SAN FRANCISCO, Agusan del Sur—All their lives, they were small-scale miners until last year, when they were turned into forest guards of the Mt. Magdiwata watershed in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur.
Called the “social fence” of the watershed’s buffer zone at the foot of the mountain, they now lead productive lives working on small parcels of land developed into organic agroforestry farms while given the daunting task of protecting the more than 1,600-hectare watershed from illegal tree cutters and timber poachers.
The program was initiated by the San Francisco Water District (SFWD) last year, tapping eight former small-scale miners who were willing to change their lives by shifting from environmentally destructive livelihood activities into eco-friendly farming while becoming protectors of the forest.
San Francisco was spared from the onslaught of Typhoon “Pablo,” which devastated neighboring provinces, thanks to Magdiwata’s natural shield of thick forest.
Under the SFWD’s “Imo yuta ugmara kay bayaran ka (Toil your land and we’ll pay),” each of the farmer-beneficiaries would be given P8,000 in financial support, to be divided into three farming development stages.
Since settling their families within the 200-meter buffer zone of Magdiwata, the new farmers grow organic vegetables, yam, corn and fruit trees that would sustain their daily subsistence and be freed from the rigors of day-to-day survival at the gold rush areas in neighboring towns.
“The situation is so different now because we no longer have to worry about what to eat in our daily lives since we can easily pick vegetables and other staples in our backyard,” said Godofredo Singson, 60, who has eight children.
Singson had been an “abantero” (gold extractor) in the tunnels of the gold-rich mining village of Tambis in Surigao del Sur for more than two decades.
Aside from Singson, the other program beneficiaries are Rodolfo Maguinda, 57; Wilfredo Alabado, 55; and Teodoro Maratas, 59, who were also tapped for their mastery of the mountain terrain.
Shield vs typhoon
Magdiwata, which is part of Diwata mountain ranges that traverse the neighboring provinces of Surigao del Sur and Compostela Valley, was considered endangered over a decade ago with a receding water source.
Elmer Luzon, SFWD general manager, said that among the ranges, only Magdiwata has about 90 percent of forest cover—good enough to protect residents from any typhoon.
In 1997, the water agency initiated a major rehabilitation program covering at least 928 hectares of denuded and open grasslands of Magdiwata after it was declared a watershed forest reserve by Presidential Proclamation No. 282. The program has brought more than enough supply of water to more than 5,000 households.
“In one source alone, we can already tap at least 17 liters per second, a significant increase from 5 liters per second in 2004,” Luzon said.
Next year, he said, the SFWD will tap more “social fence” farmers in other areas of the buffer zone still threatened by the incursion of illegal logging, small-scale mining, and sand and gravel quarrying.