Tokenism in environment conservation: The case of Bukidnon’s major uplands

Last of five parts: Salient points of concern

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/24 April) — Aside from forestry laws and the National Integrated Protected Areas Act, there are other policies at the local and national levels that seek to preserve the country’s remaining forestlands. With the onset of climate change and its adverse impacts, there has since emerged a stronger demand for a serious implementation of these policies.

During the Bukidnon Environment Summit in June 2008, participants from both government and nongovernment agencies recommended among others the clear delineation of watersheds and increasing the province’s forest cover to at least 40 percent – the ideal forest cover for an area with a mountainous topography like Bukidnon.— to mitigate the effects of climate change. Policymakers need to take a closer examination however of some developments which may prevent the attainment of such goals.

Threats to Pantaron Range

A road project that cuts across Pantaron Range started in late 2009. Spanning 67 kilometers including parts of Mt. Tago and Pantaron Range, it will reportedly cost P350 million and will connect Malaybalay City, via Impasugong, to Esperanza, Agusan del Sur. It will pass through theupland villages of Kalabugao, Manalog, and Bulonay at the foot of the mountain range, which is considered home to the country’s few remaining mossy forests.

DENR-10’s Environment Management Bureau issued an Environmental Compliance Certificate [for the project] without the benefit of public hearings, members of the provincial board said in a resolution passed  in October 2009.

The project is reportedly a farm-to-market road, although there are no large-scale agricultural activities nearby. And if the intention is to enable farmers in Esperanza to sell their produce in Malaybalay or other towns of Bukidnon, it would look more impractical because Butuan City would be a much easier destination for them. The same logic holds true for the farmers in Malaybalay, who have more than enough markets and buyers in the city, province and in Cagayan de Oro City.

There is simply no significant economic benefit that the project will bring to landless farmers from both sides of the mountain range and with it the gradual destruction of the forests. What is foreseeable in the near future is that the road will abet the entry of migrants. It may likewise invite urban-based investors like resort developers as well as rich individuals who love to build luxurious hideaways in mountainous places.  Note, for example, how the much improved Davao-Bukidnon road and the unpaved yet passable artery leading to the forests of Barangay Dahilayan in Manolo Fortich, Bukidnon, have caused several private resorts to sprout in these areas.

Critics of the project pointed out that an alternative is to improve an existing road network from Can-ayan in Cabanglasan to Agusan del Sur instead of building a new one that cuts across primary forests. But if the proponents insist on the new road despite the absence of good economic sense and adverse, long-term ecological impact, local church leaders would be justified in their fears that a bigger agenda lurks behind it, i.e. it is going to be a “mining highway”.

On the technical and legal side, it would appear that the project suffers serious defects. First, as cited earlier, EMB issued an ECC sans the required public hearings. Second, the local governments were not consulted on the project contrary to the Local Government Code.

This was pointed out by Provincial Board Members Nemesio Beltran Jr. and Rogelio Lago in the board’s session on October 14, 2009. Third, it is not clear if the project has obtained the consent of indigenous communities in the area.

The project contradicts the Bukidnon Watershed Management Framework Plan, which considers the forest area the major source of the headwaters of the Pulangi River System. The plan prioritizes the retention of the existing forest cover of the area especially the river’s headwater source in Malitbog, Impasugong, and Malaybalay.

Moreover, the whole breadth and width of Pantaron Range has been applied for mining exploration permits by various firms. As of September 2009, according to the Environmental Science for Social Change, there were already 36 applications. Incidentally, these applications cover large areas of forestlands and ancestral domains.

Unregulated entry of agribusiness firms

Various plantations and livestock farms are now operating in the periphery of the mountain ranges, for example, in areas near Mt. Kitanglad. Considering the volume of water needed by these industries, there looms the possibility of conflict on water use between them and  the local communities. Furthermore, their presence threatens not only the sustainability of water supply but also water quality owing to farm chemicals which may seep into the ground or find their way into rivers and creeks. This situation requires a closer look especially since Mt. Kitanglad is being eyed as the region’s vegetable bowl, which means additional pressure on its water supply.

In relation to the entry of more agribusiness firms, some local communities have complained that agribusiness firms are consuming big volumes of water emanating from the park for their plantations and  animal farms. They expressed apprehensions there may not enough water for them in the future if water extraction by these companies would not be regulated. At the height of the 2005 El Nino phenomenon members of the Bukidnon tribe in Dalwangan, Malaybalay City complained that they could hardly get enough water from Sawaga River because the bulk of the water supply went to a nearby plantation.

With the emergence of this conflict over water rights, there is a need to assess the implications of the regional plan that eyes Mt. Kitanglad as a major vegetable production area vis-à-vis conservation goals. The regional development plan itself acknowledges the “apparent inability of regulating agencies to implement zoning laws”.

Enforcement of forestry and protected area laws

In both Mt. Kitanglad and Mt. Kalatungan, forest protection work has been performed mainly by volunteers, most of them Lumads. Despite receiving meager allowances and other incentives they have been effective in minimizing the occurrence of violations such as selling of forestlands, timber poaching and encroachment of agriculture and other economic into forestlands. Still, there remains the need to come up with a scheme that will sustain their enthusiasm to involve actively in forest protection.

Twelve years after the passage of Ipra, there remains the perception that it is irreconcilable with the Nipas Act. By extension, granting ancestral domain rights is viewed as incompatible with the legal framework that forestlands, where most ancestral domains are located, are owned by the state. However, while it may appear that the question is legal the real issue behind could be political, i.e. it is feared that granting such rights will mean a diminution of government power over tribal lands.

On paper the protected area system and other legislated environment protection and conservation measures may look impressive. Yet these are saddled by shortcomings and weaknesses not least of which is the absence of serious government attention in the form of sufficient funding. For instance, even with the passage of Republic Act 8978 (Mt. Kitanglad Act) the protected area has not received funding from the national government for its operations except that for the salaries and wages of its personnel. Funding for operations since 2002 has come from the provincial, city and municipal governments in varying amounts.

Strengthening management planning for protected areas

More than two decades have passed since the Philippines institutionalized the creation of protected areas through the Nipas Act, enabling many of them to set up and develop sound management  structures and practices.

“However,” Neil Aldrin D Mallari of Fauna and Flora International notes, “it is apparent there is an absence of a strong, scientifically defensible set of conservation planning tools for many of these protected areas. This gap between management systems/infrastructure and science-based conservation planning clearly undermines the efficacy of protected areas. This is the same criticism made of many protected areas especially in the developing world where there is a dearth of technical experience and expertise to support and guide conservation planning…and worst, no systems in place to measure the impacts of the various conservation activities to biodiversity.” (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)