THE Regional Development Council (RDC) recognized the strategic role of the Cordillera as a watershed cradle for northern Luzon.
That watershed role has not been lost to the early inhabitants of the Cordillera. Almost every tribe has an indigenous forest and natural resource management system that informs and guides them on the protection, conservation, and use of natural resources. In their time, the cloud forest of the Cordillera could hardly be penetrated by human beings.
The bolos, axes, and hand saws of the natives could hardly clear the ancient forest of the Cordillera of its thick and giant trees. Access into the forest, its continued plunder, settlement, and conversion into agricultural and other uses began with commercial logging. It takes chainsaws, and huge pieces of machinery to penetrate and clear-cut and harvest the trees of the cloud forest. It started with the first operation of commercial mining, during the Spanish Regime, in Lepanto.
Logged over for almost a century, about 47 percent of the Cordillera forest remains in 2015. At that time, it was reported by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) that the forest was decreasing by at least 300 to 500 hectares every year. In 2017, the DENR-CAR reported an increase of forest cover in the region for six years totaling 101,687 hectares.
The increasing population and lack of knowledge and awareness of the current generation on the IKSPs of their ancestors may contribute to the fast forest land conversion and mismanagement of the Cordillera’s natural resources that creates and increases problems to highland existence such as massive erosion and groundwater depletion. These problems also affect communities downstream.
The role of the Cordillera as a watershed cradle is diminishing, to the disadvantage of the nation, the sustainability of food production, food self-sufficiency, and power generation.
Several power and irrigation dams, and the country’s major rice areas in the wide plains of Cagayan Valley Region, the Tagalog Region, and the Ilocos Region, are dependent on the Cordillera’s watersheds that also play major roles in the provision of domestic water supply, ecotourism, livelihood for fishing, and habitat for biodiversity.
According to the DENR-CAR, the region’s forest and watersheds provide water for the following major river basins: 1) The Chico River Basin with its headwaters in Benguet, Mountain Province, and Kalinga supports mini-hydro-electric plants in Mountain Province and the irrigation needs of the provinces of Kalinga, Apayao, Cagayan, and Isabela. It flows towards the Cagayan River. 2) The Agno River Basin has its headwater in Benguet.
It supports the hydro-electric power plants at Ambuclao, Binga, and San Roque and the irrigation needs of the Province of Pangasinan. Its outlet is the Luzon Sea at Pangasinan. 3) The Abulog River with its headwater in Apayao provides irrigation for the Province of Cagayan and exits at Cagayan River to the Babuyan Channel.
4) The Aringay River Basin emanates from Benguet Province and Baguio City. It is a source of irrigation for La Union Province and exits towards Luzon Sea at La Union. 5) The Naguilian River Basin has its headwater in Benguet. It provides irrigation water for La Union and exits at the Luzon Sea at La Union. 6) The Amburayan River Basin emanates in Benguet and flows towards the Luzon Sea at La Union. It also provides irrigation for the Province of La Union.
7) The Abra River Basin originates from Abra, Mountain Province, and Benguet and flows toward the Luzon Sea at Ilocos Sur. It provides irrigation for the Province of Ilocos Sur. 8) The Siffu-Mallig River Basin has its headwaters in Ifugao and Mountain Province and flows towards the Cagayan River. It sustains the irrigation needs of the Province of Isabela. 9) The headwater of the Magat River Basin originates from Ifugao and flows toward the Cagayan River. It supports the hydroelectric power plant of Magat Dam and irrigation needs for the Provinces of Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, and Quirino.
10) The Cabicungan River Basin is situated in Apayao and supports the irrigation needs of farmers in Cagayan Province as it exits towards Claveria. 11) The Zumiqui-Ziwanan River Basin also emanates in Apayao and supports the irrigation needs of the Province of Cagayan as it exits towards the Pamplona River. 12) The Silag River Basin of Abra supports irrigation, fishing, and serves as a source of potable water. It exits towards the Luzon Sea at Ilocos Sur.
At present, there are about nine hydropower plants supported by the watersheds of the Cordillera as follows: Ambuclao-Binga Dams, Benguet; San Roque Multi-Purpose Dam; Magat Dam, Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya; Luzon Hydro Power Corporation, Bakun, Benguet; Asin Hydro Power Plant, Tuba, Benguet; Bineng Mini-Hydro, La Trinidad, Benguet; Micro-Hydropower, Malibcong, Abra; and Hedcor Hydro Power Plant, Sabangan, Mountain Province. Under construction is the Cordillera Hydroelectric Power Corporation (Coheco) 19.90MW hydroelectric power plant on Amburayan River in Kapangan, Benguet, targeted for completion on February 2019. More hydropower plants are being eyed for construction in Abra and the other provinces of the Cordillera in the future for generating electricity and irrigation.
Saving, protecting, conserving, and managing what remains of the Cordillera’s natural resources is becoming difficult by the hour.
Critical in this endeavor is the cooperation and support of the region’s inhabitants and local government units. The usual government strategies are not practicable and sustainable. We need to strengthen and enhance the current governance structure to empower local folks and manage a human-driven world in these mountains to fight for their natural resources but at the same time be realists and pragmatists enough to employ technologies and good judgment in the utility of these resources in their quest for quality and happy living.
It will take sufficient investment from the government to reboot the Cordillera as watershed cradle of Northern Luzon. To be continued