IT WAS a bumpy start six years ago when villagers were organized to protect the forest of Mt. Sinaka in Arakan Valley, North Cotabato. From the looks of the wary village residents, it sounded like a lot of work.
For one, the Mt. Sinaka Bantay Kalikasan Alliance had made it part of their members' task to keep a regular inventory of the existing trees on the slopes of Mt. Sinaka, which will require the members to stay overnight in the leech-infested forests.
The BK is made up of five barangays around Mt. Sinaka: Lanao Kuran, Datu Ladayon, Salasang, San Miguel, and Tumanding. Of the five, Tumanding is the purely Manobo village. Others have Visayan settlers and lumads as residents.
For the past five years, alliance members have been celebrating their anniversaries in Davao City funded by the municipal agriculture office and municipal environment and natural resources office of Arakan Valley along with the non-government organization Kinaiyahan Foundation Inc.
But last October 19, they celebrated their sixth year for the first time, right in their village; and sans fund solicitation from the municipal offices and KFI.
It's their way of showing that they can now attend to their concerns by chipping in what they can.
Last October 19's celebration was hosted by Barangay Tumanding, although every barangay contributed for the food of everybody.
The celebration was made even more meaningful as just the Saturday before, on October 17, was the fourth death anniversary of Fr. Fausto "Pops" Tentorio, PIME. Fr. Pops dedicated much of his time to Manobo people of Barangay Tumanding, teaching them ways to protect their environment and providing them livelihood projects to entice them from destroying Mt. Sinaka.
"Unta ang iyang gibilin na mga buluhaton, atong ipadayon; ipadayon ang gisugdan ni Fr. Pops (Let us carry on with what Fr. Pops started here)," Menro Jimmy B. Montero said in his message during the program.
In a huddle with women members, the women admitted that their membership has grown but has not yet been able to involve every resident in a barangay.
"Layo pa gayud sa katunga (We're not even half of a village population)," one woman said. But all three observed that even the non-members are already taking better care of the environment.
"We talked to them, we urged them not to clear areas in Mt. Sinaka for their farms," one of the women said in Visayan, adding that those who used to slash and burn areas on Mt. Sinaka have actually other farmlots outside the protected zone. There was resistance, but through constant reminders, more and more are convinced that the greater good will come when they protect the mountain.
"There are still rule breakers," MAO Edgar V. Arana said, "those who secretly destroy the forests. We still need to intensify our campaigns for forest protection."
But he urged the members and residents to strive for "malahutayong kalamboan" or sustainable development.
"Malahutayon ang kalamboan kung naa na ta'y naipon na kayamanan - natural na capital. Kung mapalambo ang kalasangan, mapatambok ang yuta, masulti nato na naa ta'y malahutayong kalamboan (Our development as a community is sustainable if we are able to enhance the wealth of our natural capital. If we are able to bring back our forests, we are able to enhance our soil, only then can we say we have sustainable development)," he said.
Kagawad Dante Dumanding, who is the pointman for the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) in the area said that the Tumanding indigenous peoples organization already has 200 hectares for their greening program, while PEF has provided for an 85-hectare reforestation.
The officers and members were on in saying that it took the cooperation of all, villagers, BK members, and the local government, to put in motion this community-based environmental movement that is somehow enabling them to better provide for their families and organization needs through better farm yields.
During the celebration, barangay Salasang hauled in two sacks of rambutan for the people's snacks, while barangay San Miguel provided the "sahog", the basic ingredients like onions and green pepper, for the food the villagers had to prepare for all. The other barangays contributed as well, all from their people and their farms.
Activities that barangays hold to impart the message of environment protection to both young and old include crafting barangay ordinances that require every child and youth to plant a certain number of trees for them to be able to join a sports league and imposing a penalty of planting 100 trees and taking care of this for one whole year for anyone caught violating a barangay ordinance banning the cutting of trees. All five barangays are also maintaining tree nurseries to keep planting materials ready all the time.
Mt. Sinaka has been identified as the major source of drinking water for the whole Arakan Valley and parts of Davao City.
The forests of Mt. Sinaka are the habitat of indigenous flora and several wild fauna, including the endangered Philippine Eagle as well as civet cats, Philippine macaques, wild pigs, and deers.
"Nalipay mi'g dako na sa unom ka tuig nagadaghan 'ta, aron matanom sa atong kasing-kasing ang kaimportante sa kinaiyahan (We are happy that in six years, we have grown in numbers as we strive to plant in each other's heart the importance of the environment),"Tumanding barangay captain Gayuting Tumanding said.
The challenge to ensure that the forests are protected gains magnitude as a highway now runs across these villages and around the mountain, with the project expected to be completed by February next year.
The concrete highway that will make transport of their farm produce and interaction among the different villages easier will also make it easy for poachers to come and go...