A journey in the field of conservation
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
Last 07 October marked my 50th journey on this planet we call Earth. Almost half of it has been purely devoted to the field of nature conservation and environmental protection. As I commemorated the half-century of my life’s journey, let me share some of the stories associated with my involvement in conservation work. There are so many things to tell about this journey, from hiking through rugged terrains in the jungles of Mount Kanla-on Natural Park in Negros Island, wading in the waters of unspoiled rivers in Samar Island Natural Park, to diving in deep and cool blue seawaters of Apo Reef Natural Park in Oriental Mindoro. Interestingly, the profession in conservation also provides me with the opportunity to see the wild numerous flora and fauna, several of which are already threatened from extinction in their respective habitats.
The work in conservation does not only bring one to the most fascinating and awesome places, but it also includes exposure to the badly state of the environment, including denuded forestlands, polluted rivers and even heavily damaged coastal and marine areas, among others. Working in conservation also means interacting with people of various cultures. Yes, we are all Filipinos but our culture is as diverse as our flora and fauna. Meeting various indigenous tribes in Mindanao, Mindoro and high lands of Luzon led me to further appreciate and advocate the rights of the IPs to their ancestral lands.
Through the years of my involvement in conservation, I encountered community members who are engaged in timber poaching,
kaingin, wildlife hunting and other resource-extractive practices. In several instances, however, it is very inspiring to witness how these individuals engaged in destructive activities transform to become responsible stewards of nature. Interaction with employees and officials of the different government institutions is another challenge in conservation work, especially in dealing with bureaucratic procedures and protocols. There are also local and international nongovernment organizations and funding agencies that are equally interesting to work with in environment and natural resources management.
My seven-year stint in the Mount Kanla-on Natural Park as a Protected Area Superintendent, from June 1995 to June 2002, was one of the most challenging and meaningful events in my journey in conservation. That was the time when I fully embraced what biodiversity means and how it is crucial in our survival as a people and as a nation. It provided me solid background on various facets of natural resources conservation and management, including disaster risk reduction and management. Although there were controversies in the declaration of MKNP as a protected area, with the slicing of 169 hectares of its original boundary for geothermal energy development, the fact remains that it is one of the 13 protected areas that has a site-specific congressional act, out of 240 candidate sites all throughout the country. In fact, if not for our internal and aggressive advocacy to the Congress, the geothermal development should have been more than 2,000 hectares.
We also pioneered the crafting and implementation of the first mountaineering guideline in the Philippines, with the assistance of
former provincial director Edwin Gatia of the Department of Tourism. The Protected Area Management Board of MKNP, at that time, was known to be one of the two most active in the Philippines. The numerous awards, that are still on display at the MKNP administration in La Castellana, Negros Occidental, are the testimonials on the momentum we have achieved in treading the path of protected area management.
My journey in the field of conservation involved numerous visits in the different protected areas in the country, from terrestrial, freshwater to marine ecosystems. Most, if not all, of these travels were related to conservation work, like providing technical assistance in protected area management planning, project implementation, assessment, monitoring and evaluation and as a resource person or facilitator in trainings, seminars and workshops. During these travels, I did not only meet persons working in the field of protected area management, but including ocular visit to scenic spots of some protected areas. On the process, I built a network of friends in different regions and learned new things and ideas.
While visiting some protected areas, I further realized that, indeed, the Philippines is gifted with numerous natural wonders. However, our natural and scenic areas are not yet secured, because they are facing numerous threats from various economic activities. A good number of protected areas in the country are already heavily occupied and this situation triggers proposals to slice certain boundaries of these PAs for possible land titling. This is particularly true in Northern Negros Natural Park in Negros Occidental and Naujan Lake National Park in Occidental Mindoro.
Protected areas are very rich in natural resources and some of these are being eyed for heavy industries, such as mining and energy development. It is also a sad reality that most of our protected areas are languishing from lack of personnel and funds, in spite of the fact that they contain numerous natural resources. The allocation from the national government is not sufficient to cover the effective conservation and protection of our protected areas.
I also understood that conservation measures are not solely restricted in protected area management. There are also other forms of conservation modality involving other key stakeholders. I spent a couple of years in Polillo Group of Islands in Quezon province in developing and implementing the pioneering concept of Local Conservation Areas, which the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is now trying to introduce in other sites that are not protected areas. The LCA is a process of identifying biologically important sites and setting up a management regime involving local government units and other local stakeholders. This is anchored on the Local Government Code of the Philippines, which invokes the participation of LGUs in natural resources Management. As a result, about 10,000 hectares of biodiversity important sites were declared by LGUs as LCAs in five municipalities covering the Polillo island group. Subsequently, the LGUs are allocating regular funds for the protection of these LCAs.
The traditional methods in protecting our natural environment are also interesting. In Balbalasang Balbalan National Park in Kalinga province, the indigenous people are in the forefront in managing this protected area, because they consider it as a sacred place. Similarly, Mount Halcon and Mount Iglit-Baco in Mindoro are being claimed as ancestral domains of the Mangyans, while about two-third of Mount Apo Natural Park in Mindanao has been covered with Certificate of Ancestral Domain Titles. The IPs in Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park and Mount Kalatungan Natural Park are also engaged in protection measures of these two of the most important protected areas in the Philippines.
The implementation of conservation initiatives is also very prevalent in nongovernment organizations. The Danjugan Island in my hometown in Brgy. Bulata, Cauayan is known as one of best-managed marine conservation sites. This has been made possible because of the initiatives of Philippine Reef and Rainforest Foundation. The Agap Bulusan, a local NGO in Bicol, is also managing the ecotourism in Bulusan Lake in Sorsogon province.
What I really appreciate during this long journey was the trust and confidence accorded to me by various institutions and individuals. I was given the opportunity to work with projects of some international institutions, like the World Bank, European Commission, United Nations Development Programme, Global Environment Facility, United States Agency for International Development and GIZ (Germany-based firm), among others. Most of these projects were coursed through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources through the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau.
I also participated in projects supported by the Foundation for the Philippine Environment, Philippine Tropical Forestry Conservation Foundation and Haribon Foundation. What I am also thankful was the privilege to get involve with several other NGOs, such as the Negros Forest and Ecological Foundation, Polillo Islands Biodiversity Conservation Foundation, Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation Foundation and Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation.
These are only few of the things I could share in my more than two decades of journey in the field of conservation. Of course, there were also various challenges, but having the kind of work you really love to do, while at the same, advancing your personal advocacies, meeting a lot of people and visiting some of the awesome natural areas, I would say that that it was indeed so fulfilling periods of my life, and still counting, for more years.
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