THEIRS is a story of a continuing struggle against outside forces who only want to pillage their land. They are succeeding, so far, but only with the people's vigilance to protect what the indigenous tribes regard as sacred place and what the settlers regard as the key to their land's sustained bounty -- Mt. Sinaka of Arakan Valley in North Cotabato.

They are the people of and around Mt. Sinaka and it has been years since they have declared the mountain is theirs to protect and defend.

Mt. Sinaka is a sacred place for the Manobos. It is this mountain that has nurtured their tribe for generations on end as their source of food, livelihood, shelter, and medicine.

The mountain, which is rich in biodiversity, is for them a gift from their Creator -- Mambabaya.

Mt. Sinaka in North Cotabato, which is part of the Mt. Apo mountain range, is east of Barangays Marilog and Magsaysay of Davao City, and Barangay San Miguel of Arakan, and west of Barangays Tumanding, Salasang, Lanao Koran, and Datu Ladayon of Arakan.

With an approximate land area of 3,000 hectares, its highest elevation is 1,448 meters above sea level.

Residents of Marilog District in Davao City reach it through sitios Kimasog, Pamuhatan, and Tibal-og in Barangay Marilog. While residents of Arakan reach it through barangays Tumandig, Salasang, and Datu Ladayon.

It wasn't long ago when loggers cut down the forest trees in that area, from the mountain forests of Marilog District in Davao City where the Matigsalogs dwell down to the vast stretch of indigenous flora and fauna in Arakan and up Mt. Sinaka.

Giant logging companies cut through the mountains and turned the lush green rainforest into barren brown soil in the 1970s.

Two decades later, as logging continued to strip the land of its resources, the lumads or indigenous peoples were shouting for help, a shout that was headed by the Diocese of Kidapawan. Kidapawan was the province's capital town, it is now a city.

Way before local environmental groups managed to take firm root, Task Force Mt. Sinaka was formed in 1991, which took it upon itself to face off with Maguindanao Timber Inc., one of the active logging concessionaires in the area.

After a long drawn out struggle the loggers pulled out, but only after only residual and second growth forests were left.

The battle is not over yet though as more than just its forests, the land is also rich in minerals that many a mining company is lusting for.

It's a continuing battle for conservation of a rich biodiversity and exploitation of a rich land.

With the communities', local government units, and support organizations sustained environmental awareness campaigns and programs, the people of Arakan have consistently stood up against planned incursions, and have kept an eagle eye on inroads by such groups.

This included the application for mining exploration by Kumakata Mining company Inc. and the Visayas Ore Philippines Inc.

The people were once again enraged and sought all means to block the approval of these applications.

As a result, the Arakan municipal council rejected both applications and most important of all, declared a mining ban on Mt. Sinaka.

In a primer produced by the Kinaiyahan Foundation Inc. (KFI), one of the non-government organizations actively helping lumad communities rehabilitate and protect their forest resources, it noted that a flora and fauna assessment made by the University of the Philippines in Mindanao and the Philippine Eagle Foundation Inc. showed it is home to 102 species of trees, nine species of mammals, four species of rodents, 74 species of birds, and three species of fruit bats. It is also home to the endangered Philippine Eagle.

Aside from the eagle, there were 13 animal species listed as threatened, the Philippine warty pig and 12 bird species.

It is also home to two more endemic birds with a threatened status, the Philippine Haw Eagle, the Mindanao brown dove, and the Philippine leaf bird.

As the people have been made aware of the richness of their mountain, the Mt. Sinaka Bantay Kalikasan Council Alliance have been formed just over two years ago. The establishment of the council saw the people of Arakan not just declaring that they are against despoliation of their sacred mountain, but have taken their advocacy one step higher -- the Bantay Kalikasan volunteers have been climbing up those mountains conducting an inventory of the trees. The trees are properly marked and identified and regularly monitored. The disappearance of one marked tree means somebody has poached into their land.

Hand in hand with these efforts are planting of indigenous forest tree species.

More challenges lie ahead, though. Challenges that require more than just brawn and awareness.

"First, there is a need to clarify existing policies," Kinaiyahan said.

"Currently, there are policies and ordinances issued by both the local and national government about environment protection, but sometimes these are conflicting."

The bigger challenge is how to sustain the people's interest and empowerment to protect the land. Blessed are today's generation for they are fired up against those that seek to pillage, but without sustainable awareness campaigns and activities, the next generation may not be as vigilant.

Resources too will be needed. While the people were able to do an inventory of the forest trees in Mt. Sinaka, this had the help of non-government organizations that funded the operations, that includes food rations for the volunteers. Local government units with all their concerns cannot fully account for this there has to be outside assistance of like-minded groups and individuals.

And then there is the ongoing campaign to declare Mt. Sinaka as a protected area by the national government to make the people's struggle a truly legitimate movement.

But as Kinaiyahan said, "Although important, this is not the biggest challenge in the protection and conservation of Mt. Sinaka. Even if the President of the Philippines makes a proclamation, there might still be multinational companies who will attempt to explore the area for minerals or who will try to build dams." And this for the people is a constant threat.

The experience of Mt. Apo National Park shows how nationally-declared protection is never enough; there should always be consistent policies and proclamations that are fully implemented without favor.