I HAVE seen

The old gods go

And the new gods come.

Day by day

And year by year

The idols fall

And the idols rise

Today

I worship the hammer

---Carl Sandburg, “The Hammer” (1910)

As quoted in the book, “The Dehumanization of Man by Ashley Montagu and Floyd Matson

Yet we must expand our understanding of the word “orphan” to include trees.

In the common use, an orphan does not have any surviving parent to care for him or her. It refers to a child deprived of parental care and has not been adopted. I much prefer how the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) use the word orphan to label “any child that has lost one parent.”

The UN agency’s approach, introduces a “maternal orphan as a child whose mother has died, a paternal orphan is a child whose father has died, and a double orphan has lost both parents. This contrasts with the older use of half-orphan to describe children that had lost only one parent.” (UNICEF)

The word “orphan” comes with more meanings in the Free Online Dictionary as follows: 1) A young animal without a mother; 2) One that lacks support, supervision, or care: 3) A lack of corporate interest has made the subsidiary an orphan; 4) An orphan technology or product.

Until recently, I came across the science community’s debate over the meaning of the terms orphan, neglected and underutilized crops. The exchange introduces the term “orphan crops” that receive little scientific research or funding despite their significance for food security in the world's poorest regions. These are neglected crops.

The International Plant Genetic Resource Institute defined neglected crops as “those grown primarily in their centres of origin or centres of diversity by traditional farmers. These crops are still important for the subsistence of local communities. Some species may be globally distributed, but tend to occupy special niches in the local ecology and in production and consumption systems. While these crops continue to be maintained by socio-cultural preferences and use practices, they remain inadequately characterized and neglected by research and conservation."

The institute also claimed: "Many underutilized crops were once more widely grown but are today falling into disuse for a variety of agronomic, genetic, economic and cultural factors. Farmers and consumers are using these crops less because they are in some way not competitive with other crop species in the same agricultural environment. The general decline of these crops may erode the genetic base and preventing the use of distinctive useful traits in crop adaptation and improvement."

I highlight those definitions and insights to situate how I found our neglected mossy forest trees, in the nursery care of a biotech laboratory in Pacdal, Baguio City. Some of these trees are growing as clones of their original parents found once growing in our mossy mountain forests now overrun by vegetable gardens, initially made bare by logging, some by annual burning or regular forest fires.

The plight of these trees suggests to us that these trees are orphans too. If not for this initiative by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), some of them may now be gone, on the verge of total extinction, or plainly forgotten. Such is the fate of other trees and plants from our mossy forests, now made into gardens and human settlements.

The plight of these trees urgently appeals for us to widen our knowledge, generate genuine compassion, responsive policies and public support to their condition, the work of scientists, environmentalists, and practically anybody who cares about the biodiversity and quality of life hereabouts.

The declaration of the Mount Data Forest Reservation was a joke. Following its declaration as a protected forest reserve was the issuance of permits to logging corporations, which led to the decimation of its thick mossy forest cover. Logging roads made it easier for people to encroach and convert its wide plateau for vegetable production, In due time, the greenery was wiped-out with a few patches of oak trees remaining.

The on-going devastation of the mossy forest in Mount Pulag, a protected forest, follows what happened in Mount Data. From the foot of the mountain even beyond the Ranger Station, much of the mossy forest has given way to vegetable farming.

The encroachment of Mount Kalawitan in the boundary of Ifugao and Mountain Province is going on as we write this piece. In Sabangan, some folks said people filed claims of ancestral ownership on the mountain with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

Should we now also forget the current condition of Mount Polis, also in the boundary of Mountain Province and Ifugao.

Known to most as a mossy forest, that has changed in the last two decades with the steady establishment of a thriving settlement and farms too? This development threatens the supply of clean water towards the Capital town of Bontoc and the tourist town of Banaue. It threatens the supply of potable and irrigation water to the rice terraces in both province and beyond – downstream to where the water flows in the Cagayan Valley Region.

There are other watersheds similarly situated with those mentioned above. There are more watersheds that are under threat, that in due time suffer the same fate of devastation we saw in Mount Data and Mount Sto. Tomas, Tuba, Benguet, if we do not do something about this trend now. Space does not allow us to list them down and describe their current state.

The witness of culture and tradition in our mountains shows us how our ancestors valued their forests that support the sustainability of an integrated system of existence. As descendants, we take pride in talking about our ancestral ways of forest conservation like the “Pinugo and Muyong, in Ifugao; the Batangan, in Mountain Province; Lapat in Abra and others.

Indigenous tribes in the Cordillera have a name to these practices, their principles and processes that the current generation may have all but forgotten. Meanwhile, our forgetfulness has left the care of “orphaned trees” in the foster care of a nursery laboratory with a total area of 6,000 square meters and a capacity of 100,000 seedlings. If talk is what we need to do in our meeting halls, idiot boxes and screens, churches and schools, I will present this as a topic in the second series of this article. Let us do something and we can, even under our current laboratory culture?

The unabated eroding and continued destruction of biodiversity in our mountains is largely man made – threatening, and creeping closer as Mother Nature cannot hold any further abuse from our hands. She cannot do her work alone. She needs help - responsible homo sapiens stewardship - now more than ever.