BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
Beautiful photos of flowering trees at the foot slope of the Mount Kanla-on Natural Park in Negros Island have spread online during the past weeks. Specifically found in Sitio Calapnagan, Brgy. Biak-na-Bato, La Castellana in Negros Occidental, about two to three hours drive from Bacolod City, the blooming trees, with the imposing background of the Kanla-on Volcano, were photographed by several persons and they uploaded some photos in social media. The views are, indeed, marvelous as they really look like the Cherry blossoms, or Sakura trees, which are popular attractions in Japan. From then on, according to MKNP staff, the number of visitors increased at Calapnagan, where the administration center of the park is also located.
Alleged Palawan cherry blossoms
One article posted at www.choosephilippines.com claimed that residents in the area called these trees Palawan cherry blossoms. It caught my curiosity, because I was suspecting that the trees, with a mixture of pink, red, white, and yellow colored flowers, are not the Palawan cherry blossoms (Cassia javanica ssp. nodosa) that are recently known to me. The photo accompanying the said online article reminded me of similar pictures I took at the site almost two decades ago.
I requested one of the MKNP staff, Errol Gillang, to take close-up photos of the flowers, trunk, and leaves of the tree so I could consult some of my friends, who are botanists or with interests and working on botanical concerns, as to the exact identification of the species. After receiving several photos from my namesake, I shared them online, particularly Facebook, and responses to my post are interesting. Some friends pointed out the tree is similar to Palawan cherry, but a few suspected it as Salingbobog, known to science as Craveta religiosa, and one of our native species that can be found as well at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines. Surprisingly, Gillang told me they found a plate in one of the trees that states it is Akle (Albizia acle), a species native in the country.
Antsoan and Pink shower trees
It was botanists Pat Malabrigo and Pieter Pelser of the UP Los Baños and University of Canterbury, respectively, who confirmed that the species is Cassia javanica ssp. javanica or Antsoan, which is a non-native species of the Philippines, or an exotic one. Malabrigo further asserted that the so-called Palawan cherry, known as Pink cassia or Java cassia, is not native to the Philippines although it bears Palawan as its popular name, simply because it is widespread in that province.
Gillang sent me additional set of photos of lovely pink-colored flowers of another tree he found in Sitio Pabrica, Brgy. Cabagna-an, La Castellana and within the MKNP, too. I similarly posted the photos on my Facebook account, and Pelser identified it as Cassia grandis, a species native to tropical America. The common English name of this tree is Pink shower, according to biologist Renee Paalan of the Silliman University.
My Facebook posts on the two flowering plants received numerous and varied reactions. Many of my friends were amused of the beautiful color and gorgeous look of flowers, and some requested information where to secure the seeds or seedlings of trees, while many expressed interest to visit the sites where the two species are found. On the other hand, several friends in the conservation community were alarmed to know the presence of these exotic species in the protected area, and they urged the planting of indigenous or native trees, while suggesting the eradication of non-native species, because they might affect the biodiversity of the MKNP.
Forester Edgardo Cueto, a Ph. D on forest resources management recommended for the conduct of risk analysis to determine the impacts of exotic species on the MKNP’s biodiversity. He said the introduction of exotic species might “entail the modification of entire ecosystems, including overgrowing and shading out native species, changing fire regimes, and modifying water and nutrient systems.” Cueto added the species hybridization and introgression and ultimately the invasive meltdown are possible consequences. The result of the assessment shall be used in the decision-making by either extirpate the species or let them be managed properly, Cueto said.
Other exotic species and reforestation
The Antsoan is not the only exotic plant found at the MKNP administration center, as there are also mahogany, gmelina, eucalyptus, and a particular species of teak (Tectona grandis), among others, although several native species are available at the site, too. These trees were planted in the 1960s to 80s as part of the reforestation project of the then Bureau of Forest Development, and later on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, forester Johnny Flores, who served as a manager of the project site at one point in time, said.
I could only assume that the planting of these exotic species in the area was done with noble intention of reforesting the site that was badly deforested prior to it, according to local folks. I think, the issue of exotic species in relation to biological diversity has never been considered seriously at that time. If my recollection is right, it was only in the mid 80s when the issue of biodiversity started to become popular and the advocacy for planting of native plant species emerged.
I could recall that the late forester Larry Cayayan, who was then the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer of Negros Occidental in early 1990s, once told me the reforestation at Calapnagan included the planting of flowering trees at the park’s boundary so there would be visible markers that will separate it from private lands. He opined that in a way these flowering trees would be an added attraction of the park.
Most likely, with the influenced of the government’s reforestation project, settlers, not only at Calapnagan but also in other barangays within Mount Kanla-on, planted trees, comprised mostly of exotic species, in their backyards and farm lots, while others established tree farms. While Mount Kanla-on was established as a national park in 1934, it has never been spared from settlements that became political units as barangays through the years.
Mount Kanla-on and NIPAS
Mount Kanla-on became an initial component of the National Integrated Protected Areas System with the enactment of Republic 7586 in 1992. The NIPAS Act transformed the national parks and other nature reserves to protected areas, and from then on, biodiversity conservation was the focused on the establishment and management of these sites. Prior to this, we were largely following the American-tailored national park system, as introduced by the American colonial regime in 1932. As one measure to protect the biodiversity, the DENR came out with a guideline prohibiting the introduction of exotic species in protected areas.
When I was the park superintendent of the MKNP, from 1995 to 2002, my staff and me were aware of the presence of these exotic species. We knew these flowering trees, but with all honesty, we were unsure at that time if this so called Palawan cherry is an exotic species, although we were more in suspicion that it is, indeed, a non-native tree. I did not take much interest over these trees, because some are planted in the disputed “private lands” within the MKNP. I reviewed the 1st management plan of the MKNP, but unfortunately it did not list and discuss exotic species.
Considerations and possible options
The Protected Area Management Board of the MKNP, when I was still the park superintendent, came out with a policy allowing the cutting of planted and exotic species in the area. The purpose of the guideline was to minimize pressure to remaining natural forests by allowing communities to utilize and benefit from their planted exotic trees. In every tree cut, a replacement of five native species was required. It was also a way to eradicate exotic species in the area. The policy did not include cutting of trees at the government’s reforestation sites, as there might be issues on audit regulations.
I was at the MKNP administration center last year, and I observed that it seems the number of these exotic trees did not increase. I noticed some mahogany trees are already invaded with vines and other plants, while several undergrowth species are noticeable. The interest of the local government of La Castellana to promote this area for tourism purposes is understandable and a good idea. In fact, in the original management plan of the MKNP, this site has been identified as ecotourism zone, because, aside from the remaining natural forests found in the area, it is here where one can have a good view of the towering Kanla-on Volcano, and it is ideal for picnic, camping, and other outdoor activities.
I am amendable to Cueto’s recommendation to conduct a study on exotic species and its impacts, not only at Calapnagan, but the entire MKNP so that appropriate conservation measures shall be adopted by the PAMB. MKNP is also gifted with numerous native flowering plants that can be propagated. The MKNP Act of 2001, or Republic Act 9154, prohibits the establishment and introduction of exotic species with allelopathic effect, or those detrimental to endemic species, or without prior PAMB permit.*
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
On Saturday, the heavy rain inundated several places in Bacolod City, causing not only traffic jams in major streets, but also anxieties and panic because the rushing water entered a number of houses. From the photos posted on social media, Facebook in particular, you could see numerous streets looking like rivers. The situation clearly indicated the need to evaluate the existing drainage system and other waterways of the city, since heavy downpours these days are normal occurrences, with the advent of the changing climatic pattern of the world.
With the increasing population and migration from other cities and municipalities of Negros Occidental, in addition to the phasing in of more investments, infrastructure development and other economic opportunities, Bacolod is getting congested, and, therefore, it is also important to consider the design of the city in terms of land use and overall urban planning. Aside from flooding, the city is already facing traffic issues, solid waste problems, informal settlers and dwellings, and other concerns that are basically associated with zoning and local law enforcement, like vandalism, sidewalk vending, and improper parking.
For one, there is a need to develop and implement a comprehensive drainage system plan that should be integrated into the whole development master plan of the city. This should be coupled with the cleaning and clearing of all waterways and the strict imposition of ecological solid waste management. Aside from relying on centralized garbage collection scheme, it is important to encourage or even enforce community level waste disposal system. In most cases, drainage are clogged with solid wastes that are emanating from markets, households, or from individuals who just throw away plastic containers anywhere at their convenience.
One thing that Bacolod could also innovate is the promotion of green and open spaces, because they can help absorb rainwater. It can be implemented as part of the requirements for any development of a particular site and establishment, especially those requiring a large area, such as housing subdivisions, malls, and educational facilities, among others. Even in designing roads and parking lots, green spaces can be incorporated. Easements of waterways should be cleared from settlement and infrastructures, and can be developed as greenbelts and parks.
During the past 10 years, infrastructure development in Bacolod was enormous and many spaces have been cemented and if the drainage was not properly considered, naturally, rainwater will find its way to the streets. This particular scenario occurred in Mandalagan last Saturday, because you can hardly find now open spaces along Lacson Street. Most commercial establishments occupying the area made use of every space for concrete structures. Some vendors are also using portions of path walks along this area.
I am hoping that Bacolod City will further acquire property or partner with civic-minded lot owners for the establishment of more city parks that are not fully cemented but would promote green and open spaces. While basketball and covered courts are being promoted in the different barangays, why not Bacolod also allocates funds for the establishment and maintenance of barangay tree parks? It is interesting if these tree parks would be planted with native floral species that may attract colorful organisms, like butterflies.
One ongoing development that is worth looking into in Bacolod City is the construction being undertaken now by the Ayalas at the property of the provincial government along Capitol lagoon. I’ve learned that the contract between the province and the Ayala Land includes the redesigning of the lagoon and a friend told me that the entire development of the whole area would consider green architecture and landscape design.
Another important site in Bacolod City that should be designed incorporating green and open spaces is the reclamation area, since it is not yet fully covered with infrastructures. The development of SM at the reclamation did not consider green spaces since it fully cemented the whole area it occupied, including parking lots.
Bacolod is a relatively small community and how about promoting and implementing bike lanes so that people would be encouraged to use bikes instead of motor vehicles? In a way, this would also promote healthy living while easing the traffic.
There are so many opportunities for Bacolod to showcase it as a modern urban community that promotes healthy living, clean environment, and more green spaces if only local officials will go back to the drawing board .*
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
It was a relief when we finally learned late last week that the grassfire in the Mount Kanla-on Natural Park in Negros Island was finally contained and put out. Firefighters braved the scourging heat of both the summer and fire, while also risking their lives from possible volcanic eruption just to make sure that the fire will no longer spread in other areas of the MKNP. The blaze was triggered after the Kanla-on Volcano spewed fiery materials on the night of March 29, affecting the grasslands surrounding the active crater.
The Kanla-on Volcano is still under alert level 1, as raised by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, because it continues to indicate unrest. The possibility of phreatic explosions still remains. Phreatic explosions are steam-driven that usually occur when magma, lava, and hot rocks, or new volcanic deposits heat the water beneath the ground, or on the surface, the PHIVOLCS described. Ash falls occurred in several instances due to phreatic explosions of the volcano during the past months.
Negros Occidental Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer Andre Untal said the fire out was made possible because of the concerted efforts of various national and local governments, with support from numerous volunteers. The Negros Island Region of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, with regional director Al Orolfo at the helm, was on top of the situation. Untal and MKNP Protected Area Superintendent Joan Nathaniel Gerangaya and their personnel were at the ground for the firefighting operation, while other DENR units in the region came to the rescue, too.
Untal acknowledged the support of the provincial government, particularly Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr., who immediately allocated P3 million to support the curtailment of grassfire from spreading in forested areas of the MKNP. The governor mobilized the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction Management Unit, and the Bureau of Fire Protection and Office of the Civil Defense in the province to assist the task in putting out the grassfire.
What is also inspiring was the support, not only of the local government unit of La Castellana, where the fire was happening within its administrative jurisdiction, but all other LGUs in Negros Occidental, when they sent their fire officers, personnel, and rescue teams to assist in putting out the flame. At the time of the incident, the Kanla-on Volcano was still on alert level 1 for possible phreatic explosion, and entering at the four-kilometer radius from the crater, where the fire was occurring, was strictly prohibited. Untal said the PHIVOLCS provided the necessary guidance in the firefighting efforts by closely monitoring the volcanic activity. About 300 hectares of grasslands were torched because of the said volcanic activity.
It can be told once again that surrounding communities of the volcano are the most reliable frontliners and partners in disaster responses, like firefighting, when they joined forces with other groups in securing the MKNP from destructive fire. I am particularly proud of the Kanla-on Green Brigades that, through time, have never hesitated to risk their lives to protect the MKNP, which they call their very own home. In his thank-you message posted on Facebook, Untal singled out the efforts of KGBs in the firefighting operation.
During the Holy Week, similar incident of grassfire happened just below the crater. With the timely response from communities, the grassfire was immediately put out. Untal claimed that illegal trekkers, who forced their way to the crater during the Holy Week in spite of the imposition of the trekking ban at that time, might have caused the fire, which scorched about 100 hectares of grasslands. Under existing regulations, the MKNP is close to trekking activities once PHIVOLCS declared volcanic alert level in this mountain known as one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines. The trekkers have already been identified and may face legal charges, Untal added.
There is no doubt that the fire-affected grasslands will immediately recover at the onset of the rainy season. But it is also important to note that the grassland surrounding the volcano is a natural ecosystem. Given the soil condition at the vicinity of the volcano, only grasses will thrive in the site. However, since it is a natural ecosystem, it also plays crucial roles for other organisms that are thriving in the area. In fact, two species of grasses available at the surrounding area of the crater require further studies because they are suspected to be endemic only in the place. Grasses also help in the prevention of soil erosion.
These laudable efforts in curtailing the recent fires that occurred in the MKNP showcased the collective and tireless efforts of both government and nongovernment institutions and even individuals in making a difference regardless of how difficult and challenging the task at hand. It would have been a more tragic event when those grassfires were not prevented from spreading to nearby forested areas of the MKNP.
I could only hope further that similar serious efforts will be in place in Negros to finally protect the remaining natural ecosystems, without compromise, and rehabilitate and restore the denuded ones. After all, our natural ecosystems are our life support systems. My heartfelt appreciation and congratulations to all firefighting volunteers for a job well done in putting out the fires in the MKNP, and, indeed, your efforts are worth sharing, since conservation matters. Kudos to all of you!*
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*
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
Say KGB and one would immediately associate it with the defunct state security agency of the Soviet Union that was known for high-level espionage. The KGB is the acronym of Russia’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or the Committee for State Security. When I was appointed as the Protected Area Superintendent of the Mount Kanla-on Natural Park in Negros Island in 1995, I gave KGB another meaning – the Kanla-on Green Brigade, which until today, remains a vanguard in forest protection and law enforcement in one of the Key Biodiversity Areas of the Philippines.
Through the years, KGB members evolved not only as forest wardens, but also as mountain guides, porters, rescuers, and communicators, in addition to being involved in biodiversity monitoring. After my seven-year stint as the PASu of the MKNP in June 2002, I was provided with opportunities to visit and work in some other protected and conservation areas in the Philippines, until to date. As I progressed in these assignments, and while I would like to say that the KGB scheme has its own fallouts, limitations, trying moments, and even weaknesses, I am confident to claim, too, that, so far and after two decades, it is one of the most sustained mechanisms in forest protection in the country.
What are the necessary elements of this sustainability? Community participation and benefits, continuing education, and imparting values and commitment to local folk in biodiversity conservation are among the key factors why the KGB of MKNP survived the challenges in protected area management through time. This is what I truly call community unity and efforts in protecting the area they call home and where they also derive their livelihood and income.
How the KGB in MKNP started? One of the major concerns we faced when we organized the PASu Office of the MKNP in 1995 was the limitation of personnel and financial resources for forest protection in the entire protected area covering about 24,557 hectares. We thought then that MKNP personnel alone could hardly implement forest protection, and, therefore, we need to create strategies to involve local communities and other concerned groups and agencies. It was timely, because the World Bank-supported Conservation of Priority Protected Areas in the Philippines Project of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources included MKNP as one of 10 project sites in the country.
Combining the newly hired and seasoned staff of MKNP, with forester Edgardo Rostata as my deputy PASu, now a full-fledged Community Environment and Natural Resources Officer in Cadiz City, and in partnership with the Multi-Sectoral Alliance for Development-Negros, we brainstormed how we should carry out biodiversity protection and law enforcement in MKNP. From the very start, my notion to make conservation efforts work was to involve communities in whatever undertakings.
With our team, I floated the idea of organizing community groups to become volunteers in biodiversity protection and law enforcement. There was hesitation on the part of some MKNP staff, because of the belief that communities will not get involve if they could not see any personal benefits and favor from that scheme. The security of those who will be involved was another consideration, including the possibility that they shall be alienated from community affairs. The other concern was how to proceed with organizing, especially with the logistical and financial requirements we need.
Amidst all these challenges, our team tried to dissect each issue and came out with possible options, and the first step was to intensify community awareness and education on the biodiversity significance of Mount Kanla-on. The formation of KGB started, not only on biodiversity awareness, but, more so, in inculcating deeper understanding and values on the importance of the MKNP to the lives of every community member. This was made possible by choosing clear and appropriate conservation messages and medium that created personal and emotional impacts to the target communication receivers. Effective communication strategies involved were direct interactions, dialogues, meetings, and immersion to communities.
The participation of nongovernment organization was another crucial element in the formation of KGB, and, through the support of the CPPAP, MUAD-Negros initiated social preparation, capacity building, and organizing the KGB in every barangay within the MKNP. Inter-phasing with the formation of KGBs, the MKNP park rangers were trained to assist in strengthening the organizations of different volunteers. Eventually, the park rangers became team leaders and they supervised the operations of KGB groups.
With the formation of KGBs, logistical and material support was secured from local government units, particularly the provincial government. In addition, instead of providing salaries or honorarium, the PASu Office and MUAD-Negros jointly sought livelihood projects, including reforestation projects, for KGBs. The KGBs further earned additional income from guiding and porter services in MKNP. They also became effective communication agents in the protected area, by conducting different information and education activities in communities.
Since protection and enforcements require skills and knowledge on legal matters, it was necessary to provide training on para-legal for KGBs. It was here when the PASu Office linked with the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office and NGOs with legal services to provide capacity building. It was very fortunate that then fiscal, and now judge, Philadelfa Agraviador, was the assigned prosecutor to handle environmental cases in Negros Occidental. She actively supported the KGBs with her legal technical assistance in capacity building, and in the filing and prosecuting of cases against suspected violators. From 1995 to 2002, the PASu Office has filed more than 40 cases involving illegal activities, leading to the conviction of at least 18 violators.
It is also necessary to highlight the important role of the PASu in maintaining the operations of KGBs. Since the time I was the PASu of the MKNP, from 1995 to 2002, and until now, the KGB scheme has already been integrated as a vital component of the protected area management. The MKNP management plan clearly articulated this scheme relative to the biodiversity protection and law enforcement strategy of the protected area.*
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
The pastoral and state visit of His Holiness, Pope Francis, in the Philippines from January 15 to 19, 2015, did not only focus on issues concerning Christian faith, social justice, equality, and other social and moral concerns, but also touched on matters relating to environment and natural resources. This is not actually surprising, since by choosing the name Francis, he already showed to the whole world, right after his election as the latest successor of Saint Peter, that he truly cares for nature.
He used the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, who is a known Patron Saint of nature, because of his extraordinary love for animals. In his statement during his first appearance with the media as the head of the Catholic Church in 2013, the Pope said, “That is how the name came into my heart, Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. These days, we do not have very good relations with creation, do we?”
During his courtesy call on President Benigno Aquino III in Malacañang January 16, the Pope categorically emphasized the need to preserve our rich human and natural resources, which the Philippines has been blessed with, according to the Holy Father, who is also the head of the small Vatican state. However, it necessitates that political leaders be outstanding for honesty, integrity and commitment to the common good, the Pope declared. This is a very clear message of the Pope that directly links governance in natural resources, conservation and environmental protection. By ensuring the common good, our political leaders should have the commitment and integrity to safeguards the right of the people to a healthy environment over personal vested interests.
This is particularly important in the country, because of the rapid deterioration of our natural resources and the massive environmental degradation we are facing today. Honestly and integrity are very necessary in governance so that our national resources shall be properly managed and secured from corruption.
While on board the papal plane on his way to the Philippines, the Pope was quoted in numerous media reports as saying that the global warming the entire world is experiencing today is man-made. Pope Francis believes this is largely because the people had tremendously exploited nature. But he is also glad that many people are talking about it now. The Pope will release his encyclical on ecology this year, which hopefully will further advance the debate and initiatives in combating climate change.
During his encounter with the youth at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila January 18, the Pope also mentioned that one of the major challenges in the Philippines is the climate change. While he did not elaborate on this, it is to my opinion that the Pope is very aware of the country’s vulnerability to the impacts of the climate change, including our susceptibility to the hazards and risks of disasters and calamities. I was expecting him to mention about this while in Tacloban on Saturday, but he did focus more on sufferings and inspirations brought about by the devastation of super typhoon Yolanda.
In his final message to the youth at the UST, His Holiness singled out the concern on environmental protection, which he identified as one of his priorities from the very start of his mission as the present successor of Saint Peter in the Roman Catholic Church.EAG.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
- Some concerns on the reopening of Mount Apo for mountaineering
- Flowering trees in Mount Kanla-on gaining public attention
- Green and open spaces for Bacolod
- Climate change nightmares – RollingStone
- Energy exploration and development in protected areas
- Commendable collective efforts: Putting off grassfires in Mt. Kanla-on
- Closing a mountain for mountaineering: The story of Mt. Kanla-on
- The KGB of Mount Kanla-on
- Negros species vulnerable to extinction
- The monkey sanctuary in Calatrava, Negros Occ.
- Conservation matters to His Holiness
- 2014 in review
- Biodiversity Conservation
- Climate Change
- Coastal and Marine Ecosystems
- Conservation Events
- Conservation Initiatives
- Deforestation and Degradation
- Forest Ecosystem
- Fresh Water Ecosystems
- Genetically Modified Organisms
- Indigenous People
- Mt. Kanla-on
- Nature Interpretation
- Protected Areas
- Renewable Energy
- Risk Reduction and Management
- Species Conservation
- Toxic Chemicals
- Wildlife Species