IN THE first place, what does it mean to reboot the Cordillera as watershed cradle of Northern Luzon under the Autonomous Region of the Cordillera (ARC)?
To be honest, I find the question rather difficult to answer directly.
First, what does the “Cordillera as the watershed cradle of Northern Luzon” entail, how did the concept evolve, and finally and in view of the state of the forest in the region, we ask, can it be rebooted to serve this important role in the future under the ARC?
I will try to answer these questions by picking some of the highlights of my talking points I prepared and presented to the employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR-CAR) yesterday, July 23, 2018, as part of our on-going IEC campaign for the autonomy quest of the Cordillera. The ideas were drawn out from the materials provided to me by the Regional Development Council (RDC) Secretariat, and from my visits to the different villages of the region over the last 30 years.
In doing so, it is my hope that we will at the same time enlighten our readers on the implications of an autonomous Cordillera “on the conservation, management, development, and proper use of the region’s environment and natural resources specifically forest and grazing lands, mineral resources, including those in reservation and watershed areas, and lands of the public domain” as these impinge on the region’s watershed cradle functions.
In many a discussion on the Cordillera as a watershed, “the licensing and regulation of all natural resources that are appropriate to the socio-cultural and environmental uniqueness of the Cordillera,” could hardly be overlooked. We will try to include some discussion on that aspect as well.
That is a lot to discuss in a newspaper column article like this. I thus see the need to divide this discussion into a three-part column article. The first part will delve on the concept of the Cordillera as a watershed cradle, and then immediately situate it as part of the struggle for autonomy now and the future.
A watershed is a basin-like geographic structure bounded by surrounding ridges. It has a network of tributaries leading to a common mouth or drainage channel. It is a combination of components such as soil, water, vegetation, terrain, and associated animal life.
Cognizant of the region’s role as catchment areas and as the headwater and the watershed of major river systems, the Regional Development Council in the previous decade declared the Cordillera as watershed cradle of northern Luzon.
The Cordillera has a land area of 1,829, 368 hectares of mountain peaks, plateaus, rolling hills, and valleys. It was once considered as the rainiest zone in the country with an average of 4,096 millimeters (mm) of rain a year that flows into a network of streams and rivers that commonly drain in the direction of Ilocos Provinces in the west; Ilocos Norte and Cagayan in the north; Pangasinan and Nueva Ecija in the South; and the Cagayan Valley in the East. Water from the Cordillera is used as irrigation water, domestic water, and hydropower source in northern Luzon.
Not a few Filipinos readily blame Cordillerans for the current state of the Cordillera forest.
In 2015, government data reveals that the forest cover of the region is 47% and decreasing by at least 300-500 hectares every year.
In May 2012, Commissioner Heherson T. Alvarez of the Climate Change Commission stated that at least 71% of Mount Data National Park had been converted to agricultural, residential and commercial use.
Commissioner Alvarez further claimed half of the forests in the provinces of Apayao, Kalinga and Mountain Province had been logged over.
The alarming deforestation rate in Cordillera region was attributed to forest land conversion into commercial vegetable and other farms, timber poaching, and fires from slash-and-burn farming that causes massive erosion and groundwater depletion.
In June 2012, information from the DENR-CAR indicated “the Cordillera’s watersheds were in a critical state, severely threatening the region’s food and energy self-sufficiency. The Agency noted only 37% of the total land area (or 673,323 hectares) of the region remains forested and all the major rivers in this ecosystem – the Agno, Chico, Abra, and Magat Rivers – are observed to be drying up.” In June 2015, DENR-CAR revealed, “that the threats to the region’s watersheds and forests remain and will continue to be real.”
Viewed historically, the Cordillera forest has been logged over for almost a century by outsiders before the locals stepped in to convert the barren spaces into vegetable farms and other uses. I say almost a century because large-scale commercial mining in the region started with the Spanish regime, and tunneling and mining infrastructures are heavily dependent on logging the nearby forest for its timber needs.
Aside from mining corporations, big corporations like Cellophil and other private logging corporations plundered the Cordillera forest including the protected forest areas in Benguet, Mountain Province, and Kalinga.
In 2017, DENR-CAR reported an increase of forest cover in the region for six years totaling to 101,687 hectares. That is welcome news but it hardly makes up for the 300-500 hectares annual decrease reported in 2015.
As a watershed cradle, the Cordillera is certainly in a messy state today.
To be continued.