Saving the Cordillera mossy forests (First of two parts)

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By Ramon Dacawi

Benchwarmer

Friday, May 30, 2014


(The original of this piece was done some five years back, after a visit to two indigenous community projects in the Cordillera. With the recent interest on the region’s role as the watershed cradle of Northern Luzon, it finds print in slightly different form - as a toast to a forester’s initiative and the indigenous knowledge – and wisdom -of our upland tribal villages who, for generations, preserved the vital mossy forests of the Cordillera that are the life-blood of agriculture and power generation in Northern Philippines. It is in support of the observance of World Environment Day that Regional Executive Director Paquito Moreno the Department of Environment and Natural Resources stressed should be focused on our mossy forests that are the water tanks of the river systems. – RD.)

VILLAGE leader Paul Casiwan said they found four types of acorns in the remaining mossy forests. He sounded like he was trying to hide his excitement over the find. The acorns sounded like coffee beans as he poured them out of jute sacks and into iron buckets. His group had spent days gathering and sorting them according to shape, texture, and size and variety.

The acorns were of four sizes. The three smaller ones were ovate, shaped like bullets, but with short pins at the tip and looking like light, shiny chocolate nuggets. The biggest was round, like a dull chestnut.
Casiwan cracked a shell, popped the kernel into his mouth and chomped. He cracked another and offered the meat to visitors. It was hard, with an astringent taste like betel nut.

Acorns are basic food for birds and other animals that enrich the biodiversity of the mossy forest, he said.

Fellow worker Dominga Baliaga raked her hands into one of the aggregate piles. She was looking for acorns with tiny, whitish sprouts that must and damp had coaxed out of their shells through the pins. Contrasted with the dominant color of chestnut, those with shoots were easy to spot.

Soon the germinating seeds would be sown in pots in tree nurseries they had carved and flattened out of steep mountainsides overlooking tributaries of the Abra River. When their leaves develop, they will be replanted in open spaces to replenish and expand the vanishing mossy forest cover of Agawa.

Until they started picking and examining seeds, villagers in Agawa and in neighboring barangays in northwestern Besao town, Mt. Province, took for granted what their mossy forests contain. They now have to have an eye for detail to be able to properly identify the different tree species, together with the herbs and plants they’ll have to propagate as source of tribal medicine.

The propagation of “payen”( the native name for oak), “da-il” (petroleum nut) and other mossy forest species was part of a forest biodiversity project a few years bacj for Agawa and the adjoining barangays of Ambagiw, Gueday and Lacma-an in Besao.

Months later, a women’s group in Bayyo Barangay in the capital town of Bontoc also launched a similar community-based forest biodiversity project. It was concentrated in Mt. Polis , the fragile water source for several towns in Mt. Province and Ifugao that is also watershed of the Chico River flowing into the rice lands of the Cagayan Valley.

The two projects scheduled for two to three years were supported by the Small Grants Program of the United Nations Programme (SGP-UNDP) then headed by Angie Cunanan. Forester Manny Pogeyed, now the provincial environment officer of Mt Province, set in motion the projects by helping the two communities conceive and draft the proposals.

Earlier, Pogeyed, then the head of the community environment and natural resources office in Sabangan, Mt. Province , also mobilized the northern barangays of Sagada town for a headwaters enhancement project, also in a tie-up with SGP-UNDP.

He admitted that regular government outlays for forestry programs are very limited and spread too thin, prompting the need to tap other support institutions for the preservation of the mossy forests.

Until now, the mossy and pine forests that are unique to the village and most of the Cordilleras have been overlooked in the national forestry master plan. Conservation efforts are focused more on the common tropical foliage of these islands, from the mangrove to the dipterocarp and molave found up to 800 meters above sea level.

Unlike the lower forests, the dwindling pine and mossy forests have been classified only for protection, without provisions for reforestation and expansion Yet these higher ecosystems, specially the mossy forests, make the Cordillera the vital watershed cradle of Northern Luzon, the source of water that is the lifeblood of the electric dams and the lowland farms.

“Mossy forest conservation and development had not been given attention by development agencies in the past,” noted the Agawa project paper.

“The ecological and scientific significance of this type of (forest), with its diverse vegetation endemic in a highland environment, is worth providing a conservation push at this point in time.”

As the headwaters, the mossy forest acts like a sponge that gradually releases rainwater into the tributaries of river systems. While its damp condition insulates it from heat, its natural elevation immediately above or beside the easily combustible pine stands makes it partly vulnerable to fires.

“Forest fires prevalent during the dry season creep into the edges of the mossy forest,” the Bayyo project noted.

The Bayyo women also pointed out that the expansion through regeneration of pine stands within areas formerly covered by oak and other species contributes to mossy forest and biodiversity reduction.

This has something to do with allelopathy. It's the nature of pine to exude resin toxic to other species, enabling it to spread and dominate areas earlier cleared by fires or for swidden farms. This is evident along the mountainsides above the Talubin River towards Bayyo where pine has taken over mountaintops and areas once covered by mossy forests. Some surviving oaks are limited to the waterway gullies or below the invasive conifer stands. (To be continued. e-mail:mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments).

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on May 31, 2014.

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