WE ENTERED the Agusan Marsh to listen to the stories of how the Manobos who live there in floating houses survived the December typhoon. We heard more than that.
Yes, there were stories of big waves in what was normally quiet lakes and marshes, and the wind that was whirling in full view contrary to what they have been told from childhood that you cannot see the wind. There was illegally cutting of endangered species of trees, 100 of them in fact that a community confiscated but which the one claiming to be its owner is doing his best to grab back. The more distressing fact being that the person is a barangay captain of one of the marshland people. Then there was also their long malingering problem of steady inflow of river waters from Agusan River that is now killing the marshland trees.
On the night we were inside the marsh, news broke out that Lolong died.
Somehow, Lolong personified, or can we say crocodilified’, the distressed state of the marshland ecology.
There were more stories than we came from, all of them giving out distress calls in what was supposed to be a protected landscape.
The dwindling treetops
As a first-time visitor, what struck me most was the unusual silhouettes of the marshland trees. They looked like poles with vines climbing up, barely any treetop.
“Is that how trees really look like here?” I asked.
“It wasn’t like that before,” said Ferdinand Cruz of Samdhana Institute, a non-government organization working for the conservation of the environment and the empowerment of indigenous peoples who live in them.
The treetops started wilting a few years back, as river waters from the river poured steadily into the marsh, disturbing the natural wet and dry season and in the process submerged the tree roots all year round.
“Before, during dry season, there are actually land masses here where the trees are growing,” said Roselyn P. Tahil, business manager of the Tribong Manobo of Sitio Panlabuhan, Loreto, Agusan Marsh Organization (TMos-Plamo).
They call the season when the lake water is at its ebb as “tipyong”, which happens in the months of April and May, the summer season.
Tahil, a Manobo who grew up in the marshland, said there are very few land masses now, just the ones that are high enough and are not yet inundated by the river waters.
Cruz explained that illegal loggers in Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental carved out canals along the river to hide the logs in during daytime to avoid detection.
One of the canals, through long years of being constantly eroded opened up into the marsh.
Tahil said they have approached just about every government official they can for five years, asking for the construction of a dike to block the river waters.
“Bisan asa mi nangayo’g tabang, wala mi gitabangan sa gobyerno (We sought help from just about every government agency, not one helped us),” Tahil said.
Just before typhoon Pablo on December 2012, they decided to build the dam themselves.
“Nagdecision ang PO na kita na’y molihok. Nagpahina mi tanan (Our people’s organization decided we will solve the problem ourselves. People contributed their labor),” she said. They first staked out rows upon rows of big poles across the breach in the marsh, filled this up with soil and planted Bangkal trees.
They were elated when the Bangkal trees started to grow leaves. They thought they have finally blocked the river. But Pablo came and destroyed the dike they made.
Now, river water continues to pour in, bringing garbage, debris, the feared janitor fish, and more...
“Kabalo man pud ‘ta asa gikan nang tubig sa suba (We also know where the river water is coming from),” she said, “Gikan ‘ni sa mga mining sa Comval. Duna na’y mga chemicals (These come from minesites in Compostela Valley that have chemicals in them).”
These chemicals further threaten the delicate ecology of the marshlands.
The day before we arrived, Panlabuhan sitio leader Remy Reyes said, they intercepted 100 illegally cut logs of Talipao and Manga Pajo trees. Talipao is described as huge trees similar in foliage to Talisay, while Manga Pajo is native mangoes that once thrived in the marshlands but are now endangered.
The men who were transporting the logs were pointing to one Bourbon Havana, barangay captain of the neighboring Barangay Katipunan, also in the marshland as the one who ordered the trees cut.
The night after, the men folk of sitio Panlabuhan were all agitated. There were four high-powered canoes manned by armed men who have arrived to tow away the logs, they said.
One claimed they were even threatened.
“Sige suwayan ninyo babagan ‘mi, isog man kaha mo. Tan-awon nato (Try to stop us, if you really think you are brave, let’s just see),” they were told.
The residents opted to just report to the Protected Area Superintendent (Pasu) Rufino M. Miranda assigned to the Agusan Marsh Protected Area, considering that they are up against armed men.
But because the lake level was low on that night, the armed men could only tow the logs away from where they were secured, but had to leave them still inside the lake, one of two lakes inside the marsh.
When asked through text about the illegal logs, Pasu Miranda replied, “Di na po makalabas sa paparoonan ang kahoy na iyan… inform na po naming sa lahat ng checkpoint na madadaanan… baka bukas or makalawa puntahan naming at e-scale for a possible filing a case of all d offenders (Those logs can no longer be brought out to where the illegal loggers intend to bring them, we have already alerted all checkpoints along the Bunawan River. We might visit tomorrow or the day after to bring a scaler to measure the logs for possible filing of a case against the offenders).”
A follow-up text remained unanswered.
“These trees have been counted and inventoried by the PAWB (Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau),” Tahil said in the vernacular, “no one should cut these because the marsh is a protected area.”
The marsh at a glance
Agusan Marsh is the second largest after Liguasan Marsh. It covers 40,868 hectares encompassing the towns of Talacogon, San Francisco, Rosario, Bunawan, Loreto, and La Paz in Agusan del Sur, and has 38 barangays.
Declared as a wildlife sanctuary through Presidential Proclamation No. 913 on October 31, 1996, it has also been included in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Significance No. 1009 on November 12, 1999.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources lists 112 species of trees in the marsh, three species of bamboo, vines, lianas, and epiphytes, grasses and ground ferns and other herbaceous plants. The DENR expects to find more species once a more extensive survey is done.
A total of 127 birds belonging to 47 families were identified in a 1999 survey by Haribon Foundation including the most threatened Silvery Kingfisher (Alcedo argentatus), with five other endangered species: Darter (Anhinga melanogaster), Philippine Duck (Anas luzonica), Mindanao Tarictic Hornbill (Penelopides affinis), Black-Headed Tailorbird (Orthotumus nigriceps) and the Naked-Faced Spider-Hunter (Arachnoter clarae).
The marsh also has 14 freshwater fish species belong to nine families, 60 species of herpetofauna (endemic reptiles and amphibians) 21 of which are amphibians, 39 species of reptiles, one species of freshwater turtle, one species soft-shelled turtle, two crocodile species, 23 lizards, and 12 snakes.
Listed in the 1996 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species are the critically endangered Philippine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis), the estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), the Malaysian freshwater turtle (Coura amboinensis), and the Philippine Sailfin Lizard (Hydrosaurus pustulatus).
It is home to 14 mammal species made up of five fruit bat species, two insect bats, a species of long-tailed macaque, squirrel, three rat species and two civet species. Of these 14, five are Philippine endemic including two fruit bat species, the insect bat, squirrel, and a rat. The golden crowned flying fox (Acerdon jubatus) or kabog is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Living among all these are the Manobos of Agusan, who live in floating houses, houses built on rafts that go up and down with the level of the water.
The residents of Panlabuhan admitted that they themselves once abused their environment.
With people relying mostly on fishing as a livelihood, illegal methods were used – chemicals like Thiodan were dispersed to poison the fishes and make the gathering easier, also the use of electricity to stun the fishes.
Thus, before 2010, when there was a clear movement to revert to sustainable fishing methods like setting up a no-take zone and allowing only fish traps and nets, crocodiles, which thrive in the marsh, were aggressive. Lolong among them.
“Kay wala na ma’y mabilin para sa mga buwaya kung mogamit og chemicals og kuryente (The use of chemicals and electricity to catch fishes kills indiscrinately leaving nothing for the crocodiles),” said Tmos-Plamo secretary Marites Banato.
That was then. The crocodiles have since quieted down. The bad news is, Lolong, the world’s largest crocodile ever captured died Sunday night, February 10, 2013, at the time when the sitio residents themselves have attested that since they took up sustainable practices like setting aside a no-take zone and using only fishnets and traps, they have been living harmoniously with the crocodiles as they did in the years of yore.
It was humans, after all, who stoked the anger of the crocodiles and Lolong was made to pay for these sins. In the same way, the Manobos of Tmos-Plamo were once enslaved by middle who sucked up all they can fish and paid them in pittance, tying them down to a life of bondage and debt.
With the help of Samdhana, Tomos-Plamo was given a grant that helped them pay off their debts to the middlemen and cut off their ties to these usurers as the members were likewise linked up with the market outside the marsh.
The people of sitio Panlabuhan are slowly learning the lessons of living in harmony with their ecosystem; but the work is far from over. Panlabuhan is but a sitio of barangay Poblacion of Loreto town. The marsh covers six towns and 35 barangays.
In the meantime, Lolong has died… made to live for one and a half years since his capture in September 2011 in a cage less than a thousand square meters in area and a dipping pool that can only cover the lower half of his body; a far cry from the wetlands as far as your eyes can see with depths you wouldn’t dare to measure on your own.