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

(First of five parts)

Bukidnon lies in the central part of Mindanao. Categorized as a first class province, it has 20 municipalities and two component cities and is divided into three congressional districts. As a landlocked area, it plays a crucial role as a physical artery that facilitates economic and other exchanges between the northern and southern regions of Mindanao, aided in large part by the improved condition of roads leading to Davao City and Cotabato provinces.

Agriculture remains the primary source of income for majority of the inhabitants. Globalization, however, triggered the entry of more plantations, breaking Del Monte Philippines’ long-standing monopoly on plantation level production intended for exports. Aside from these foreign-owned agribusiness ventures, the presence of two sugar refineries in Bukidnon is also eating up vast tracks of land in practically all towns and both cities of the province.

Agribusiness firms have been attracted to Bukidnon owing to its mountainous topography that hosts several river systems that support agriculture, electric power generation and other economic activities.

The presence of these companies will likely put a stress on such finite resources as land and water, aside from compromising local food security and engendering a host of social problems with the displacement of more and more vulnerable sectors, in particular subsistence farmers, small landowners and the indigenous peoples.

Biodiversity sanctuaries

Bukidnon hosts some of the island’s remaining rainforests that are home to diverse species of wildlife. Mount Kitanglad Range, Mount Kalatungan Range and Pantaron Range (Pantadon to the Lumads or indigenous peoples) still harbor intact primary forests, remnants of the commercial logging enterprises which plagued Bukidnon until the late 1980s. Most other areas outside of these ecological niches are already denuded based on a very recent satellite map prepared by the Ateneo de Manila-based Environmental Science for Social Change. Interestingly, the areas where primary forests have remained largely intact are predominantly inhabited by Lumads.

That it has only been recently that these areas, in particular Mounts Kitanglad and Kalatungan, have been placed under a state-defined management regime suggests the efficacy of indigenous resource management designs in conserving nature’s wealth.

Mt. Kalatungan and Mt. Kitanglad are both protected areas. However, the latter is already a full-fledged protected area by virtue of Republic Act 8978 while the former is still an interim one, i.e., it still lacks a specific law of its own.

Mt. Kitanglad encompasses 47,270 hectares covering the North-Central portion of Bukidnon. It includes parts of the municipalities of Baungon, Talakag, Lantapan, Impasug-ong, Sumilao, Libona, and Manolo Fortich and the City of Malaybalay. These eight share boundaries at the summit.

Lumads belonging to the Talaandig, Higaonon and Bukidnon tribes inhabit Mt. Kitanglad. These ethnic groups share common historical and cultural ties and all regard the mountain range as the wellspring of their traditions.

Mt. Kalatungan, a mountain range south of Mt. Kitanglad, has an area of 24,802.50 hectares excluding the buffer zone and covers parts of the city of Valencia and the municipalities of Pangantucan, Maramag and Talakag. Manobo (Menuvu) and Talaandig Lumads inhabit the place.

 

As can be seen, Talakag occupies a unique status, as it has jurisdiction over both Mt. Kalatungan and Mt. Kitanglad.

Mt. Pantaron, which lies east of Bukidnon, falls within the jurisdiction of Malaybalay City and the municipalities of Cabanglasan, San Fernando and Impasugong (which, like Malaybalay, also has authority over Mt. Kitanglad). Pantaron’s eastern boundary spills into the provinces of Agusan del Sur and Davao del Norte and the city of Davao.

Then congressman Teofisto Guingona III (2nd District, Bukidnon) filed a bill establishing the mountain range as a protected area. The bill was approved on first reading but did not make further progress until the 14th Congress ended.

Conservation and the regional development framework

Northern Mindanao’s medium-term development plan (1993-2022) banks on the agriculture sector as a major contributor to the economy and a major source of employment. It will focus on high-value crop production and putting up agri-processing centers. With its improved infrastructure (ports and road networks) the region is envisioned to lead in the production of high-value crops and serve as the major transshipment hub in Mindanao. This advantage is expected to attract more industries to the region.

 

Given its wide agricultural area and suitable soils and climate, Bukidnon plays a vital role in this economic thrust as the main source of agricultural products and raw materials for the food processing industry in the province as well as in the region. The cities of Malaybalay and Valencia – and eventually Maramag – will remain the centers that will drive the development of the province. In addition, the periphery of Mount Kitanglad Range has been eyed to become the vegetable bowl of the region owing to its temperate climate and steady supply of water.

Citing the need to adhere to sustainable approaches and nature conservation, the regional economic plan stresses the need to harmonize development goals with policies on the environment, as it takes note of the increasing demand for agricultural land and competing land uses and the apparent inability of regulating agencies to implement zoning laws. Encroachment on forestlands – and in some cases, even protected areas and proclaimed watersheds – and attendant deforestation has caused the conversion of these areas to agricultural, industrial and other uses.

Another major concern, the plan says, is the utilization of protected areas and/or proclaimed watersheds for production purposes. It cites the non-observance of the 18-percent slope rule as the upper limit for agricultural production causing soil disturbance and other forms of land degradation. It also considers ancestral domain claims within protected areas as another aspect of land use conflict.

Hence, as one of the safeguards in the pursuit of regional growth, the plan emphasizes the urgency of protecting upland and forest resources under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act or Republic Act 7586.

Meanwhile, the plan adds, sustainable utilization of state forestlands shall be pursued under Executive Order No. 318, s. 2004 (Promoting Sustainable Forest Management in the Philippines). This scheme intends to cover 40,000 hectares in four municipalities in Bukidnon, involving 13,333 families, although the specific sites are not mentioned in the plan.

The term “sustainable utilization” however should make conservation advocates at least wary as to its actual application in light of the fact that the government has adopted a new definition of forest which endangers the continuity of the country’s rich biodiversity. In 2005, then environment secretary Michael Defensor had issued Memorandum Circular 2005-05 adopting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) definition of forest, which states: “A forest is an area of land with a minimum size of 0.5 to 1 hectare, with a tree cover of more than 10-30%, with trees in the potential to reach a height of 2-5 meters at maturity in situ.”

The same definition says that natural stands and all plantations are included under forest, as well as untouched or tree-less forestland which are expected to revert back to forest. Obviously, it does not consider the natural forest as a habitat for biodiversity and will bring forest-dependent endemic species of biodiversity to extinction since in effect it will allow massive conversion of natural forests into plantations without changing or losing forest cover.

It would seem the definition intends to encourage the expansion of plantations even into forestlands and make it appear that no harm has been done on the ecological balance of a given area. Entire forests may be cut to give way to oil palm and the government can still claim, using this technicality, that the forest cover has remained intact.

This is the tack being followed by the Indonesian government in allowing the destruction of vast areas of natural forests to give way to oil palm plantations. With the entry of oil palm plantations in Bukidnon, the province, like Indonesia, may yet fall victim to this dubious definition of forest. (Next: The policy environment)

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