Opposition vs housing project near Magdiwata watershed in Agusan Sur heightens

SAN FRANCISCO, Agusan del Sur (MindaNews / 14 Sep) – Opposition to the four-hectare housing development project of a sloping land inside the one-kilometer buffer zone of Mt. Magdiwata Watershed has stepped up following the government issuance of an Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC).

Part of the four-hectare housing project being developed at the sloping land inside the one-kilometer buffer zone of Mt. Diwata Watershed in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur in disarray a day after heavy rains swept away bulldozed soil dumped into natural waterways and springs. Photo taken 19 December 2020 by CHRIS V. PANGANIBAN / MindaNews

Officials of San Francisco Water District (SFWD) registered their objection anew to the project developed by Bayugan City-based Marrea Estates Corporation after the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Caraga Regional Office issued the ECC to the housing firm.

In a letter dated Sept. 6, Elmer Luzon, SFWD general manager, urged Engr. Albert Arcamo, OIC Regional Director of DENR Caraga, to revoke the ECC of the project because “we cannot afford to allow destruction on the natural ecosystem of its reserve forest as it will adversely affect the sole source of the water supply of this town.”

The SFWD board of directors earlier passed a resolution strongly opposing the project and called for the revocation of ECC No. ECC-OL-R13-2021-0113 dated June 9 issued to Marrea Estates Corporation.

For his part, Arcamo explained that an ECC is not a permit and should not be interpreted as such but rather a set of conditionalities which will have to be complied with by the project proponent before pursuing the project.

“The ECC is therefore not a license for any project proponent to undertake the activity they sought to operate as they will have to secure permits from other concerned government agencies,” Arcamo said in his letter to SFWD.

DENR Caraga admitted their fault for not informing the local government of this town on the resumption of the ECC application of Marrea Estates during a Joint Committee Hearing held at the Sangguniang Bayan Session Hall in July 29.

Citing a DENR memorandum circular, Arcamo maintained that permits or clearances are no longer necessary in the processing of ECC but public participation of stakeholders, including concerned government agencies like SFWD, is required during the presentation of Environmental Impact Assessment.

Luzon rebuked Arcamo’s contention, saying the project is clearly classified as an environmentally critical area validated by geohazard assessment of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) based on its geohazard identification report on February this year.

The MGB identified four geological hazards: landslides, seismic ground shaking, ground heave, and ground settlement.

Luzon cited the site of the proposed housing project is categorized under areas with critical slope, recharge area of aquifer and water bodies based on a memorandum issued by the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau.

Concerned residents expressed alarm that the massive flooding at the town center brought about by Tropical Depression “Vicky” in December 18 last year could have been triggered by clearing the sloping land even as no ECC had been issued yet at that time.

At least 1,658 hectares of the watershed, which is the only source of potable water of this highly developing town, is a fully delineated protected area under Presidential Proclamation 282 in 1994 issued by President Fidel Ramos.

John Columban Paredes, son of former Agusan del Sur governor and congressional representative Ceferino Paredes Jr., presented through his social media page his own study using a geological map of this town and how a vast bulk of floodwaters cascading through the path of the sloping area that a bulldozer had cleared, submerged the outlying communities situated at the foot of the mountain as early as noon on that fateful day.

Paredes, who ran for mayor but lost by a small margin in the 2019 elections, said this is the first time in many years that the Barangays San Isidro and Karaos, situated along the Davao-bound national highway, were hit by flash floods when the areas usually submerged during continuous heavy rains in the past were Barangays 1 and 3, caused by runoff from a nearby overflowing Gibong River.

Julito Cerna Pacna, 57, a long-time Manobo resident and barangay tanod of San Isidro, recalled a warning from their elders in the tribe who had passed away not to disturb the sloping land planted with trees and coconuts since it would cause a destructive landslide that would affect hundreds of houses below.

“In the distant past, the bulk of water coming from Mt. Magdiwata watershed during rains that lasted for weeks would just slowly cascade following the natural waterways and creeks,” Pacna said, adding that the wide area of the buffer zone belongs to the ancestral lands of the Maguinda and Bando Manobo clans, the original settlers of the area.

Bonifacia Arevado, a radio host and owner of a local FM radio station whose house is just below the protested four-hectare housing development project, said that during the road tracing works in the sloping area with the use of Marrea Estates’s bulldozer on November 30 last year, the waterways, creeks and natural springs were filled with soil to flatten the deep portions.

The heavy rains brought by “Vicky,” she claimed, cleared the dumped portions as the massive bulk of water coming from the forested area above naturally spurt out and restored the paths of its waterways.

She posted video clips in her social media showing the rampaging floodwaters from above the mountain, threatening a mudslide towards the houses below.

Mardie Para, project engineer of the Maria Estates housing development, explained there were no creeks when they first visited the area. What they saw, he said were deep portions where the water flows that were bulldozed by the former developer who sold the area to their company.

“We have no intention to destroy the environment and the lives of people living below. We enter the area in good faith,” Para said.

But Arevado insisted there was a creek with pure clear water inside the area where they used to wash their clothes and took a bath. (Chris V. Panganiban / MindaNews)