(Part 3 of 4)
NATONIN, MOUNTAIN Province – This mostly mountainous town is an ideal getaway for nature lovers.
Albeit without the amenities finicky tourists look for, what this town has to offer is genuine hospitality from its people through its home stays and backpacker lodges.
Despite numerous scenic spots and destinations most adventurers would set foot and decide not to leave again. This fifth class municipality doesn’t have a municipal tourism officer and most importantly, a Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Officer.
Both, of course, have to work together, if this municipality wants ecotourism to be its forefront attractions.
Municipal Planning and Development coordinator Bernard Foryasen says the town has been an adventure getaway for those seeking rustic travels especially for those who would want to get away from the harried pace of city life.
Nearby Mt. Amuyao and Ampalauag remain in the must-try lists for mountain climbing enthusiasts because these are some of the highest peaks in the country.
Classification from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources describe primary forests in the town covering mostly 60 percent of the municipality as mostly moist dipterocarp forests with high grade timber of lawaan and narra scattered in some areas.
This municipality is also home to unique bleeding heart pigeons, hornbills, warty pigs, jojo or yoyo eels scattered in its ricefields and sightings of Philippine Eagle among other unclassified animals endemic in the area which shows its unique and balanced ecosystem throughout the years, municipal agricultural technologist Ruth Baral says.
Numerous springs abound in the area in elevated forested areas where majestic waterfalls of fresh and cool waters flow down to tributaries of the Saliok, Siffu and Tanudan rivers winding in its interiors.
With all these to offer to tourists, this quaint town in the far corner of Mountain Province has a lot more to offer if only it has a comprehensive land use, and ecotourism plan which would encompass a bright future for this developing town.
While not only with these elements of a sustainably developing town, coupled with its other problems in education, health and sanitation and agriculture, Foryasen says lack of development with focus on care for the environment will help its current 9,171 population dwindle by as much as four percent every year.
Without a Municipal Environment Officer, the town with all its numerous natural resources will be like any other town all over the country, with houses sprouting just about anywhere without proper zoning.
In a community rural appraisal workshop conducted by the non-government organization Jaime V. Ongpin Foundation among barangay officials in the town, most of them have been focusing on infrastructure development without regards to environment and tourism.
Department of Enviornment and Natural Resources-CAR Executive Director Clarence Baguilat says all provinces in the region have provincial environment and natural resources offices who address environmental concerns of residents.
However, Baguilat is honestly aware that currently not all towns in all provinces of the region have Municipal Environment and Natural Resources office.
Without these he says, with faster than a lightning development and extensive planning for many towns in the region, mostly second-class to fifth class towns, environmental protection will always be sidetracked.
Baguilat added there are no data so far in the records of the agency that Municipal Environment and Natural Resources offices should be enforced by the agency.
“Despite our efforts to convince local government units to have environment and natural officers or agencies, we cannot force them to do so and it is within our bounds,” he says.
He adds most LGUs would say the Local Government Code only says they may or may not appoint or designate in their list of key officials in their town and environment and natural resources officer.
With this trouble, many towns in the region, including Natonin will be developed first before environmental protection will be placed as a safeguard for its few remaining resources.
Baguilat added, mostly in many towns, it is the Municipal Planning and Development Officer who also does the job of the environment officer.
But Foryasen says, he can only do so much, with all the burden of having community development at the forefront of many local elected official’s agenda, the fate of the town’s few remaining flora and fauna are placed at risk.
Among the projects towns folk wanted for Natonin, almost all barangays have identified irrigation facilities, health services center and roads as priority areas for development.
Only leaders from Poblacion barangay have identified a solid waste management facility and material recovery facility as their priority project.
“For them, health facilities, improved road conditions and irrigation for their farmlands are more immediate than, shall we say, climate change and the environment,” Foryasen shared.
The annual investment plan of the town caters mostly to the salary of local government plantilla and funding for projects of its municipal councilors amounting to more than P14 million with only P4 million in general services projects allocated for the year.
With more than P1.6 million allocated for Poblacion barangay’s material recovery facility, the town’s municipal planning officer says this is too big an amount considering that in Baguio city, a highly urbanized city, a material recovery would only cost about P1 million.
So far with this huge budget for the barangay’s MRF, no single foundation is in the town barangay to show that the project is now being pursued.
A town (like Natonin) doesn’t need it as long as residents would know how to segregate their wastes and reduce their garbage by as much as 70 percent, Baguilat said.
For some barangay leaders, they would opt for a sanitary landfill or a dumpsite where the town’s wastes will be impounded.
But Corazon Sajonas, social worker of Jaime V. Onpin Foundation says “how can they haul all of these garbage to the landfill when they don’t have the facilities for it yet?” she queried.
Sajonas suggests it would be better to put up their own composting and material recovery facilities in the barangays as roads leading from barangay to the other are still in primitive conditions.
Trails, which are mostly unpaved, are the only ways to get from one sitio to the other. With an MRF and a composting area, there will be no need to transfer tons of garbage to a landfill.
With a P39 million internal revenue allotment which the town’s income fully depends on, it is no wonder development is hard to penetrate Natonin.
Hardly known and most of the time ignored by the provincial government due to its distance and obscurity from the capital, Foryasen says the town may be heading nowhere without sustainable development projects from groups which would invest here.
Currently, Natonin is one of the eight municipalities of Mountain Province where the DENR is helping the country achieve its Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty and start hunger mitigation projects.
Covering 418 hectares located in Manabo and Sallapadan in Abra, Kapangan in Benguet, Kiangan and nearby Alfonso Lista in Ifugao, Tanudan and Tabuk in Kalinga and this fifth class municipality that once was listed in the Top 50 Food poor towns in the country – Natonin.
For now, a clear indicator of the town’s investment prospects involves their strongest resource – water.
For several years now, Foryasen says, a micro-hydro plant can utilize the town’s water systems will provide cheap electricity and irrigate fields of the town.
The Cordillera region itself, mostly its watersheds supply water to most, if not all and the biggest of the hydroelectric power plants and dams in Luzon.
But, these are all still in the drawing board, he adds.
The DENR is also bent in introducing its Upland Development Program which is set to rehabilitate 2,205 hectares of denuded upland areas in the six provinces of the town through agroforestry and planting of indigenous plants and trees are now in the process of rehabilitation.
Moreover, Baguilat says most towns in the regions don’t have a comprehensive land use plan.
Including this town, says Foryasen. He has made the the steps for the land mapping of Natonin together with researchers from the University of the Phillipines-Los Banos.
Even, Baguio city, the region’s highly urbanized city, has an expired comprehensive land use plan says Baguilat.
No wonder everything has been in disarray in the Summer Capital, Foryasen says and adds he doesn’t want this to happen to his beloved town.
Through all these, the answer lies in governance, policy implementation, filling up of missing and crucial positions, consequently, until these are done in the next few years, the fate of this town is still uncertain.