Retiree brings back forest in Sarangani grassland

MALUNGON, Sarangani (MindaNews / 3 Nov) – After years of jet-setting the Asia Pacific region as a senior official of a global semiconductor company, Edmundo Cejar retired to a lowkey, unhurried lifestyle in this landlocked town with vast rolling hills of barren land about two decades ago.

The land in Malungon, Sarangani province was barren when the Cejar family acquired it in 2000. Photographed by Edmundo Cejar in 2003. MindaNews photo

He acquired a property in the village of Nagpan, a community inhabited mostly by the ethnic Blaan tribe. Their place is overlooking a river, which he would eventually turn into an ecotourism site.

When Cejar, his wife and their three daughters decided to settle in their 15-hectare property here in 2003, the land, which they acquired in 2000, was basically covered by the invasive cogongrass (Imperata cylindrica). Grass fires had not spared the village owing to the wide swath of cogongrass that would easily burn and spread fast especially during longer dry spells.

To make matters worse, the trees that dotted the grassland have been felled by the Blaan tribesmen to give way to farming. The tribesmen cultivate corn, sweet potato and cassava, among others.

Eager to make the family’s surrounding environment healthier, Cejar conducted research on the best ways to vegetate barren lands. He experimented on his discoveries, until he found out that the best formula “is to do nothing.”

“Leave nature alone and it will heal itself,” he told MindaNews in an open hut within their property, the natural sounds of humming birds and the gushing river nearby filling the air.

He puts it into motion in 2006 and seven years later, their property that was once a barren land of cogongrass and shrubs has been teeming with forest trees.

“In our own little way, this is our small contribution to curb the impact of changing climate,” the Earth warrior said.

This is now part of the RioVista Farm and Forest, circa 2015, where lush greeneries cover what used to be a barren land. MindaNews photo courtesy of Edmundo Cejar

For world leaders and environmentalists, all roads lead to Glasgow, Scotland for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, from October 31 to November 12, 2021. The COP26 summit will bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The Paris Agreement is an internationally binding agreement on climate change, which the Philippines is a party to after ratifying it in 2017. Nearly all countries in the world are party to the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, who heads the Philippine delegation to COP26, reiterated the country’s call for urgent global climate action, particularly asking Western economies largely responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions to act now in significantly reducing their carbon footprints.

In a statement, he also emphasized the need for these developed economies to make good on their commitments to extend the financing needed by climate-vulnerable countries, such as the Philippines, to transition to a clean energy future.

Dominguez said he expects the participants in this year’s climate change meeting “to stop talking and start acting now.”

Edmundo Cejar explains how he and his family restored the forest in their property that was once a barren land. Photographed July 2021. MindaNews photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

Farm and forest

In his bucolic retirement place, the septuagenarian Cejar, in his own small way, is helping reduce the country’s carbon footprints, by restoring the forest and planting other tree species along with it.

With the transformation of their property – now around 47 hectares due to additional acquisitions over the years – from a barren land to one surrounded with lush greeneries, Cejar opened it as an agriculture and ecotourism site in 2012.

The family named the place RioVista Farm and Forest. In Spanish, “rio vista” means overlooking the river.

So how did Cejar and his family transform their place?

Through “sylvigenesis,” which he described as the process of natural regeneration of forests.

Cejar said the three basic principles for the sylvigenesis process that they strictly followed are the “no burning, no grazing and no cutting” for a period of time. At least seven years in their case.

“The seeds of primary forest trees are just underneath, like they are just sleeping below the surface,” he said, adding that they were not given the chance to sprout because of the invasive cogongrass.

Trees need a cool environment to sprout, which is achieved with sylvigenesis, he said.

When there is no burning, grasses and shrubs will thrive; when shrubs multiply and provide shade, the grasses will die because they are deprived of sunlight; the seeds of pioneering or primary forest trees will then begin to sprout with the weeds no longer around, Cejar explained.

“The whole process cost us nothing. It’s a zero-cost reforestation. We simply allowed nature to heal itself,” he said.

High school students learn about the forest and the farm at RioVista. Photo from the RioVista Facebook page

With the growth of the primary forest, Cejar, with the help of a few farmhands, then introduced other hardwood species such as narra, mahogany, lauan and molave, among others.

Wild flowers, bees, butterflies, snakes like cobra, flying lizards and at least 15 bird species have been spotted thriving in the reforested area, Cejar said.

They also planted fruit-bearing trees such as pomelo, coconut, cacao, langka (jack fruit) and lanzones, among others.

Various vegetables are also grown and native chickens are raised at RioVista Farm and Forest.

“What was once a silent field of cogongrass is now filled with a cacophony of wildlife sound. It has also become a productive farm for us,” Cejar said,

In 2016, the Agricultural Training Institute, an agency under the Department of Agriculture, designated RioVista Farm and Forest as an organic agriculture learning site. The Department of Tourism also accredited it as an ecotourism site in Region 12.

Hundreds of students from different schools around the region have undergone organic agriculture trainings at RioVista Farm and Forest, which was hampered with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

While the students learn the rudiments of organic agriculture, they also get a dose on how to take care or make the environment healthier.

“We need to educate people, especially the young ones, on how to take good care of the environment,” Cejar said.

By and large, the Blaan tribal community around RioVista has become receptive to making their village lush with green again, inspired by the retiree’s green thumb. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)