Our myopic view of disaster

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By Ramon Dacawi

Benchwarmer

Friday, April 11, 2014


(Almost amused by the media coverage of the recent fire that gutted portions of Mt. Banahaw, we recycle this piece written way back in 2008.
Even as we do, many parts of the Cordillera pine forest range are on fire again, an annual series of destruction that never gets national attention. The fact remains, too, that above and beside these diminishing pine stands are the equally dwindling mossy forests of the Cordillera which also hardly inspire national attention even with their crucial role as the “water tanks” that form the rivers that are the life-blood of the lowland farms and of the hydroelectric plants that spur national development.)

FOR quite some time now, our official, legal and actual view of what makes a disaster is anchored on its immediate impact on human life, limb and property.

A state of calamity is determined and declared as such by the number of lives and properties lost or damaged in the wake of a typhoon, fire or earthquake. It is measured by the number of houses, bancas, fishponds, farmlands and public infrastructure destroyed, by the number of schools, roads and bridges to be rebuilt.

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Unless human lives and properties are involved, a forest fire, however extensive the swath of destruction it leaves on trees, flora and fauna, is hardly viewed as a disaster. It doesn't merit declaration of a state of calamity that would allow funding for rehabilitation. Let nature rehabilitate itself.

Between a mature tree and a house built recently beside it, the former must go. It has to be cut for it poses danger to life and property. Why the house, in the first place, had to be built beside the tree is hardly a legitimate question to ask. So when the tree is cut, the property owner is rewarded for his acquisitive foresight for material things -- in terms of free lumber to expand his house.

Notwithstanding our ability to define "sustainable development", tree, forest and watershed conservation and protection remain beyond our sense of urgency or mental grasp. Otherwise, we won't be having this protocol that lumps suppression of any fire under the command of the Bureau of Fire Protection which, for all intents and purposes, is equipped and trained to combat infrastructure – not forest - fires.

Otherwise, Congress would not have sat on the country's forest management plan our foresters drafted and submitted decades ago. Otherwise, Congress would have gone beyond taking to task the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for the denudation of our watersheds and forests.

A DENR official down there in Metro Manila told me why Congress can't provide as much budgetary allocation for watershed and forest conservation and protection as it does for farm production: Trees can't vote but farmers can and do.

And yet, the official added, "we get the flak whenever rice production dips due to the drying up of the forest water source".

Up here in the unique and remaining Cordillera pine stands and mossy forests, a disaster has long been in the offing. It is triggered by years of neglect of a region whose mineral, forest and water resources were harnessed in the name of national development, yet short-changed of benefits accruing from their extraction and exploitation.

Some giant firms that mined out the gold now want to still hold on to the land. New, speculative ones promise "responsible mining", to soften opposition to further exploration and eventual extraction of what remains of the lode in tribal lands.

For some time now, the lowlands have been blaming us up here whenever they are flooded yet do not comprehend our sacrifice that allowed the construction and operation of the dams and mines.

They now complain that we have not preserved the mossy forests that, for generations, have been the life-blood of their farms. Yet we up here were and are practically alone in their upkeep through the “muyong” “lapat” and other indigenous and time-honored watershed management practices, without substantial support from down there.

Fact is the lowlands continue to oppose our share from national wealth taxes and other benefits from the operation of hydroelectric power dams, funds that would have enabled us to maintain the integrity of the watersheds for their benefit.

Now they want to talk to us, hopefully about shared responsibility in conserving these watersheds that generate electric power for their homes and industries and irrigation for their farmlands. For quite some time now, we've been trying to tell them so.

Still, we, the watershed keepers, have been slow in aggressively fighting for what is due us. For one, it was only recently that we launched a serious push for a redefinition of a "host community" under the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira), to entitle us to shares from the one-centavo set aside for every kilowatt hour the dams produce and sell. Like our concept of fire as a disaster, the law's definition of a "host community" is infrastructure-based, limited to where the dam is located.

Almost a decade after the controversial Epira was passed, the narrow definition remains. This issue was raised by Forester Manny Pogeyed immediately after the Epira law was passed.

We raised the issue before the Cordillera Regional Development Council and to then Energy Secretary Vincent Perez when he came to Baguio for a public hearing to gather inputs to the implementing rules and regulations of the law. The same was raised by regional economic and development director Juan Ngalob during that public hearing.

Perez described that input as an “insightful observation” and promised to consider it as part of the IRR of the law. As it turned out, that provision was never reflected in the IRR which was a copycat of the IRR of the Energy Crisis Act of 1992.

We raised the issue before then Energy Secretary Angelo Reyes during a press conference here. We told the secretary our cousins in Hungduan, Ifugao were keen on diverting the flow of the Hapao River, a major feeder to the Magat Dam, to dramatize their protest over the lack of support to them as keepers of the watersheds that keep the dam’s turbines running.

The secretary was startled by the idea. We clarified it was an Ifugao joke, but meant to draw government attention to the years of inequity in the distribution benefits from resource exploitation.

On second thought, the Ifugaos might as well take that plan seriously.

After all, they can do it, as did their ancestors in carving whole mountainsides into rice terraces with the crudest of tools.

It took then come-backing Ifugao Governor Teddy Baguilat to raise the issue again, during the First Cordillera Regional Watershed Summit in 2008. With or without a summit, the governor feels this and other resource-based issues should now be on top of our regional development agenda, an agenda anchored on fighting for what is due us from the exploitation of what remains of our natural resources up here.

For so long, the agenda for national development has been "user-friendly", friendly to the beneficiaries of development down there but disastrous to us, the resource base up here. In sum, what happened – and is happening - reflects my myopic and warped view of what the build-operate-transfer (BOT) scheme of development actually is on the ground, especially in the Cordillera where, I guess, it was piloted:

They built and operated (BO) the mines and dams up here but transferred (T) the gold and electric power, including the taxes, to Metro Manila and other places down there.

With another environmental disaster in the offing, we ask the same old question: Will development and exploitation of our resources up here be forever for those down there at our expense up here who are blamed for the flooding and drought down there?

If that question sounds angry, it's because it is. Reason enough for us to push regional autonomy, if only to allow us to channel Cordillera's resources for its own development. (e-mail:mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments)

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on April 12, 2014.

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