BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
Several protected areas in the Philippines are now confronted with proposals for the exploration and development of energy resources. The Northern Negros Natural Park in Negros Occidental is one of these PAs being eyed for geothermal survey. Other PAs known to me that have similar energy issues with the NNNP are the Naujan Lake National Park in Oriental Mindoro and the Bulusan Volcano Natural Park in Sorsogon. Although not officially listed as a PA but recognized as a key biodiversity area, Mt. Talinis, or Cuernos De Negros, is another site proposed for the expansion of a geothermal project in Negros Oriental.
These energy proposals in PAs are actually not new, since geothermal projects already exist in the Mt. Kanla-on and Mt. Apo Natural Parks in Negros and Mindanao, respectively. However, circumstances on how these projects entered in the two PAs were different from the current status of the NNNP and all other declared natural parks and strict nature reserves, which are already placed under the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, or Republic Act 7586.
I’ve learned from Provincial Environment and Management Office personnel of Negros Occidental that the Lopez-controlled Energy Development Corp. has presented its proposed geo-scientific study to the NNNP Technical Working Group. The EDC has similarly sought endorsement for this proposed study from different local government units in the province. The EDC has an existing geothermal service contract with the Department of Energy covering Mount Mandalagan, a thickly forested mountain range that accounts for a large part of the NNNP. Reportedly, about 20 megawatts of geothermal energy can be sourced out from the site, but it is only an initial estimate based on available information. This is probably the reason why it is necessary for the EDC to conduct further study in NNNP.
This proposed study, once implemented, would not in anyway entail damages to the environment and biodiversity of the NNNP. A geo-scientific study does not involve use of heavy equipment, landscape alteration, cutting of trees, wildlife displacement, and other disturbances. Moreover, geothermal is a renewable resource and clean energy source that may be able to substitute non-renewable and dirty sources of power.
It should be understood, however, that the NNNP is a declared PA. Several provisions of
the NIPAS Act require serious considerations before any decision is made on the EDC proposal. Aside from legal concerns that maybe subjected to numerous interpretations, we need to discern and evaluate, too, the very purpose of establishing a PA, and how valuable it is in terms of biological diversity, ecosystem services, and other crucial and long-term benefits it offers to the environment and people.
It is not a question of choosing between “the devil and the deep blue sea”, or “the good and the bad”, just like these sayings usually imply once we are pressed with difficult choices and decisions. This is a matter of exploring more viable options and alternatives so we can both address the maintenance of ecological balance for our survival and common good, and the pressing requirements of renewable energy sources that will not destroy our natural environment.
It is very vital to take into account ecological concerns, especially in areas where natural ecosystems are already badly impaired and require immediate rehabilitation. Negros, for instance, had lost most of its natural forests, and where a good number of endemic species of flora and fauna is highly threatened, some of which are restricted only to this newly declared region of the Philippines.
In my opinion and understanding, having been provided with the opportunity to work in several PAs for the past two decades, and to participate in some deliberations and consultations on the proposed NIPAS Act, before it was enacted into law in June 1992, it is the intention of RA 7586 to spare PAs categorized as a strict nature reserve or natural park from energy study or survey, exploration, and utilization. The energy development in PAs was one of the contentious issues taken up during the drafting and consultations of the proposed NIPAS Act almost three decades ago.
NIPAS Act energy provisions
Framers and authors of the NIPAS Act provided adequate measures to safeguard declared natural parks and strict nature reserves from energy exploration and utilization, as they included a specific prohibition on energy surveys in these sites. Section 14 of the NIPAS Act articulates, “Consistent with the policies declared in Section 2, hereof, protected areas, except strict nature reserves and natural parks, may be subjected to exploration only for the purpose of gathering information on energy resources and only if such activity is carried out with the least damage to surrounding areas”.
The same section of the NIPAS Act further states, “Surveys shall be conducted only in accordance with a program approved by the DENR, and the result of such surveys shall me made available to the public and submitted to the President for recommendation to Congress. Any exploitation and utilization of energy resources found within the NIPAS areas shall be allowed only through a law passed by Congress”. These two last sentences of section 15 of RA 7586 seemingly refer to protected areas that are not categorized as a strict nature reserve or natural park. The NIPAS Act offers other PA categories where energy exploration may be allowed.
Section 15 underscored the policy declaration set forth in Section 2, which claims, “It is the policy of the state to secure for the Filipino people of present and future generations the perpetual existence of all native plants and animals through the establishment of a comprehensive system of integrated protected areas within the classification of national park as provided in the Constitution”.
The policy declaration acknowledges the profound impacts of human activities to all components of the natural environment, citing the effects of increasing population, resource exploitation, and industrial advancement, while clearly recognizing “the critical importance of protecting and maintaining the natural biological and physical diversities of the environment, notably on areas with biologically unique features to sustain human life and development, as well as plant and animal life”.
NIPAS Act intention
With these enunciations of RA 7586, it is clear that surveys for energy should not be allowed in natural parks. Some may claim that a geo-scientific study is different from exploration. If I will make a reference to what I’ve learned from various presentations of the EDC, it is true, because exploration, in the parlance of energy companies, involves locating energy reserves and drilling. However, “exploration”, as being referred to in the NIPAS Act, means the gathering of information on energy resources. I am wondering if the proposed geo-scientific study of the EDC will not entail generating data on energy resources in the NNNP. Given the existing geothermal service contract of the EDC with the DOE covering Mt. Mandalagan, the proposed study presumably would include survey on geothermal resources in the area.
Regardless of the associated provision of RA 7586 granting authority to Congress to pass a
law for any exploitation and utilization of energy resources found within the NIPAS sites, it is doubtful how the lawmaking processes will proceed if prior gathering of detailed information on the potential energy resources at the targeted natural park or strict nature reserve has never been allowed. It is precisely the motivation why the NIPAS Act prohibits gathering of information on energy resources in natural parks and strict nature reserves, because it aims to protect these areas for the ultimate goal of “securing for the Filipino people the perpetual existence of all native plants and animals,” and not for any form of energy exploration and development, either it is renewable or not, or with least damage to the environment.
Mounts Apo and Kanla-on
One may further ask why geothermal utilization was allowed then in Mt. Apo and later on in Mt. Kanla-on (then spelled Canlaon)? When the geothermal reservation was sliced from the Mt. Apo National Park in 1992, it was only a few months before the NIPAS Act was enacted. On the other hand, Mt. Kanla-on was not yet declared as a natural park when the former government-controlled Philippine National Oil Corporation-EDC proposed its geothermal project in the area. In fact, it was the main reason why the PNOC-EDC insisted and worked hard for the exclusion of its proposed geothermal site from the proclamation of the MKNP in 1998.
Presidential Proclamation 895 declared the former Northern Negros Forest Reserve as a protected area under the category of a natural park, and it is now called the NNNP. The NNNP has an estimated land area of about 80,454.50 hectares, covering Mounts Marapara, Canlandog, Silay, and Mandalagan in the northern part of Negros Occidental. It is being managed in accordance with the NIPAS Act, as mandated by its proclamation.
Extractive resource uses are not allowed in natural parks, and supposedly, they are being maintained to protect outstanding natural and scenic areas of national or international significance for scientific, educational, and recreational purposes. The biological and ecological values are important factors for the NNNP’s designation as a natural park.
The PA has the largest remaining intact forests in Negros Island, and where limited and yet biologically diverse lowland forests still exist. It is habitat to numerous endemic species, and accounts for several ecosystems that provide various ecological services, such as watershed and carbon sink. It helps mitigate the impacts of natural hazards and risks, like heavy flooding, landslides, and soil erosion, among others. Its potential for nature-based tourism could not be understated, because it has several scenic and beautiful attractions.
Geothermal development impacts
The valuation and accounting of the NNNP’s ecological services may likely outweigh the benefits from 20 megawatts of geothermal energy that may be generated from this area. Geothermal is a clean source of energy, but its development entails adverse impacts to the environment. In Mounts Kanla-on and Apo, geothermal development involved forest clearing, since specific sites where geothermal can be sourced out were forested. Access roads, which connected the different drilling pads, were constructed to tap the geothermal energy. Clearing was further done in every one-hectare drilling pad and plant site.
The consequence of forest clearing is the loss of vegetation comprising not only of trees, but other native floral species and organisms, too. Once forest is cleared, it will dislocate faunal species that used to inhabit there, and further add threats to the endangered wildlife in surrounding areas. It will affect the source of our water, since the forest and its immediate environs are natural water reservoirs. Geothermal development will ultimately alter and modify nature designed and created landscapes.
Other major issues
The NNNP is already facing numerous issues. More than half of its area is now heavy with permanent settlement and agriculture, community centers, and infrastructures, to name a few. There are pending proposals to exclude certain parts of the PA for declaration as alienable and disposable lands, and relocation site for rebel returnees. Several private vacation houses and resorts were constructed in the area without permits. These challenges have yet to be resolved, and here comes the proposal on geothermal energy. Do we want to maintain the NNNP as a PA, or do we want to disestablish it for other purposes? The disestablishment of the NNNP as a PA is still an option, if we don’t care enough for the remaining gifts and wonders of nature found in NNNP, and the associated benefits they offer to present and future generations.
How about the pressing needs of energy today and in the future? Shall we continue relying on fossilized and other non-renewable energy sources? Are there no other viable renewable energy resources, except geothermal? Arlene Infante, an entrepreneur who is privy on energy issues, has only this to say, “ Our solar farms are sprouting like mushrooms, and we don’t need to compromise our last remaining forests and water source.”
Lawyer Eli Gatanila, a realtor who also follows energy development in Negros Occidental, provided me with a list of solar energy projects in the province, and they are quite promising. Based on the list, there are already four operational solar power plants with a combined capacity of 261.6 megawatts in Negros Occ., while two others, with a total capacity estimate of 80 megawatts, are under construction. Can we not rely on these power sources? I am sure there are pros and cons between geothermal and solar energies, but one good thing in solar power plant was no forest clearing has been done on its development in Negros Occidental.EAG*
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
I was reminded of the closure for mountaineering of the Mount Kanlaon Natural Park in Negros Island, two decades ago, after I recently learned that authorities at the Mount Pulag National Park in Luzon are considering similar action, too. It was in 1996 when I, as the then Protected Area Superintendent of the MKNP, recommended to the Protected Area Management Board the closing of the mountain from trekking, due to a number of pressing issues and concerns. There were oppositions from several mountaineering groups, but the PAMB stood firm to impose the temporary closure. It was a decision worth sharing again and again, so that other protected areas, particularly those sites with similar features to MKNP, may be able to learn some lessons and insights from it.
The prime consideration for the possible closure of Mt. Pulag is reportedly due to damages
created by the influx of visitors during the past years. The peak of Mt. Pulag, towering at 2,922 meters above sea level, is the highest in the entire Luzon and 3rd highest all over the Philippines, making it one of the favorite mountain destinations not only of local trekkers, but foreigners, too. Thousands are flocking to the area every year.
Mt. Pulag straddles several municipalities covering the provinces of Benguet, Nueva Vizcaya, and Ifugao. It is famous for its deep ravines, steep terrain, and the so-called “cloud forest”. A trek to Mt. Pulag is popularly known as an adventure above clouds, because there is a point where one is actually above the hovering clouds. Aside from mountaineering attractions, Mt. Pulag is similarly identified as one of the Key Biodiversity Areas of the Philippines, since it harbors numerous species of flora and fauna in various habitat types.
Phreatic explosion and other safety concerns
In August 1996, the Kanlaon Volcano exploded without prior indication, and at that time, there were 18 trekkers at the summit. The phreatic explosion took the lives of three trekkers, while several others were wounded. The incident reminded us that the four-kilometer radius from the crater is actually a permanent danger zone, as classified by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, and, therefore, it is supposedly close to all human activities.
The Phivolcs recommended the implementation of strict safety measures and standards if we will continue to allow trekking at the summit of the MKNP. While we were planning what safety measures shall be carried out, we saw the need to temporarily close the MKNP from trekking.
It was also observed that during the rainy season, it is not advisable to trek at the park, because of safety considerations. There were recorded accidents of mountaineers who trekked to the crater during the rainy season, since the visibility in the area is poor during this period.
Unregulated entry of trekkers
We conducted assessment on the impacts of mountaineering at the park, and our findings showed there were numerous trails leading to the summit, and they were expanding, to the extent of degrading the natural vegetation. Some areas were cleared of vegetation to serve as campsites. Numerous hikers, especially those from surrounding communities, were cutting natural growing trees for their camping tents and firewood. We noticed several graffiti that were engraved in big stones near the crater, and even in some giant trees. Solid wastes were cluttered in trails and campsites.
During the Holy Week in 1996, we found out the unregulated entry, not only of mountaineers, but thousands of faith healers who were in pilgrimage at the crater of the volcano during the Good Friday. These healers started trekking on Holy Thursday and camped overnight near a cave at the Margaha Valley, a dormant crater just below the present and active crater of the Kanla-on Volcano. At the campsite of these healers, we found out clearing and cutting of high elevation growing trees and gathering of plants believed to have medicinal values. However, we were not able to make immediate actions, because our team was outnumbered, and several unknown persons holding bladed weapons were surrounding us.
Aside from the MKNP’s feature as an active volcano and the negative impacts of
unregulated entries of trekkers, there were biodiversity concerns that also need to be addressed. The MKNP is one of the most important protected areas in the country. It was one of the 10 pilot sites for the implementation of the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, through the World Bank supported Conservation of Priority Protected Areas Project in the Philippines of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, from 1995 to 2002.
The biodiversity assessment revealed that some trails and campsites leading to the peak of the MKNP are habitats of assorted species of flora and fauna. The “shoulder” of the volcano, popularly known to mountaineers as the “saddle”, is host to a variety of wild flora, and many of these plants are left unstudied, even to date. The Margaha Valley was found to be a grazing area of the threatened Visayan spotted deer. Traces of the equally threatened Visayan warty pigs were noted in Hardin Sang Balo and other campsites along the trails, from Murcia town to the summit of the MKNP.
Drafting of guidelines
Amidst all these challenges, the PAMB, led by the late Cornelio “Bob” Aizpuro, who was then the PAMB Ecotourism Committee chairperson and former City Planning and Development coordinator of La Carlota, drafted the first mountaineering guidelines for the MKNP. Edwin Gatia, a seasoned mountaineer and the officer-in-charge of the Department of Tourism in Negros Occidental province at that time, provided the necessary technical assistance in the preparation of the guidelines, which have been subjected to technical reviews and consultations with various stakeholders, such as communities, local governments, and mountaineering groups. The mountaineering permit at the MKNP was adopted after more than a year from its closure.
Official campsites and trails were properly designated with billboards and signs. Per expedition, only a maximum of 10 members, including the expedition team leader, is allowed. The team composition excludes mandatory guide (one guide to five climber ratio) and optional porters. In every trail, only one expedition party is allowed in a given time. Four trails are used for trekking to the summit. Other trails were closed for trekking.
Mountaineering is open from March to May and October to December at the park. Other months are low season where only one expedition party per trail is allowed in a month. Once PAGASA declares a weather disturbance or PHIVOLCS declares volcanic activity, the area shall be closed automatically from mountaineering.
Issuance of climbing permit, with corresponding fees, from the PASu is a mandatory requirement in trekking at the MKNP. Climbing parties are required to submit booking form, mountaineer information sheet, and notarized waiver of responsibility of the expedition members. Booking shall be made at least three months before the expedition. No one is allowed to enter the park for mountaineering without the approved permit from the PASu. The PAMB has imposed accreditation of porters and guides from communities, who underwent training on mountaineering and safety courses.
Compulsory climbing equipment and other materials are required, including individual sleeping bag, tent, pressure stove for cooking, and personal first aid kit. All expeditions are obliged to provide themselves with their own food rations, subject to inspection and approval. Only ready-to-cook food is allowed and campfires are prohibited. The carry in – carry out policy is included in the guidelines. All are expected to strictly observe the basic rules and ethics on environmental protection and conservation.
After I left the MKNP as park superintendent in 2002, to date, the mountaineering guidelines are being observed. I guess, however, that there is a need to revisit the different provisions of the guidelines, how they were carried out, and how they impacted, either positively or negatively, on the biodiversity, communities, and mountaineers through time, so that we can learn more lessons and insights on this aspect of nature recreation in protected areas. After all, there is such a thing as “responsible mountaineering”. EAG*
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