AT THE border between Mountain Province and Ilocos Sur, I stood on a mountain and watched another mountain opposite it that was all black.
That was more than a decade ago, on a hot summer day. All these years, I continue to shudder recollecting the images I saw on that mountain.
There were lonely and roasted tree trunks jutting out of the mountain slopes - dead remnants of the forest life in that mountain.
As I stood there contemplating the scene, the hot wind blew in my direction with the dust, ash, and the choking scent of burnt grass, shrubs, and plants that lingered around and near the vicinity.
Under the hot sun, there were no visible crawling and flying creatures on the dry surface of the mountain.
Baked and cracked, I imagined a rampaging flashflood during the rainy season would erode the mountain slope and line it with deep canyons.
Without the trees and shrubbery, this mountain is as good as dead.
How have we come to see this image, a modern-day reality in our mountain abodes that use to be home to the tropical mossy forest and low-lying clouds? Why even talk about this topic today?
Biodiversity and the extinction of forest life affect the quality of human existence from the mountain ridges to the coast.
Take the case of Mount Data, the main headwaters of the Chico River, as an example.
Before the Second World War, the Mount Data Plateau and the mountains near and around it were covered with a mossy or cloud forest.
The broadleaf trees of the cloud forest are collectively known as “pagpag,” or “kallasan” in Western Mountain Province.
Unlike the pine forest that is dry in summer, the cloud forest does not easily burn. It was always wet, moist, and covered with clouds throughout the year.
As a reliable watershed, the cloud forest kept the flow of clean and fresh water in the Chico River steady and abundant all throughout the year.
Today, without the cloud or mossy forest, the Chico is almost dry during summer but surges from time to time with rampaging with municipal waste, silt and flash floods during the rainy months.
Thick colonies or patches of the mossy forest trees can yet be observed along the Halsema Highway in the late 1960s.
Around that time, one summer vacation, I helped clear a wide mossy forest in Paoay, Atok, Benguet. It was my first encounter with the rich biodiversity of this old ancient forest in the Cordillera mountain range.
We worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. but the clearing work was so slow owing primarily to the denseness of the forest trees - different kinds, height, and sizes.
Underneath the cloud forest, we encountered so many crawling and flying creatures, such as leeches, termites, ants, different kinds of bees, giant worms that make a whistling sound, snakes and other reptiles, frogs, bats, birds, butterflies, moths, vines, mushrooms, orchids, shrubs, lianas, and moss, like beards covering the trunks and branches of the trees, among others.
In other parts of the Cordillera, the mossy forest was yet home to the Philippine brown deer, wild pigs, monkeys, fowls, and large birds like owls, snake-eating eagles, and cranes.
The creeks and riverine system also teemed with crocodiles, different species of indigenous fishes, crabs, frogs, freshwater prawns, and eels.
Many of these animals are no longer seen or heard in the place, these days.
I think the mossy forest and its rich biodiversity started to disappear, after the war, when logging concessioners and the mining corporations plundered it for its timber.
In Mount Data, logging facilitated the conversion of the forest into agricultural and housing uses. In logged over areas unsuitable for housing or farming, the vegetation was soon replaced with pine, whose undergrowth easily burns with lit cigarette stubs.
In a previous consultation with community folks, the leaders of the communities in Besao, Mountain Province proposed for the study and use of mossy broadleaf trees for reforestation use in their locality, instead of pine trees, as a component of a possible project in the area. They have observed the mossy forest stores and provide more water, are rich in life, and have multiple uses to them as a source of timber, and natural resources for livelihood, compared with the pine forest.
The forest is critical to the role of the Cordillera as a watershed cradle for Northern Luzon.
That role is best appreciated by the local populace if it also contributes to their well-being. In which case, our mountains should be water towers, and alive with biodiversity, not dead or dying.
Alive with biodiversity, mossy mountain forests in the Cordillera is essential to the cooling of the atmosphere, absorption of carbon and provides clean air and water.
Our living mountains are critical to irrigation and the production of food, power generation, and acts as a buffer against extreme weather.
One of our problems today is that we do not know our natural history. How many of us, for instance, know or pay close attention to an ancient forest, very rich in biodiversity, that was ever here.