ONE barangay requires their children and youth to plant a certain number of trees as entry to a sports league. Another barangay requires violators of their barangay ordinance banning the cutting of trees to plant 100 trees and take care of these for a year.
These are among the policies the five barangays surrounding Mt. Sinaka of Arakan Valley in North Cotabato as barangay leaders and as volunteers of Bantay Kalikasan (BK).
BK marked its third year last Friday in a gathering and mangrove planting activity in Davao City, a rare opportunity for the residents to see the sea.
"Bisan taga-bukid, nay responsilidad sa kadagatan (Even those living in the mountains have a responsibility over the seas)," Marcial Dionog of the BK in Barangay Datu Ladayon told Sun.Star Davao.
"Mahuna-hunaan lang nako ang mga kalamidad nga nangahitabo sa naa sa ubos, kinahanglan gyud bantayan ang lasang kay tanan man nga naa sa taas magpadulong man jud na sa ubos (Just the thought of the calamities that have been hitting the lowlands, we understand the importance of guarding the remaining forests because everything up here will all end up down there)," BK secretary if barangay Salasang Imelda Belchis said when asked about her realizations during their visit to Punta Dumalag to plant mangroves, which is far different from the forests they are tending on Mt. Sinaka.
Aside from Datu Ladayon and Salasang, the three other barangays surrounding Mt. Sinaka are Tumanding, Lanao Kuran, and San Miguel.
As described by the residents who joined the third anniversary assembly, the barangays surrounding the mountain, which has been identified as the major source of drinking water of the whole Arakan Valley and parts of Davao City, rely on agriculture; most of them are vegetable farmers who regularly bring down their produce to the public markets in Davao City.
The forests of Mt. Sinaka is still the habitat of indigenous flora and several wild fauna, including the endangered Philippine Eagle as well as civet cats, Philippine macaques, wild pigs, and deers.
Sun.Star was able to interview several BK members, who are among the most consistent volunteers.
From Datu Ladayon were Charrie Villanueva, Pacita Cano, Teresita Alegado, and Marcial Dionog. From Salasang were Imelda Belchos, Antonio Aranco, Armando Montalban, Rita Panisa, and Jennifer Espacio. From Tumanding were Mario, Benido and Hector Tumanding, and Tersing Tumanding-Bandihan.
From Lanao Kuran were Isidro Bantilan, barangay captain Cresenciano Campos, Renato Linao, and Anelyn Guinpayan. From San Miguel were kagawad Bienvenido Ranerio Jr., barangay captain Lita Magao, sitio leader Alberto Apas, Jaomy Mabantos, sangguniang kabataan chair Leonebel Torres, and kagawad Victorino Carillo.
The movement of these people has the full support of their Mayor Rene V. Rubino, who joined them in their assembly.
Rubino attributed the high awareness for the environment among the Arakan residents to the calamities that have often visited their neighboring provinces like landslides and flashfloods.
"It reached a point where the residents themselves have thought of how best to counter these calamities," Mayor Rubino said in the vernacular.
With the help of their Menro, the Kinaiyahan Foundation, and the Philippine Eagle Foundation, the BK was organized in 2009 to ensure that remaining forest of Mt. Sinaka are preserved and the whole area is reforested with indigenous forest and fruit trees. Also attending the assembly were Councilor Leonardo S. Reovoca, and forester Jimmy B. Montero, the town's environment and natural resources officer (Menro), along with Kinaiyahan Foundation Inc. chair Mila Teves and executive director Betty T. Cabazares, and staff of the PEF.
"Through Municipal Ordinance No. 335 series of 2010 and authored by Coucnilor Leonardo Rebuta who was at that time the chair for environment, the five barangays were formed as an alliance to protest Sinaka," he added.
All five barangays now maintain a tree nursery, which are distributed to the members to plant. The BK members also hold a quarterly forest patrol where they plant more seedlings, check the growth of the seedlings earlier planted, and inventory the existing full-grown trees, particularly the "mother trees" to monitor their fruiting and eventually seeding so as to know when to gather wildlings, which they tend in their nurseries until these are big enough for re-planting.
Everything they are doing is a learning process, the volunteers said.
At the start of their forest patrol in fact, they would gather as many as 30 patrollers only to realize that bringing along 30 people to stay overnight in the forest also damages the forest. Now, forest patrols are maintained at 15 volunteers, whom they feel are enough to do the tasks on hand without creating much damage to the forest ground.
Asked whether their volunteer work is being appreciated by the next generation, all of them said that they are doing this as a family.
The children help in the chores for the nursery while the bigger ones sometimes join the patrol when there are no classes.
All have barangay ordinances that prohibit cutting of trees in the Sinaka forest, which the municipality has already declared as a protected area and which is being applied for a protected area status with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The municipality itself has a similar town-wide ordinance prohibiting cutting of trees in Sinaka.
The barangays themselves have rafted means to enhance the forest and spread awareness.
In Barangay Salasang, the barangay ordinance that prohibits the cutting of trees has a corresponding penalty requiring the violator to plant 100 seedlings to replace the one cut, and take care of these for one year, Aranco said.
In Barangay San Miguel, Kagawad Ranerio said they have a sports program for the young where those who want to join the sports event are required to plant trees.
"The smaller children are required to plant five seedlings. Those aged 15 and above have to plant ten. This serves as their entrance requirement to be part of the sports activity," Ranerio said in the vernacular.
There is more to this high awareness than meets the eye, including having to stand their ground against the continued operation of a logging company in the 1990s.
Long before BK came to be, there was the Task Force Mt. Sinaka formed in 1991, which barricaded against the Maguindanao Timber Inc., one of the active logging concessionaires on Sinaka.
The BK remembered this well and were part of this. They also remember that they were then led by Fr. Fausto Tentorio, the parish priest of Arakan.
As if to underline the difficulty of the task they have taken upon themselves, the first death anniversary of Fr. Tentorio, who was gunned down just outside his parish church in Arakan Valley, was last October 17, a day before the BK third anniversary.
Lanao Kuran barangay captain and BK officer Campos recalled that it was in 1992 when residents really barricaded and prevented logging equipment from entering their forest.
"During those times, the remaining forest was only on Sinaka," he recalled.
Giant logging companies cut through the mountains of Arakan in the 1970s. Now, if your ride to Bukidnon through the Marilog district of Davao City, you will see barren rolling hills to your left after sitio Marahan. Those used to be forestlands of Arakan. Now, there is nothing there except cogon grass. Hills and mountains of cogon grass.
"It was Father Tentorio who organized the barricades," he said.
The missionary priest's death was attributed to his strong environmental stance. He was very vocal against mining operations in the valley town.
The people and officials have responded in kind, thus the town was declared mining free by a municipal ordinance in 2010.
The people are not only standing up for their own rights, they are also volunteering their lives for what remains of the rich biodiversity that still finds home on Sinaka.
As earlier reported in a flora and fauna assessment made by the University of the Philippines in Mindanao and the Philippine Eagle Foundation inventoried 102 species of trees, nine species of mammals, four species of rodents, 74 species of birds, and three species of fruit bats, aside from the Philippine eagle. Aside from the Philippine eagle, 13 other animal species that still live on Sinaka are listed as threatened. Among them are the warty pig, the Philippine Hawk Eagle, the Mindanao brown dove, and the Philippine leaf bird.
All know this is a vocation of sorts that they have taken upon. They also know that they need more people to work for the environment, but they are not forcing those who refuse to be part of them.
Alegado of Datu Ladayon said that residents themselves realize the importance of what they are doing upon seeing the results - their seedlings and continued tree planting activities.
"We just serve as models while continuing to convince them. We do not force people to be members," she said.
Thus, they welcome projects initiated by non-government organizations like the KFI and PEF that include either livelihood components or incentives, as this also entices more members to join.
Mayor Rubino said they also fan support by prioritizing BK members when giving out projects with regards reforestation and agriculture.
They are not about to give up and are more excited to continue with what they have started as they marked their third year.
Aranco of barangay Salasang admitted that at the start of BK, there were many people who were leery about their existence.
"There were those who continued to violate even after cutting of trees was already prohibited. Some were saying we were very strict, and there were those who deliberately violated the ban on cutting of trees apparently to test us," he said. But all that is in the past now as they continue to talk to their people and convince them that preserving what is on Sinaka is for the good of all.
Their best argument, Mt. Sinaka provides the clean water for almost the whole of their town. That by itself is a message strong enough to elicit concern among every Arakan resident. With the local government unit giving full support for them, they are further emboldened to push on with what has been started; even upon recognizing that what they have taken up have already claimed the lives of others - their beloved Father Tentorio among them.