Tokenism in environment conservation: The case of Bukidnon’s major uplands (4)

(4th of five parts: Other issues confronting Bukidnon’s three mountain range)

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/23 April) — In their watershed management and development plans, the local government units having jurisdiction over Mt. Pantaron, Mt. Kitanglad and Mt. Kalatungan identified environment-related problems affecting the water bodies and forestland/uplands. For water bodies, the leading problem is decrease in water quality caused by pollution and contamination, and for forestlands and/or uplands, deforestation and denudation and the attendant loss in biodiversity. Deforestation has further led to soil erosion and siltation of water bodies.

Sources at the LGUs, including municipal and provincial planning and development officials, local legislators, and environment officials attributed the decrease in water quality to siltation, dumping of solid waste and pollution caused by piggeries and other industries. In recent years, there has been a notable increase in the number of multinational agribusiness firms in Bukidnon engaged in pineapple, banana, oil palm and livestock production, in addition to sugar cane plantations owned by local landowners. Their presence may have provided wage incomes to many residents, but the downside to it is the long-term effect on the quality of both surface and ground water.

Continuing degradation of the forests on the other hand was blamed on timber smuggling, illegal occupancy and expansion of agricultural activities into forestlands. In some parts of Kitanglad, in particular in Baungon, illegal occupancy has been caused by misguided tribal leaders who have allowed migrants to enter the protected area as “ancestral domain claimants” in exchange for financial favor. In Kalatungan, there were also reports that some tribal leaders and other individuals were selling lands to migrants.

In the past few decades, fires during the dry months were a major cause of forest destruction in Kitanglad. The first major recorded forest fires occurred during the 1982-83 El Nino phenomenon where some 6,000 hectares of forests burned. The last forest fires struck during the 1998 El Nino phenomenon destroying some 300 hectares of forest and grasslands. According to Felix Mirasol Jr., protected area superintendent of Kitanglad, the great destruction caused bythe1982-83 fires was mainly the result of apathy, i.e. the people simply did not do something to stop or contain it. In 1998, damage was minimized owing to the efforts of the Kitanglad Guard Volunteers and other community members. However, the volunteers lacked firefighting equipment and had to rely on household and farm tools. In some areas, the IPs would perform rituals to ask for rain (so that the fires would stop).

Unsustainable farming methods being practiced by migrants and even the Lumads in Kitanglad, Kalatungan and in Pantaron have also contributed to forest degradation. In Kitanglad, the focus is on producing high value crops with heavy use of chemicals and in Pantaron, corn and root crops.

The Protected Area Management Board of Kitanglad had approved a resolution banning potato production in the buffer zone owing to its adverse effects on the environment. Since potato production requires fallow periods to avoid bacterial wilt, it means farmers will have to open up new areas – usually forestlands – in the next crop season.  It turned out that many of these potato farms were financed by capitalists even though the actual cultivators were Lumads. The capitalist provided not only the inputs but also the technology. As observed, there have been no more potato farms in the buffer zone after the PAMB implemented the policy.

But the problem does not stop there. In the past few years some portions of forestlands in or near the protected area have been converted into resorts and other ventures by rich individuals from Cagayan de Oro City and other places. A concrete example is barangay Dahilayan, Manolo Fortich where a large portion of the forest near Kitanglad’s buffer zone had been cleared with the use of heavy equipment for a planned resort. Local KGVs reported the case to the PAMB and DENR. Then governor Jose Ma. R. Zubiri Jr. ordered an immediate investigation and demanded explanation from the DENR and PAMB. No case has been filed against the capitalist, although the Deputy Ombudsman for Mindanao, reacting to a MindaNews article on the issue, told the DENR officials concerned to explain why.

In addition, with the exception of Malaybalay City, the local governments are yet to declare a clear-cut stand on the mining applications covering Pantaron, an issue that would test their avowed policy to conserve vital watersheds.

Ancestral domain claims

In the case of Kitanglad, an ancestral domain claim covering the entire protected area has remained unresolved. A source, apparently exasperated by the endless debates on the claim, suggested it would be best to repeal the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) to make the policy arena less complex than it appears today. It eluded him that with or without – or perhaps despite – a law like IPRA the Lumads are wont to assert their ancestral domain rights.

The unified claim over Mt. Kitanglad appears complex mainly because of its status as a protected area governed by the Mount Kitanglad Act and earlier by the Nipas Act. The PAMB acts as the policy-making body, although its decisions are subject to the approval of the DENR Secretary. The Protected Area Superintendent, a DENR official, serves as the PAMB’s secretariat and main enforcer of park laws, particularly prohibited acts and payment of user fees. In short, the PAMB is the locus of authority and decision-making.

In a sense, this set-up appears to have marginalized the Lumads or indigenous peoples in as far as the management of Mount Kitanglad is concerned, although they have representatives in the PAMB. Effective decision-making over the fate of the whole area has shifted from the local communities to a management body created by a presidential proclamation and later affirmed by an act of Congress.

This scenario prompted Datu Migketay Victorino Saway, a Talaandig leader, to devise a counterweight to the PAMB’s authority. He saw that the unified claim, once approved, would serve this purpose. In his reckoning, piecemeal claims would weaken the tribes’ bargaining position vis-à-vis the PAMB, local governments and other powerful stakeholders. Thus it may be argued that the unified claim was, wittingly or unwittingly, a political move, an effort that sought to attain greater leverage for the tribes.

Making Pantaron a Protected Area

Former congressman Teofisto Guingona III filed a bill in Congress seeking the declaration of Mt. Pantaron as a protected area in the category of protected landscape. Since the law requires, among others, social acceptance before an area may be placed under protected status, his office commissioned a Malaybalay-based NGO, the Bukidnon Resource Management Foundation Inc. (BRMFI) to conduct community consultations to mobilize local people’s support to the bill.

The consultations organized by BRMFI were area-based and majority of the participants were barangay officials and purok (sub-village) leaders. An average of 20 persons attended the consultations. The lowest number of attendees was nine nd the highest was 39. In 10 instances, there were less than 20 participants. Only on three occasions did the number reach 30 or more. These figures represent but a tiny fraction of the average population in any barangay within the mountain range.

Based on the summary presented by BRMFI, the leading issues that surfaced during the consultations were tenure security of Lumads and migrants (12 barangays) and mining (four barangays). Apprehensions are rife especially among Lumads that making the mountain range a protected area would mean the displacement of local communities. Some tribal leaders said they are afraid it might put restrictions on – or worse, ban altogether – their traditional activities like hunting and gathering of forest products for domestic use.

There are various views on the proposed proclamation of Mt. Pantaron as a protected area. One view states that such measure is necessary to protect the site from mining and other destructive activities. This is the view expressed by Guingona in a meeting with some bishops in Cagayan de Oro City, in early 2009, i.e. legislation is vital in conservation, a view supported by church leaders in Bukidnon.

However, another view contends that policy is useless without political will and serious commitment on the part of the local communities to protect the environment. This view implies the  necessity of strengthening community vigilance and deepening awareness on environment issues. Speaking during the Bukidnon Environment Summit in June 2008, Jesuit priest Peter Walpole, who heads the Environmental Science for Social Change, even cautioned that opting for the protected area might be unfavorable to the Lumads, as it could roll back for years the recognition of their ancestral domain rights.

Meanwhile, some tribal leaders said that they harbor some apprehensions about the bill. They said making Pantaron a protected area might prevent them from further engaging in traditional resource use activities. They expressed this view during a policy orientation on mining in Malaybalay City, on May 6, 2009. Their opposition was not absolute, however; they said they would reconsider their position if it can be guaranteed that making Pantaron a protected area will not economically and culturally displace the Lumads and they will have a bigger say in management and decision-making.

Mirasol admitted that a number of tribal leaders have opposed it but that it was decided to unilaterally resolve the issue by simply excluding their territories from the proposed protected area. Such approach may resolve the issue of acceptability at the moment. In the future, however, problems may yet arise given the fact that relations among tribal communities transcend physical territories. All these suggest the need to undertake broader and in-depth consultations with the Lumad population, in particular their influential leaders.

Enforcement of free and prior informed consent (FPIC)

The state, through IPRA, seeks to empower the IPs. In fact the law requires that any project involving the extraction, development and utilization of resources within an ancestral domain should undergo the process of obtaining consent from the Indigenous Peoples (IPs) within the impact area. For such consent to be valid and genuine it should be free from manipulation, coercion and deceit; it should be secured prior to any activities or projects; and it should be an informed choice which is supposed to be made after fully conducting a comprehensive assessment and evaluation, including the possible adverse effects on the IP communities.

The NCIP came up with the implementing Guidelines in operationalizing the conduct of obtaining the FPIC, promulgated in its Administrative Order No. 1, Series of 2006. The Guidelines provide for a step by step process for securing the FPIC of the indigenous peoples on plans, programs or activities to be introduced into any ancestral domain area, including the exploration and large-scale development or utilization of natural resources within their ancestral land/domain.

The said Guidelines purportedly aim to protect the rights of the indigenous peoples and claim to ensure effective procedure for decision-making process for them.

However, the FPIC process, no matter how elaborately packaged and formulated in the present Guidelines, does not guarantee the exercise of freedom and self-determination of the indigenous communities in the decision-making process. Under the prevailing set up, the NCIP officials, in most cases, are suspected of professing their loyalty to the mining companies and not to the indigenous peoples whom they are supposed to represent. This situation is compounded by the  fact that most, if not all, officials of the national government, including the President of the Philippines, act in their official capacity as avid promoters of the mining industry. (Last part tomorrow: Salient points of concern)