires appeared to be man-made and likely caused by the illegal activities of forest poachers and “kaingineros” or slash-and-burn farmers.
Agustin Valencia Jr., Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) head of Polomolok town, said grass and forest fires in Barangay Kinilis have been totally put out and the situation in the area is now under control.
“Based on our assessment, it appeared intentional as there are claimant residents near the site,” he said.
Through assistance from Bureau of Fire Protection and Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office personnel and barangay volunteers, he said they dug up trenches to serve as barriers from the affected areas.
He said they also deployed at least 30 enforcers to the area to monitor and prevent the occurrence of fire incidents.
In Tupi, MENRO’s forest protection in-charge Maulvi Bajunaid said the fire that hit a portion of Barangay Kablon is also under control but they have not yet declared a total “fire out” as of Friday morning.
“There are still burning embers underground in some portions but we’re continually monitoring the situation there on a daily basis,” he said.
Citing their investigation, he said they earlier found a camp site of suspected forest poachers within the area.
He said they specifically discovered a cooking area with traces of burnt firewood, improvised kerosene lamps and a pile of peeled rattan poles.
Considered as an active volcano, Mt, Matutum has an elevation of 2,286 meters above sea level is listed as the country’s 14th highest peak.
It hosts the headwaters of five major rivers in Region 12 that drain into the Sarangani Bay and the Liguasan Marsh.
Declared as a protected landscape on March 20, 1995 through Proclamation No. 552, Mt. Matutum is home to a number of rare and threatened wildlife species, among them the Philippine Eagle and the tarsiers. (MindaNews)