BENGUET Province is changing the story we know about its forest. We wish them Godspeed.

We are familiar with how other indigenous peoples in the Cordillera region maintained their community forests. Almost every tribal group practiced a natural forest conservation, protection and management system. Among the best indigenous forest and natural resources management practices that survived to this day include the lapat of Abra and Apayao; pinugo and muyongs of Ifugao; lakon, tayan and batangan of Mountain Province; and the amak and imung of the Kalingas.

The most studied agroforestry practice in the Cordillera, the muyong is known to be as old as the rice terraces. Also known as pinugo, the muyong is the Ifugao version of the woodlot that is usually maintained above the terraces or settlements and serves as source of fuel, lumber for woodcarving and housing, and some food for the family or clan.

Recently, cash crops and fruit bearing trees were planted in the muyongs as source of income for its stewards. The most important role of the muyong is that of a watershed, source of natural litter and fertilizer for agriculture and “is the best preventive measure against soil erosion,” according to the natives.

Like the pinugos and muyongs, the lakons, tayans and batangans of Mountain Province are owned by the family, clan or village. Not just anyone is permitted to access resources within the forest and woodlots.

The utilization of lumber is done through “selective cutting, thinning, pruning, underbrushing and weeding.” Sparsely populated portions of the community forest are planted with hardwood species or fruit trees. Protection and conservation of the lakons are done through indigenous laws built into their traditional practices.

In Kalinga, the amak of the Mangali is very much like a sustainable version of a swidden farm while the imung is the Kalinga version of a muyong or pinugo. The amak is a patch of land cropped with rootcrops, legumes and vegetables while its hedges are planted with tree species and fruit bearing trees. As the trees grow, the amak is slowly transformed into an imung. As maintenance rest with a family, nobody is allowed to cut or harvest anything from the imong without the family’s permission. Like the rest of the region’s family, clan and/or community forest, the cutting of trees in the imung is selective. In some cases, the imung also serve as a watershed of a ricefield system or agricultural farms downstream.

All natural resource management practices in the Cordillera have their similarities and differences, like that of the lapat of Abra and Apayao. However, as practiced in both provinces, the lapat system with its rituals and practices also seeks to protect and sustain the forest, fresh water resources, and quality environment for the present and future generations.

The lapat in Abra is more elaborate and organized with its Council of Elders and officers’ who manage all the activities of the lapat, and enforce laws of the community embedded in the culture and traditions of the people like banning the harvest of dwindling forest products in a lapat area. It is lifted only when these forest products are rehabilitated. The practice of lapat involves prayer petitions (bagawas), information dissemination (palek), traditional oath (sapata) and fact finding ritual (duo). Agreements on the lapat is sealed and highlighted with a celebration by the whole community with the singing of traditional songs (salidummay), ethnic dance (tadek) and chants (oggayam), and capped with a community luncheon.

One way or another, the indigenous natural resources management and practices in the Cordillera have been on the decline. Much of the region’s forest is devastated and gone, especially in Benguet, which saw much of its forestland logged over for mining and industrial uses, and housing purposes. The logged over areas with government’s approval, included national protected areas that were soon converted into vegetable farms.

Without community-owned forest by the local communities, it is the government who declared 76 communal forests in Benguet province. Up to now, however, these communal forests are not protected and managed because of the lack of implementing policies. In effect, the community forest in the province were vulnerable to timber poaching, and conversion as built-up areas, conversion to agricultural lands and annual forest fires. Some 900 hectares of the forest were then estimated being lost to these causes.

In a recent interview, Provincial Environment Natural Resources and Environment Officer (PENRO) Maximo Sumale, acknowledged the lack of indigenous practices in Benguet that may have contributed to the land degradation and conversion in the province. But different government agencies and the local governments have been taking steps to ensure that the remaining forests are maintained and their expansion sustained, he said.

Sumale points to several projects undertaken by the Benguet government supported by national government agencies such as the barangay school nurseries, RA 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Program, the communal forest program, and the delineation of small community watersheds that resulted in an increase in the forest area of the province from around 67,000 hectares in 1987 to more than 136,000 hectares in 2010.

Including the interventions of the 1st and 2nd phases of Cordillera Highland Agricultural Resources Management (CHARM) Project, forest expansion was estimated at 3,000 hectares annually.

The 1st and 2nd CHARM Project implemented forest conservation and agroforestry development projects in sites in its coverage areas including the training of forest guardians who were equipped with knowledge on natural resource management in a six months course offered through radio broadcast.

The natural resource management course incorporated both science-based and indigenous practices on agroforestry and forest conservation and watershed protection management. It has empowered them through the PENRO to continue as volunteer community environment and natural resources officers. So empowered as such, they serve as empowered leaders and advocates for the environment.

Sumale’s story brings me back to civilizations in history forever lost with the loss of the forest and the soil as a result like that of the Incas and Sumerians. But what happened to these civilizations is not to be the case in Benguet. I agree with Sumale, all is not lost but that things look brighter for the Benguet forest. During the graduation of the School on Air (SoA) students for the natural resources management course, which the CHARMP2 and the province implemented, there was a deep reconnection with the natural world in a back-to-nature and idealization of eco-organic farming. This can be used as a lever to change the stories people tell themselves about their world.