WE CONCLUDED Part 2 of this three-part article with the observation that saving, protecting, conserving, and managing what remains of the Cordillera’s natural resources is becoming difficult by the hour.
Logged over for more than a century, the Cordillera cloud forest cannot fully support the year-round full operation of our power and irrigation dam facilities in a most efficient and preferred manner.
Without the sufficient plant cover in the region’s watersheds, the surging cascade of collected rainwater downstream has been overflowing into the farms, dikes, irrigation, dams, and causing erosion, siltation, flooding and related damages to houses, infrastructures, and livelihoods of people in communities downstream.
During the rainy season in the early 1970s, the continued flooding of the rice fields of Central Luzon did not only cause panic among the citizens of the Republic. After more than 40 days of continued rains and wind, the rice fields in all of Central Luzon was then under water as personally monitored by President Ferdinand Marcos on a military chopper. The rice crops were totally damaged and the projected food shortage in the succeeding years along with the need for efficient and effective rationing was cited as among the many reasons that led to the declaration of Martial Law.
The Cordillera has been noted as the rainiest part of the Philippine archipelago. In the 1970s, the forest cover in the Caraballo and Cordillera Mountain ranges were yet capable of absorbing and regulating the flow of rainwater runoff downstream. It took more than 40 days of continued rains and wind to cause widespread damage to crops in the nation’s main rice granary then.
Last month, it took only a week for the rain runoff to submerge the rice fields of Northern Luzon and parts of Calabarzon. The total damage to agriculture (crops, fisheries, farms, and irrigation) mostly in Northern Luzon (Regions 1, 2, 3, and the Cordillera) reached P1.6 billion.
The forest in our watersheds plays a critical role in the regulation of rain runoff downstream. Scientists have observed that the forest “filters and absorb the water, in large part due to their leafy canopy that intercepts rainfall, slowing its fall to the ground and the forest floor, which acts like an enormous sponge, typically absorbing up to 18 inches of precipitation (depending on soil composition) before gradually releasing it to natural channels and recharging groundwater.”
In the Cordillera, a healthy watershed is critical to the operation of the nation’s power generation and irrigation facilities within and outside of the region that draws its water supply from the rivers and streams whose headwaters emanate from the Cordillera.
The cooperation and support of the local communities and their local government units (LGUs) is certainly crucial in the continuing effort to manage and sustain the critical role of the region as watershed cradle of northern Luzon.
Enforcing national laws and policies lacks teeth and credibility to be effective. Throughout the years, people were told not to cut trees, but commercial logging has been allowed to plunder the region’s forest, even those that were supposedly part of the "National Parks.”
One reason why the Cordillera has managed to preserve, protect, and manage its watersheds sans the effect of commercial logging, are the people’s indigenous knowledge systems and practices in farming and natural resources use and management.
Recognizing the soundness of such practices and the support of the people in preserving the forest, several local government units have also enacted local policies supporting IKSPs.
Now is the time to do something to preserve the Cordillera cloud forest and their role in sustaining the quality of the watershed functions of the region before the impacts of runaway population, industries, and unwanted development sets in.
Article 9 of House Bill 5343 proposes a number of measures to strengthen the local governance structure and empower local communities to manage, protect, preserve, and utilize the Cordillera forests and natural resources realistically in our human-driven world.
For instance, Presidential Decree Number. 1998 is an act authorizing the classification and/or reclassification of lands eighteen percent in slope or over in the provinces of Cebu and Benguet as alienable and disposable.
The act is quite selective and does not consider the need of people in the whole of the Cordillera to also occupy their own lands. However, it provides a window for the Autonomous Region of the Cordillera (ARC) to work with the national government to reclassify lands 18 percent in slope and above in all the six provinces of the region as alienable and disposable, and adopt the necessary measures for the development of communities occupying these lands since time immemorial.
Under HB 5343, the ARC “shall develop standards pertaining to the protection, conservation, and enhancement of the environment and natural resources, appropriate to the socio-economic, cultural, and environmental uniqueness of the Cordillera.“
Another specific need provided for under HB 5343 is the development of a regional development plan that addresses the unique needs and aspirations of Cordillerans that include the promotion of growth and employment, human development, and address social and economic inequities arising from decades of neglect, historical injustice, poverty, and inequality. Also provided by the bill is the need for the ARC to control and supervise natural resources and preferential rights of Cordillerans to develop and utilize natural resources, transfer of existing nature reserves and protected areas, among other provisions.
Under the ARC, an estimated PHP 71 Billion Annual Budget was proposed to finance the region’s development projects and activities which include environmental protection, conservation, and utilization.