Communities as forest conservation agents in Polillo, Quezon
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
Polillo, Quezon… While the whole country was anticipating the landfall of Bagyo Ramil last week, I was in this municipality, off the east coast of Luzon, to visit conservation projects being implemented by the Polillo Islands Biodiversity Conservation Foundation and the Institute of Social Order of the Ateneo de Manila University, with funding support from the Philippine Tropical Forestry Conservation Foundation. These two projects are complimentary because the PIBCFI is concentrating on terrestrial lowland forest while the ISO is working for mangrove forest. Both initiatives are focusing on community based approaches in forest protection and rehabilitation.
The four-day project visit further affirmed my belief that communities, once properly informed, education and mobilized, are still the best conservation agents and they could make a real difference in protecting and rehabilitating both terrestrial and coastal forests. Although the Polillo Group of Islands is one of the few remaining areas in the Philippines where some mangrove forests are still relatively intact, the ISO has implemented a project with local communities in expanding the mangrove forest to ensure the sustainability of fishery production in the area.
The mangrove forest is a habitat and spawning ground of numerous commercially viable fishery resources. Several communities in this municipality have already realized the importance of the mangrove forest in sustaining their fishery livelihoods, the prime motivation why they are already engaged in mangrove rehabilitation. With the interest of communities in mangrove rehabilitation, the local government of Polillo has likewise provided additional fund to support the initiatives of the ISO.
Similarly, the forest protection initiatives in this municipality are gaining momentum with the formation of the Bantay Kalikasan in the different forest barangays of Polillo. Since the presence of concerned national authorities could hardly be felt in the area, it is the barangay officials who are directly supervising the operations of Bantay Kalikasan members. The Polillo municipal government provides modest honorarium and operational cost for BK members who have already adopted some alternative measures in dealing with illegal forest activities.
The terrestrial forest of Polillo is entirely classified as a lowland forest since the highest elevation of the area is only about 340
meters above sea level. Although the forest in this town is already fragmented, it is still an important habitat for the surviving endemic species many of which are already facing extinction in the wild. Some species are only restricted in the Polillo Group of Islands and could not be found somewhere else. Aside from forest protection, the Bantay Kalikasan members are also engaged in forest rehabilitation. A tree nursery of purely endemic species was established for the 20-hectare habitat restoration. The habitat restoration scheme of the BK is not typical with the usual reforestation because it involves introduction of a wide variety of endemic species. The plantation establishment is also tailored in a way that it would later on appear as a natural forest.
It is quite encouraging to see some success stories on environment and natural resources management. Little as it may compare to the tremendous conservation needs, the initiative of local communities in Polillo once again provides a lesson that if only we could empower communities and provide them with necessary support, they are in the best position to manage our natural resources. (This article also appeared in the Visayan Daily Star, Bacolod City, 26 October 2009 issue, http://www.visayandailystar.com)*
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