BATANG MINDANAW: Cry of Mt. Apo: Let it Heal

By Bess A. Tulio

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/ 19 April) — Fire grew bigger by the second as the mountain burned. Animals wailed in pain as they tried to escape the intense heat threatening to kill them in one gulp. Flora and fauna turned into ashes, and Mt. Apo screamed in pain while pieces of her die in one heap of fire. None of us could stop it from spreading.

On a tragic Black Saturday, last March 26, 2016, a fire from a camping site broke loose, which we remember as the fall of Mt. Apo. After almost three weeks trying to contain the fire, fire fighters, volunteers and Indigenous forest guards finally extinguished the flames on April 15. But sadly , more than 100 hectares of forests had been destroyed.

My mother loves mountain climbing, and she said that despite the body aches, the freezing cold, and the gravity pulling you down, it’s always that overwhelming feeling which captivated her every time she conquered mountains and dwelt above its majestic beauty. It’s exhilarating and she wants to experience that whirlwind of emotions again, and again. She keeps coming back.

Before the tragic forest fire, my mom was the last batch who climbed Mt. Apo. A week later the news devastated her.

During her last trek to Mt. Apo, there were 14 of them, including four guides and two porters. The “no trash and no smoking” policy is hypocritical at best; even the so called official guides smoked and they left the cigarette butts, covering it with soil to hide them. In the mountain, there were no trash bins, so much of the garbage was left behind. A few trekkers would bring their thrash down with them but when they are at the foot of the mountain, they tend to leave it there, expecting Mt. Apo to clean its own garbage.

On March 23, 2017, the Mt. Apo Natural Park-Protected Area Management Board (MANP-PAMB) passed a resolution that reopened Mt. Apo for trekkers beginning April 12, 2017.
According to Regional Director Ruth Tawantawan of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Region XI, the Lumads insisted on having the mountain reopened. Tourism may have been the easiest and fastest way of earning money for the Lumads, but what about the welfare of Mt. Apo and the species that depend on it. Who speaks on their behalf? Did authorities neglect the concept of Mt. Apo as sacred and in need of rehabilitation for income’s sake?

You might think closing Mt. Apo to regenerate and heal sounds romantic, and that addressing the livelihood of poor Indigenous peoples justifies ecotourism. But clearly, there are better means of securing Indigenous welfare. The government sectors (local government units, Department of Interior and Local Government, DENR and Department of Tourism) must cooperate to help Indigenous communities earn decent income from sustainable livelihoods. Job opportunities must be created, including hiring locals to perform environmental services (e.g. reforestation, forest guarding, cleanup drives). They need assistance for the marketing of their crops here and/or abroad.

We can learn from the experience of the Indigenous Bagobo Tagabawa of Brgy. Sibulan, Davao City Mt. Apo who sell their organically grown banana abroad. They also market locally grown coffee. Why can’t we patronize locally grown coffee instead of buying expensive ones from Starbucks? Also, at Lake Holon, South Cotabato, authorities implemented a closure order and a rehabilitation program to give back to the Lake. Every year since 2014, they close the lake to ecotourism for several months so it may recover. Why can’t we do the same for Mt. Apo?

This is the ugly truth about this year’s Apo ecotourism: even if they raised rates for climbing Mt. Apo, limit the number of trekkers, that is 50 trekkers at each of six trails, and agree on a “no camping policy” at the peak, Mt Apo deserves more time to heal and repair last year’s damage.

Some trekkers leave trash like it can magically disappear into thin air. Some make their own trail and scar the forest. And many forest seedlings are trampled on. Can’t you hear the cry of Mt. Apo?

(Bess Tulio is a 2nd Year BS Biology student of the University of the Philippines in Mindanao. She is a member of the UP football varsity team, and, like her mom, loves hiking and the outdoors.)