Tribal folk guard sacred Mount Kitanglad
MALAYBALAY CITY, Bukidnon—Indigenous people range the whole length and breadth of lush Mount Kintanglad, jealously guarding the riches of the mountain’s rain forest against the greed of outsiders.
A prominent family here would have built a rest house in the timberland that adjoins the protected area’s buffer zone had the indigenous people not opposed the planned incursion into the forest.
A multinational company that had put up a sugarcane plantation in the buffer zone quit and left Bukidnon, run out by the indigenous people who fought its degradation of the mountain’s pristine environment.
Volunteer guardians of that natural wealth, the indigenous people took a village captain to court for allowing the commercial exploitation of the forest.
The volunteers are poor but they would not allow other poor people to squat on land within the protected area. With their persistence, local governments just had to respond and clear the reservation of informal settlers.
But the indigenous people’s vigilance has been costly. Five volunteers have been killed since 1997, all witnesses in cases the government brought against violators of the law protecting Mount Kitanglad.
That law, Republic Act No. 8978, was passed by Congress in 2000, declaring Mount Kitanglad a protected area because of its biodiversity. The law named the reservation Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park.
To the indigenous people of the area, Mount Kitanglad is sacred and they have their origins from that sacredness of the mountain.
Legend says that when a great flood submerged the province of Bukidnon, the only visible thing was lemon grass or “tanglad” on top of the mountain’s peak. “Kita” is Visayan for “to see.”
The mountain stretches over 47,270 hectares, composed of 31,326 ha of protected area and 16,034 ha designated as a buffer zone. It straddles parts of the municipalities of Baungon, Talakag, Lantapan, Impasugong, Sumilao, Libona, Manolo Fortich and Malaybalay City, all in Bukidnon.
The indigenous people of the region were entrusted with the protection of the mountain range. They were designated the Kitanglad Guard Volunteers (KGV).
The volunteers patrol the forest and because of the killings, their responsibility has been limited to reporting violations of the protection law to the park area superintendent’s office.
Anchored on culture
The KGV was first organized in 1997 through the efforts of the indigenous people’s council of elders, the Kitanglad Integrated Nongovernment Organization and the Protected Area Management Board.
From the first 200 members in 1997, the group has grown to 344. The members are confirmed by the council of elders and are deputized by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Felix Mirasol, Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office head, said the protection of the mountain by the indigenous people was anchored on culture, as it defined their existence.
“They want to volunteer not just for the money but because [the mountain] is part of their domain,” Mirasol said.
KGV president Benjamin Maputi said the guards were the frontliners of the mountain range. “Because of our dedication to the protection of the area, people have become aware of and educated on its importance,” Maputi said.
Emiliano Lumiston, known in the area as “Blackie,” has been a member of KGV since 2002. He is one of the organization’s officers and serves as the group’s head in Alanib village in Lantapan town.
Blackie said he was happy to serve in KGV because the organization helped his community in many ways. He patrols the area once a week with his son, who is also a volunteer.
“I want to protect the mountain because I do not want the lowlands to get flooded when it rains,” Blackie said.
But happy as he is in serving his community, Blackie needs to earn more for his family, so he does tree-planting surveys for the DENR.
“The allowance that we get as volunteer guards is not enough to feed our families and send our children to school,” Blackie said.
Each of the 28 villages on the foot of the mountain receives a meager allowance of P5,000 a month, regardless of the number of KGV in any village. Of that amount, P200 goes to the group’s emergency fund.
Blackie is one of the “luckier” volunteers who receive more than the volunteers in other villages because there are only eight of them in Alanib. He said there were some villages with up to 20 volunteers dividing the allowance among themselves.
“If we are not going to get other contractual jobs, how can we sustain our needs?” Blackie said.
Aside from the monthly allowance, the volunteer guards have insurance coverage worth P100,000.
Mount Kitanglad is the watershed that provides water for irrigation, hydropower generation and domestic use for Bukidnon and the nearby province of Misamis Oriental.
Mirasol feels that the industries operating in the mountain area should help support the socioeconomic efforts of the indigenous people.
“They should look at the livelihood of the indigenous people because these people have so little. They should give back to them and to the mountain for using its natural resources, and that is its water,” Mirasol said.
In June 1992, President Corazon Aquino signed the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act (Republic Act No. 7586) that grants indigenous peoples the right to remain in protected areas.
Indigenous communities serve as a “social fence” against illegal extraction of resources in protected zones, such as illegal logging and wildlife trade.
Indigenous communities also protect the land from encroachment.
Before KGV was organized, up to 15 cases of such violations had been filed every year from 1994 to 1997. But with the volunteers taking on the job, the number of cases has gone down to two a year since 2008.
Mount Kitanglad has one of the few remaining rain forests in the country and is home to a diverse species of wildlife. The forest is also a known nesting place of the threatened Philippine Eagle.
“The presence of eagles is an indication there is abundant wildlife on the mountain,” said Edgar Agbayani, a protected area superintendent officer of Mount Kitanglad.
Wildlife on the mountain has been increasing since 2002, about the time that illegal activities within the reservation began to decrease, according to Agbayani.
The Asean Heritage Parks proclaimed Mount Kitanglad, at 2,889 meters the third-highest mountain in the country, a heritage park in 2009. It was the third Philippine mountain to be granted this distinction, after Mount Apo in Davao, at 2,954 meters the highest mountain in the country, and Mounts Iglit-Baco in Mindoro Oriental, home of the “tamaraw.”
In the recent Asean Heritage Parks Conference held in Tagaytay City, the protected area managers and staff of Mount Kitanglad Range Natural Park were recognized for their endeavors in preserving the mountain.
They received three awards for engagement with indigenous peoples and local communities, the institutional organization and active management board, and actual biophysical improvements.
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