Saving the Cordillera mossy forests (2nd of two parts)

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By Ramon Dacawi

Benchwarmer

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


TRADITIONAL village forest management systems, not state policies that sometimes clash with time-tested tribal laws, protected the integrity of the pine and the dwarf oak and mossy forests of the Cordillera for generations. These indigenous practices were the original models of community-based resource management. Like the mountain region’s mossy forests that they protected, however, these indigenous practices are also vanishing.

The two projects in Agawa, Besao town and Bayyo in Bontoc town were, therefore, anchored on the revival and documentation of these traditional practices, together with the folk wisdom on medicinal species found in these mossy forests.

In one of the Bayyo nurseries, Diana Peta-ul and Alicia Wayasen showed visitors several types of mountain tea which they claim possess therapeutic properties. They talked of a tree locally called “dumranoh”, the bark of which is usually dried into “humang”, grated and drank as a cure for fever and bum stomach.

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While doing site visits for the projects, forester Manuel Pogeyed, who helped the village obtain fund support from the United Nations Development Program, heard more revealing insights. Among these is a common observation of hunters and village elders who come across snakes battling forest rats.

“They noticed that each time the rat is bitten, it runs to a certain tree, digs its teeth into the bark and returns to continue the fight,” Pogeyed said. “The tree apparently contains an antidote for snake venom.”

The mossy forest, scientists and environmentalists explain, acts like a sponge. It absorbs rain and turns fog that envelops it into water in what is called a "fog drip" .It releases water gradually to form the rivulets that turn into springs and brooks that swell into rivers that are the lifeblood of communities downstream.

That much is known and it's not much. They agree that beyond its crucial role in sustaining the watershed and the hydrological system, much has yet to be learned about the mossy forest. This ecosystem enveloped by mist and fog is still shrouded in mystery.

They agree that this wealth of biodiversity at the top of the forest systems is host to flora and fauna that have yet to be discovered and studied for what they mean to the environment - and for us who classify ourselves to be at the top of the animal kingdom.

What is blatantly obvious is that the mossy forest is vanishing - and with it plant and animal species that are endemic, or found only in one particular area and not in another mossy forest system. Some of these species are already extinct, while others are going before they can be found and given Latin-sounding tags.

The Philippines, too, has earned a tag, that of being a "biodiversity hotspot" for fast losing its "megadiversity", its once immense wealth of animal and plant life.

In the Cordillera, children of this generation still hear elders mention "buwet", the local name for the cloud rat, but may never see it. If they chance upon one, it will be in the hands of hunters about to dress and cook it.

In Lias village in Barlig town in Mt. Province , then barangay chief Romeo Coffin mourned over the feathers of a giant bird shot down several years ago by hunters. That was after experts from the University of the Philippines in Los Banos confirmed the feathers belonged to the majestic and endangered Philippine eagle.

"The villagers now call me Kapitan Eagle," Coffin said, almost grudgingly, of the left-handed compliment. That was after he started acting locally, if not quixotically. He had gone around telling hunters to spare the bird, locally known as "lawi", and to report to him any sighting or nest find of the endangered specimen earlier believed to be found only in the mountains of Visayas and Mindanao.

The bird's mossy forest territory extends to Agawa in Besao town and to Bayyo in Bontoc town and to the forest headwaters of the equally endangered rice terraces in Banaue, Ifugao. If it’s any consolation to Coffin, the two seedling production and planting of indigenous tree and herb species in Agawa and Bayyo were community efforts towards restoring the eagle's realm.

Forester Manuel Pogeyed, who helped the two villages secure fund support from the United Nations Development Program, said the twin conservation efforts were anchored on indigenous culture and community.

"Culture and community-based; this is not just a label, but a reality in these two villages," he stressed. "It's the villagers themselves who decided on and implemented the mossy forest biodiversity projects."
The project proponent and main implementor in Bayyo is its women's organization. The womenfolk are assisted by the barangay government and the community level of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

For the Agawa project, the Agawa Foundation, an organization of Besao natives now living in Baguio and then headed by John Addag, applied for the UNDP fund grant.

As conduit, it released the budget to the Lacma-an, Agawa, Gueday, Ambagiw, Tamboan (LAGAT) people's organization in northwest Besao for the actual project implementation.

The project process applied in Besao was piloted earlier in the northern barangays of Sagada, also in Mt. Province. The Bangaan-Fidelisan-Tanulong-Aguid-Madungo-Pide Association in Baguio and Benguet (BFTAMPABBS) accessed the UNDP small grants program fund and released it to the Barangay Association of Northern Sagada (BANSA) for project implementation.

The tapping of children made the Sagada mossy forest and headwaters enhancement project stand out. While it was patterned after the Eco-walk program of Baguio, the children's component provided a hands-on opportunity for the village children to learn the traditional resource management system that their elders applied to the project.

While the villagers of Bayyo, Agawa and northern Sagada admit that their efforts were modest in the midst of the enormous task of mossy forest conservation, they find these well grounded.

Still on tap is a powwow of sorts, for the implementors of the three projects to meet and compare notes and learn from each other’s experiences.

"Perhaps they can even agree to a moratorium on hunting within the mossy forest to allow the vanishing wildlife to recover," Pogeyed said.

The wish is shared by Reynaldo Lopez Nauyac, a tribal elder who built a village for Ifugao woodcarvers at Asin Road here in Baguio. Over ten years ago, he returned home to Hungduan, Ifugao to live out his dream of helping restore the traditional way of maintaining the mossy forests that, for centuries, sustained the now endangered rice terraces.

Recently, the Regional Development Council of Region 1 whose rice and farmlands are end-users of the water emanating from the Cordillera uplands, expressed alarm over the dwindling water flow. Years back, the lowlands would attribute flooding down there to mining siltation and forest denudation up here.

The negative effects of the Cordillera rivers’ drying up opens the opportunity for talks towards the sharing of responsibility in mossy forest preservation and conservation – by those upstream and downstream. After all, as environmentalists tell us, everybody lives in the watershed.

Still, even the national government, despite its years of exploitation of the Cordillera’s water, mineral and other natural resources in the name of national development, has, over the years, neglected this region’s own development.

What happened can be likened to warped interpretation of the build-operate-transfer (BOT) approach to development: They built the mines and dams up here, rehabilitated and restored them and continue to transfer the gold and electric power, together with the taxes, to Makati and Metro-Manila.

This historical inequity and injustice gives impetus to the push for Cordillera autonomy to empower the region to harness its remaining resources, this time for its own development.

(e-mail: mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments)

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on June 05, 2014.

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