COMMENTARY: The Sendong tragedy in Mindanao and the ecosystem services of the Bukidnon forests

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/30 December) — Bukidnon, a landlocked province located in the heart of north-central Mindanao, has a total area of 1,049,859 hectares. (This figure is based on the certified data from the DENR-Land Management Bureau). This makes Bukidnon the largest province in Region 10 and the eighth largest in the country in terms of land area. Etymologically, the name “Bukidnon” was derived from a Cebuano-Visayan word “bukid,” which literally means “mountain.”  Indeed, Bukidnon is a landscape of mountains and plateaus, where about 70% of its total land area has an altitude of 500 meters above sea level.

 The Province of Bukidnon is ecologically significant because it is a “headwater province” in Mindanao.  It has six major rivers (the upper and lower Pulangui River, Tagoloan River, Cagayan River, Maridugao River, Davao-Salug River, and Agusan-Cugman River) that flow towards its low-lying neighboring provinces. These rivers receive from about 321 different tributaries that originate from different corners of the province.  The watersheds of these rivers cover about 94 per cent of Bukidnon’s total land area. For this reason, the whole territory of Bukidnon may be considered a “watershed.”

 From an economic perspective, the water resources in Bukidnon are a blessing to its two cities and 20 municipalities. In fact, Bukidnon rivers are supplying water for the domestic needs of at least 550,000 households; 32,382 hectares of irrigated lands; 145,434 hectares of annual and perennial crops; 555 business establishments/agro-industries; 320 livestock farms (e.g., poultries and piggeries); and 3 hydro-electric power generations operated by the NAPOCOR and supplying 30 per cent of Mindanao’s power demand. Moreover, two of these watersheds have direct inter-regional implications: the Pulangui River, which becomes the Rio Grande of Mindanao, drains its water up to Region 11 and ARMM; the Salug River from San Fernando serves as aquifer for Davao City.  Needless to say, the residents of the low-lying provinces in Mindanao are enjoying the ecological services of these major rivers. Hence, by all means, they should be considered stakeholders of the Bukidnon watersheds.

 What if the Bukidnon watersheds would stop delivering their healthy ecological and economic services to their beneficiaries?  This is a real threat.  That is why, as one NGO has emphasized, “It is in the best interest of these adjacent provinces that Bukidnon sustains a significant forest cover to protect the lowlands from such extreme events as well as for Bukidnon’s own sustainability.” This ecological responsibility of the Bukidnon people, however, must be equitably shared by the low-lying neighboring provinces, as they are also considered stakeholders of the Bukidnon watersheds.  We share the gifts of water; we must also share the task of preserving it.

 Right now, the Bukidnon watersheds are at stake.   Based on a reliable research in 2005, the Province of Bukidnon has a remaining natural forest cover of 24.9%, with the following breakdown: 14.23% mossy forest, 2.79% primary forest, and 7.87% secondary forest.  Obviously, this percentage of forest cover is already far lower than the ideal minimum requirement forest cover to maintain an ecologically healthy environment.  With the disappearance of trees, what we can find mostly in the landscape of Bukidnon are vast areas of sugarcane, corn, pineapple, and irrigated rice.

 As Science has repeatedly taught us, water and forests are intimately linked because forests actually serve as efficient watersheds. Expectedly, many provinces in Mindanao are plagued by various forms of ecological disasters as a consequence of severe deforestation in Bukidnon. Moreover, with the severe deforestation in the upland of Bukidnon, its watersheds are also expected to be degraded and this means an eventual drop in the levels of water sources, as well as shortage of water supply in the lowland provinces of Mindanao.Thus, with this critical ecological condition, we are highly susceptible to soil-related disasters as our remaining forest cover could no longer sufficiently contain and absorb the amount of water brought about by typhoons and monsoon rains. For us, the incidence of annual typhoons and heavy monsoon rains could always mean serious soil erosion, flash floods, and disastrous landslides.

 The moral lesson is quite clear: let us protect and take care of our forests if we wish to continually enjoy their ecosystem services! Pope Benedict XVI reminds:  “As we care for creation, we realize that God, through creation, cares for us.” Thus, to care for the Erath and to care for the poor of the Earth are logically inseparable. (Reynaldo D. Raluto is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Malaybalay. He holds a doctor’s degree in theology from the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium). His doctoral dissertation is on ecological theology of liberation in the Philippine context. He is currently assigned as a teacher of systematic theology in the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, Cagayan de Oro City.]