Birdwatching temporarily suspended in Mt. Kitanglad

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 25 Feb) – Birdwatching activities in the Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park have been suspended effective Feb. 17, according to the Office of the Protected Area Superintendent (PASu).

Superintendent Danilo Somera said that on advice of Gov. Jose Ma. R. Zubiri Jr., they are suspending all bird watching visits in the area after the Feb. 13 incident in Damitan, Dalwangan in this city where a tour guide was hurt and seven foreigners were fired upon as the military was reported to have pursued communist rebels in the mountains.

Ma. Theresa Allen, the new provincial environment and natural resources officer (PENRO), told MindaNews Tuesday the suspension was discussed in the Feb. 18 en banc meeting of Kitanglad’s Protected Area Management Board (PAMB). Allen said the suspension is indefinitely set pending investigations on the incident.

DENR-Bukidnon cited an investigation conducted by the Commission on Human Rights.

Allen admitted it is important to involve all stakeholders, including the indigenous peoples, in coordinating bird watching tours in the area.

She said they cited a MindaNews report on the Bukidnon Daraghuyan tribe’s declaration of Mt. Kitanglad as a zone of peace in 2012 in their discussion with other stakeholders on the incident. The report cited the series of rituals participated in by the military to appease the spirits of Mt. Kitanglad, who Bae Inatlawan Adelina Tarino, the tribe’ spiritual leader, said were angered by the military’s bombing of the park in pursuit of rebels.

Somera wrote to Col. Jesse Alvarez, chief of the Army’s 403rd Infantry Brigade, on Feb. 20 seeking for a “thorough investigation” on the incident after Carlito Gayramara, the tour guide who was hit, wrote a letter addressed to Alvarez detailing the incident, seeking justice and urging an investigation.

Somera cited that the complainant alleged there was no encounter between the military and the New People’s Army (NPA) during that day.

“Along this line, we humbly request for an in-depth investigation from your end to shed light on the incident,” he added.

Gayramara, in his letter, also cited that his two sons point to the military to be behind the firing and accused the military of physically abusing Danny Docenos, a son-in-law, whom the military labelled to be a member of the NPA. The two went to the area to help find an Australian who got separated from the group after the firing.

“Hoping for a thorough investigation on this regard in order to sustain the momentum of the ecotourism industry of the province and to give justice to whom it is due,” Somera said in his letter to Alvarez.

Somera quoted Lt. Col. Jose Leonardo Gille, of the 4th Infantry Division’s Civil Military Operations, as telling the coordinating meeting held on Feb. 16 at thte mayor’s office that they have an ongoing investigation on the incident.

Gille vowed that if proven that ground personnel have violated the rule of engagement not to fire at the unarmed, they will “file a case against them.”

One more group of birdwatchers composed of Japanese visitors who arranged and obtained a permit before the incident were allowed inside Mt. Kitanglad after Feb. 13 and before the suspension, Somera said.

The PASu has also issued a permit to a group of foreigners from Western Africa who already obtained a permit to enter the park from Feb. 26 to 28 not as birdwatchers but for a learning visit to the Bukidnon Daraghuyan tribal community. Somera said they have ensured coordination with the corresponding agencies to ensure the visitors’ safety.

Maj. Allyson Depayso, 403IB executive officer, in a letter to Somera on Feb. 23, requested for the names and nationality of the visitors “for our record and also the names of all accredited tour guides in Mt. Kitanglad Range and Natural Park.”

The Army also requested for the schedules of bird watchers visit for 2015 “for us to adjust our security operations against the NPAs and lawless elements that are encamped in the vicinity of Mt. Kitanglad and conducting extortion activities in the area.”

Somera clarified that the suspension applies only to birdwatchers who visit Dalwangan, only one of the 28 barangays in seven towns and one city with areas under the park.

Honolo Cruzin, Malaybalay City Tourism Officer, said in a text message Wednesday they welcome the suspension for safety.

“It is also temporary and short term until [the terms of coordination] are agreed. It will be [lifted] soon if everything is cleared,” she added.

Ma. Easterluna Canoy, executive director of the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs, said she backs the temporary suspension only because it is pending investigation.

“But investigation should be thorough in this case to show what exactly happened. Was there really crossfire or there was only firing by one party due to mistaken identity or what? This is crucial in decision-making in Mt. Kitanglad, a protected area,” she added.

Canoy said birdwatching is only one aspect of the ecological services offered by Mt. Kitanglad such that decisions should be made in its context and with the multi-sectoral and multilevel structure of stakeholders.

Gayramara, now out of a private hospital and is recuperating at home, told DXDB AM radio’s Imprumptu program last week that it was the Army who fired at them on Feb. 13.

Gayramara, a tour guide since 1978, said the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Protected Area Superintendent recognized his tour guiding work in the natural park. He said he was hit during the first round of firing that brought them scampering for their life near the bird watching site. He said the firing lasted for 10 minutes.

He said they were able to pinpoint that it was the Army who fired because they rounded up with his son-in-law and others who came to check on what happened in the area.

He called on the Army not to fire at tourists.

But the Army denied this, saying Gayramara was still in shock.

Maj. Jennan Montealto, 403IB spokesperson, said their soldiers follow rules of engagement by not firing at anyone unarmed. He said their operation in the area was a legitimate encounter between the 1st Special Forces Battalion against the NPA’s Guerrilla Front 68.

He stressed that two days before the incident, they had an encounter with the same group. A soldier died in that encounter, he added.

Canoy said both the military and the rebels should respect that Mt Kitanglad is a protected area, not a battlefield.