BATANG MINDANAW: Reopening Mt. Apo: A decision that refused to listen

Mt. Apo. MindaNews file photo by Bobby Timonera

By Lora Monina P. Arquiza

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 18 April) – If mountains could speak, what would they say? If they had a voice, what is the message? Such is the question that lingered in my thoughts when Mt. Apo was reopened to climbers last April 12. And if Mt. Apo can indeed speak, will we ever listen?

I was surprised to learn that the Mt. Apo Natural Park – Protected Area Management Board (MANP-PAMB) passed a resolution last March 23, which lifted the five-year minimum “indefinite closure” of Mt. Apo to trekkers, effective April 12. Naturally, I had plenty of questions about the reasons behind the decision. Why was the reopening too soon (just a year after the forest fire)? Is the current state of Mt. Apo ready for trekkers? Were there consultations done with the Lumads (Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title or CADT holders), ecologists, and other stakeholders? What can the PAMB and the LGUs do this time to make certain they can protect the mountain from the tragic torment that has ravaged more than 100 hectares of its landscape, reduced its flora to ashes, and gutted century-old trees?

Citing the new management rules of PAMB, they are limiting the number of trekkers to 50 a day and they are imposing a “no camping policy” at the peak area, which will be included in the Unified Trekking Policy of 2015 and the LGU’s Camp Management Plan. They have also introduced new rates for climbing Mt. Apo which, from P1,500, have been raised to P2,000 minimum standard fee for all entry points. Obviously, this is meant to control the number of climbers. But is this a reasonable solution? Not only is there uncertainty about how these new rules can be “strictly” enforced (and whether it can be sustained), but also there’s the lack of transparency about how local communities would benefit from the income.

According to Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) 11 Regional Director Ruth Tawantawan, it was the decision of the Lumads to reopen Mt. Apo. Yet the move to lift the trekking ban brought a wave of criticism from environmental advocates. For instance, according to Maylai Santos, executive director of the Ateneo de Davao University’s Ecoteneo, the grasses were only starting to grow in some parts of the damaged areas during the February 2017 visit by the University of the Philippines Mountaineers.

Here, I believe, lies one issue. Was there genuine consultation? Was the decision really “participatory” as claimed? A decision based on consensus is when Lumads, LGUs, biologists, mountaineers, environmentalists, and other stakeholders come together and shed light on the issue by exploring all sides of healthy arguments. Certainly, there are other alternatives to generating income for poor indigenous peoples.

The developmental concerns of poor Lumads are worthy of public attention. Their appeal highlights their clear need for stable sources of income. At the end of the day, they must provide for their families and secure the future of their children like everyone else. But this reality stays unaddressed. Worst, it is appropriated in pompous debates to justify projects that obviously help only a powerful few (i.e., tour operators and LGUs). In the heat of it all, we have forgotten our poor IP brothers and sisters, and their thirst for economic justice.

One-sided decisions do not create true progress, but barriers. Unless we genuinely include other perspectives, sound solutions will evade us. The beleaguered state of Mt. Apo is evidence enough that we need to see ourselves and the world around us in a new and different light. Perhaps if we learn to expand our horizons, we also learn to see that biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction are two sides of the same coin. And this has been proven by numerous studies (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2010; Bille et al., 2012; Roe et al., 2015). Biodiversity conservation can be a route out of poverty.

To hit two birds with one stone, the government and conservationists can work with local communities (and pay them fairly) in the rehabilitation of Mt. Apo. That way, both biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction can be done together.

So I ask again: If mountains could speak, what would they say? If they had a voice, what is the message? And if Mt. Apo can indeed speak, will we ever listen? If we’re not careful, history will repeat itself and there’s no one to blame but us.

Lora Monina P. Arquiza

[Lora Monina P. Arquiza is a fourth year BS Architecture student from the University of the Philippines in Mindanao. She is interested in culturally responsive school design for indigenous peoples and wishes to explore this topic as her undergraduate thesis.]