Read Part 1: Cordillera watersheds in grave peril (05/21/08)
LA TRINIDAD, BENGUET?Abraham Akilit, manager of the National Irrigation Administration in the Cordillera Administrative Region, was shocked to see five bulldozers roaring like lost motorcycles in the forests.
Akilit led a team to inspect the Mt. Ahin watershed in the boundary of the provinces of Ifugao, Benguet and Mountain Province last month.
?Like in the other national parks, the bulldozers were meant to clear the forest for vegetation,? Akilit said.
Attracting most attention are the Mt. Pulag National Park that straddles Benguet, Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya, and the Mt. Data National Park in Buguias, Benguet, and in Bauko, Mountain Province.
?Crucial sections of Mt. Data and Mt. Pulag are becoming vegetable gardens. This is a sad development,? Akilit said.
At stake in these national parks are mossy forests, the most critical portions of the country?s forests, said Manuel Pogeyed, Benguet?s environment and natural resources officer. ?They provide the habitat of endangered species of plants and animals.?
Samuel Peñafiel, director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the Cordillera, agreed.
?The mossy forests act like a sponge. They hold water and organic matter which are crucial to forest life and biodiversity. This is why mossy forests are attractive to vegetation,? he said.
33 bird species
Pulag, the highest peak in Luzon and the second tallest mountain in the country, had been reported to host 33 bird species and several mammals believed to be in danger of becoming extinct, like the deer, longhaired fruit bat and the giant bushy tailed cloud rat (Crateromys schadenbergi).
Officials said the extinction of the cloud rat, called bowet (also known as buwet, puot, yut-yut, bu-ot or vuwot in the vernacular), a rare species endemic to Philippine forests, also meant the demise of the region?s watersheds.
?The rats have played a role in sustaining life forms in the remote forests of Kalinga and Apayao to Pulag in Benguet, and even diminished the threat posed by giant earthworms in the rice terraces of Ifugao,? Peñafiel said.
In fact, he said, the DENR had adopted the cloud rat as the mascot of its efforts to salvage forests from further deterioration.
Deforestation and expanding vegetable farms were cited as ways to welcome desertification.
In his visit here in November last year, Dr. William Dar, chair of the United Nations subcommittee on desertification, said the symptoms of desertification, which has made water scarce in other countries, were already present in the Cordillera.
Dar, who is also the director general of the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics based in Greater Hyderabad, India, said the region?s expanding vegetable farms might bring in more problems as the ecosystem would be greatly disturbed by the use of chemical farm inputs.
The loss of forest covers, on the other hand, would also destroy biodiversity that would cut short the life of watersheds that are critical water sources, he said.
Dar?s statements confirmed Akilit?s fears.
Gov?t ?very slow?
The NIA official said the sources of water for domestic and irrigation uses in the different communities and the lowland provinces would dry up if the present rate of deforestation in forest reservations, such as Data and Pulag, continues.
?A collaborated effort must be done by the various stakeholders to prevent the mossy forests from being destroyed by enterprising individuals who want to enrich themselves at the expense of the environment,? Peñafiel said.
He said the DENR was doing its best to protect the remaining forest covers.
But Ifugao Gov. Teodoro Baguilat Jr. is unimpressed. Asked if he believed the government is taking for granted the role of the Cordillera as a watershed cradle, he said yes.
?The national government views the Cordillera more as a super region of mines, high value crops and vegetable production. This would mean conversion of forests to agriculture lands,? Baguilat said.
?The government is very slow in releasing the shares of the provinces from the national wealth taxes and there seems to be no effort to redefine host communities in hydropower plants projects to include upland communities.?
It all starts how the government would view a watershed, he said. ?This view would determine the response and the level of commitment to save them.?
Baguilat said: ?The Cordillera as a watershed cradle invites a lot of development imperatives. The forests and water resources in the region must be viewed as one ecosystem. This approach would force policy reviews on the increased production of vegetables and other high-value crops and the granting of mining permits.?
?Definitely, mining cannot coexist with a watershed cradle,? he said. ?The key is ecosystems approach.?
This, Baguilat said, was the correlation of humans, resources and activities. ?It means biodiversity. What the DENR is doing is massive tree planting of exotic homogenous species. That?s not good. It should be biodiversity approach,? he said.
He suggested the following programs?identification and inventory of critical watersheds, adoption of traditional forest management systems into the reforestation programs of the DENR and the implementation of biological diversity in tree planting that would intercrop forest trees with coffee, rattan, bamboo and provision for wildlife.
Partnered with int?l groups
Peñafiel and Akilit disagreed with Baguilat, particularly on the failure of government to view the Cordillera as a watershed cradle.
Peñafiel said the government launched last year the P12.25-million Integrated Watershed Management and Sustainable Development Project. This year, he said, the project would target the rehabilitation of three critical watersheds?Chico, Abulog and Upper Magat?concentrating on reforestation, agroforestry and the assisted natural regeneration (ANR) project.
?The massive planting of trees would reverse carbon dioxide from the air through a process called carbon sequestration, the planting of trees and the conduct of ANR activities would help slow the growth of greenhouse gas concentrates in the atmosphere,? Peñafiel said.
He said the department?s national tree planting project, the Green Philippines Project, had planted 5,573,383 seedlings in the region, covering 2,893 hectares and 171.2 kilometers of roadsides.
The government has also partnered with the international community to save the forests, like the Department of Agriculture?s link with the Cordillera Highland Agricultural Resources Management project, he said.