DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 6 April) – Despite oppositions from environmental groups, the Mt. Apo Natural Park-Protected Area Management Board (MANP-PAMB) is pushing through with the opening of Mt. Apo to trekkers on April 12 but vowed it will make the areas destroyed by the massive forest fire last year “off-limits” for rehabilitation.
In an interview Wednesday, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) 11 Regional Director Ruth M. Tawantawan, who is a member of the MANP-PAMB, told reporters that only the trails in Kidapawan City, Magpet in North Cotabato, and Sta. Cruz in Davao del Sur will be opened after after the respective local government units (LGUs) complied with the comprehensive plan that includes a control mechanism.
She said the trails in Makilala in North Cotabato and Digos City in Davao del Sur will not be opened because the LGUs failed to submit a plan; the trail in Barangay Tamayong, Calinan District, Davao City has remained closed due to an executive order prohibiting trekking activities for its potential groundwater source for the city.
The Bansalan trail will be closed due to the insurgency problem, according to Joey Recimilla, Kidapawan City Tourism Officer and chair of the MANP-PAMB ecotourism committee.
Tawantawan said the LGUs can submit their comprehensive plans but will be subject for review by the technical working group (TWG) of the MANP-PAMB.
A MANP-PAMB resolution passed on March 23, 2017 approved “the reopening of the Mt. Apo Natural Park trails to trekking/climbing activity” but “subject to the strict implementation of the Unified Trekking Policy of 2015, Camp Management and Masterplan of 2016.”
Joint monitoring stations of DENR and LGUs will be placed in all trails, including entry and exit points, and designated basecamps where the trekkers can camp out, she said.
Tawantawan said they are contemplating whether to make these monitoring stations functioning 24/7 to ensure that there would be no erring climbers who would sneak into the trails without the permission from the LGUs.
The environment official said among the control mechanisms include strictly no camping on the peak area, limit the number of trekkers to 50 a day, and closure of all entry points at 9 a.m. even if the number of trekkers is below maximum.
“This is solely a PAMB [decision],” Tawantawan said. “It’s the policy-making body, the administering body, they are the stakeholders who live there,” she said, adding that the PAMB will have to take the consequences of whatever decision it made.
Tawantawan said all trails of Mt. Apo will be closed to climbers during El Niño so that last year’s massive fire incident that destroyed 115 hectares – of which, 20 hectares were forested with century-old trees – and endangered the adjacent Mt. Talomo will not recur.
She acknowledged that the “enforcement” aspect of the MANP-PAMB is weak as compared with the PAMBs of other provinces, which are receiving funding support from the LGUs.
“We are hoping that there will be changes in the implementation as well as on the enforcement of the recommendations. Hopefully, there will be changes. There will be a lot of things that we shall be doing. We will give our best on what should be done for Mt. Apo via the PAMB,” she said.
According to the MANP-PAMB resolution, Manobo tribal leader Datu Rogelio Manapol was the one who raised a motion to reopen Mt. Apo and duly seconded by Datu Samuel Asicam.
She said the IPs requested that the trails be opened for “socio-economic” reasons.
Tawantawan said they are planning to include Mt. Apo in the five-year enhanced greening program that will be endorsed by the Regional Development Council (RDC) 11.
She said all LGUs agreed that trekkers will not be allowed entry to the damaged areas to ensure that the healing process will not be disturbed by trekking activities.
Tawantawan said special monitoring stations will be established in strictly prohibited portions of Mt. Apo. In the Davao Region side, one will be placed near the crater adjacent to the burnt area, which is connected to Sta. Cruz and Digos trails, while in the Soccsksargen side will be at Lake Venado that connects to the Kidapawan and Makilala trails.
Firemen and volunteers took almost three weeks before the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) 11 placed the fire under control on April 15, 2016, after an aerial thermal assessment conducted by the Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards) of the Department of Science and Technology showed no signs of active fire and validated by ground evaluations.
The MANP-PAMB’s decision raised the concern of environmental groups.
Mylai Santos, executive director of the Ecoteneo of the Ateneo de Davao University (ADDU), suggested that all stakeholders must agree on common standards and capacitate the tripartite monitoring team in collecting data on the progress of the rehabilitation works at Mt. Apo.
“I agree. Instead of discussing number on how many people, let’s talk about standards,” she said.
Santos lamented the brief implementation of the “indefinite closure” that was approved by MANP-PAMB on March 31, 2016 to allow Mt. Apo time to recover.
“We are not saying to close forever. The main reason why PAMB decided to close the areas is that, are those concerns addressed already? We don’t want a repeat of such incident,” she said.
Recimilla added that the Kidapawan trail is ready to accept trekkers on April 12.
“We are ready. We conducted the training for the porters. We have conducted the training of the guides – ongoing right now for three days – we have met and had a consultation and dialogue with the tribal people, the barangay people, and all other stakeholders, including the habal-habal drivers, vendors and everything, so we are set,” he said.
He said they are installing signage, checking the trails, and placing the comfort rooms in designated areas.
He said the LGU in Kidapawan trains their porters and guides on search and rescue, and jungle survival.
Recimilla said that some people apparently look at things wrongly. “The trek to Mt. Apo is an ecotourism activity,” he said. “You don’t damage anything,” he claimed.
He urged environmental groups to compare if trekking causes more environmental damage than the banana plantations and vegetable farming activities in Barangay Kapatagan in Digos City. (Antonio L. Colina IV / MindaNews)