Talama: Rewarding the unheralded heroes of conservation

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 25 Feb) – Since its proclamation as a national park in 1990, and later as a full-fledged protected area in 2000 through Republic Act 8978, timber smuggling and other illegal activities have been minimized, if not stopped, in Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park. Many would attribute the conservation of the park’s forest to formal mechanisms such as the Protected Area Management Board, which always takes pride in this achievement.

Little has been said however of the efforts of local communities, the indigenous peoples in particular, in protecting one of the country’s important biodiversity sites, which sits in the northwestern part of Bukidnon province. And they have received too little too in terms of rewards and incentives for such efforts. Not much has been said about the role of culture in the conservation of Mount Kitanglad, and how the tribes had tried to resist commercial logging in the years prior to the imposition of logging ban in the province. In a study made in 1995, Malcolm Cairns explained the link between culture and conservation in this ancestral territory that its inhabitants consider sacred.

Efforts have been made in recent years to recognize the contribution of the indigenous peoples to environmental protection. In Mount Kitanglad its palpable manifestation includes the participation of their leaders in decision and policymaking through the PAMB and programs that aim to uplift their socioeconomic conditions. These have been found wanting; the socioeconomic interventions in particular have not really made an impact mainly because these did not consider cultural factors and did not match the capacity and experience of the intended targets.

Nonetheless, the indigenous peoples or Lumad of Mount Kitanglad believe they deserve more for their efforts. This time they are not entertaining the idea of receiving yet again a form of assistance based on standards prescribed by donors, be they private entities or government agencies. They are pushing for the adoption of a culture-based system that views their efforts as deserving of a reward. Is there such a system?

Reward for good deeds

In discussions with Lumad leaders of Mount Kitanglad initiated by the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs, it was found that they have customary practices that can serve as basis for such reward system. Called Talama, the practice started as a form of preparation by pregnant women, who would save household items even without telling their husbands about it. The items would include clothing for the baby, foodstuff, herbal medicines, and of course money. Women do this to prepare for situations where their husbands or families could not meet their needs.

The tribes also save money through practices called lugiay and buni-buni. They call the practice of saving rice grains lakub and the practice of saving corn bungbung and sag-at.

Applied to conservation, Talama is envisioned as a social trust fund for the Lumad. Viewed as both a reward and incentive, it will serve to encourage them to sustain indigenous systems and practices on conservation to protect Mount Kitanglad, and by extension, humankind itself. It is a sort of savings for ecosystem services.

However, the Lumad point out that while it involves money, its essence is primarily cultural and spiritual in nature. Only the living and the future generations may benefit from the amount that would accrue to it, but Talama actually recognizes the environmental services done by the Lumad since time immemorial.

“Talama is reward for good deeds which the tribe calls Tagabudlay,” the Talama Council composed of 12 tribal leaders around Mount Kitanglad said in a briefing paper. Three tribes inhabit Mount Kitanglad – Bukidnon, Higaonon and Talaandig.

Bae Inatlawan Tarino, chief of the Daraghuyan tribe in Barangay Dalwangan, Malaybalay City, said instituting Talama is primarily giving thanks to culture, the ancestors and guardian spirits. She added it is also giving thanks to the state laws that foster conservation as well as the other NGOs and individuals who support the tribes through their programs and projects.

The tribal chief believes only strong adherence to culture can avert disasters in Mount Kitanglad as a sacred mountain. She said this requires belief in Magbabaya as the source of life and observance of rituals to cleanse humans of evil thoughts and deeds.

Malaybalay Bishop Jose A. Cabantan himself realized in a recent forum on Talama that the scheme is more of a cultural than an economic undertaking.

“This is different from the payment for ecosystem services or PES given by corporations and other entities because the services of indigenous culture are invaluable,” explained Ma. Easterluna Canoy, KIN executive director. “This is a ‘care-for-the-caretakers’ scheme that impact both the spirits and resources within the ecosystem.”

Initial commitments

Canoy said Talama seeks to obtain the commitments of various stakeholders to support the tribes in their enthusiasm to contribute to climate change mitigation through cultural means. She said local government units, water users and other businesses can do their part by contributing to Talama as an expression of corporate social responsibility.

One way to generate funds for Talama, Canoy said, is for the city council of Malaybalay to ask the local water district to increase its minimum monthly bill by 10 pesos and give this to the fund. “The water district should strongly consider this move since it is a major user of water coming from Kitanglad.”

“I have also talked with some business leaders in Malaybalay and they have shown willingness to help provided the system is clear,” she said.

She added Talama does not depend on the possible partners alone for its sustainability. She cited that the Lumad are also obliged to give counterpart and that some of them have become so excited that they have already set aside money for this. “Even the elders are asking if they can now start giving their contributions.”

As initially agreed during the consultations between KIN and the tribal leaders, the fund will be used for the holding of rituals in the mountains to ask the spirits to protect Mount Kitanglad and the people from disasters. For economic reasons, the tribes are finding it hard to hold rituals regularly since these require chickens and other offerings. They believe typhoons Pablo and Sendong passed through the mountain range because they have failed to hold such rituals.

Thus Talama intends to keep intact the remaining forests in contrast to PES which aims to restore what had been lost. If and when the fund increases, the tribes will use part of it on health, education, infrastructure and other social services and to strengthen tribal governance.

Provincial board member Albert Lagamon said he will present the idea to the provincial government. But he advised that there should be a clear management system for the fund.

For their part, the tribes have formed a management body called Talama Council which serves as a special committee of the Kitanglad Council of Elders. It is composed of Inamay daw Ininay hu Pagliwawas (elders leading the tribe), Pagpaliwawas hu Tinaghanaw (elders who articulate the Lumad’s aspirations), Impaliwawas hu binayumbung ha gapa pinatanyag ha tinambunan ha batasan (elders who revive indigenous practices that have been forgotten due to western culture), Agpangan ha pinatanyag atulan ha pinaliwawas (elders who are instrumental in designing an indigenous development framework).

The Talama Council has also elected the following officers: inamay/ininay (head), tigpangabun (treasurer), malagkutay (secretary), tigdatal (auditor) and tigpanghingamput (bookkeeper)

As agreed among the tribal leaders, Talama shall benefit all Lumad and non-Lumad in the community that engage in voluntary forest protection work. Non-Lumad should show respect toward indigenous culture and traditions.

An act of justice

Canoy acknowledged that the idea of coming up with Talama was somehow inspired by REDD or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, a United Nations initiative to reduce carbon emissions worldwide.

REDD has focused on reducing the use of fossil fuels and changing land use to arrest deforestation. To encourage forest-dwelling indigenous peoples in developing countries to conserve their territories, it has offered a range of incentives including financial grants, renewable energy and forestry related projects.

Canoy, however, clarified that while Talama also aims to contribute to climate change mitigation its framework is unlike REDD’s which relies heavily on fiscal incentives to change existing corporate and community behavior. She stressed that Talama takes off from something “that is already there”, that is, indigenous culture. She added that rewarding the tribes [as forest guardians] is an issue of justice. “Is it fair to tell the tribes to preserve the forests where they live and give them nothing in return while we in the lowlands are benefiting from their efforts?”