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A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: An urgent appeal to approve Davao City’s Critical Habitat Declaration

27mindaviews sojourners

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 20 September) — On a clear day after a river of clouds flows across Mt Apo’s rugged terrain and disappears into the horizon, leaving a majestic sight of Mindanao’s most revered volcano with the highest peak, one can be teary-eyed gazing at this beautiful and precious gift of Mother nature to those of us living in its shadows. 

The drive along the highway from Toril to Sta. Cruz is made more delightful if one can have a view of the various angles of Mt. Apo. There is something very re-assuring to know that Mt. Apo is right there where it rises to the clouds, as if one is under the watch of a loving grandmother intent to make sure her grandchildren are well taken care of.

And her gracious, generous spirit embodied in a rich biodiversity has been a blessing for all creatures lucky enough to find their abode around Mt. Apo including the pride of southern Mindanao (the Philippine Eagle), other bird species like the hornbills, various animals from wild boars to deer, insects and flora and fauna. There are species in this locality that are only found in this place, making their conservation a most important agenda.

But peoples have also benefited from the bounty of Mt. Apo’s resources, especially the Lumad communities who reside in these parts of the mountain range. But alas, there have been private non-Lumad Davao City residents who have found a way to own pieces of land in this part of Mt. Apo, specifically in Barangay Salaysay in the Marilog District of Davao City. At risk in such a mad rush to accumulate wealth through extracting from nature’s resource is the Mt. Macabol-Alikoson Conservation Areas (MMACA).

Unfortunately, the Ovu-Manuvu Lumad residents of Salaysay have not been able to find ways to secure a Certificate for Ancestral Domain (CADT) and despite being in a watershed protected area, the government has provided private landowners with titles over these lands which should not have been classified as alienable and thus still part of the State’s public land. It didn’t take long before the drive to benefit from the area’s remaining forests pushed a few of the landowners to ask the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for a permit to cut trees in this area.

Fortunately, there are 28 Lumad forest guards – known as Bantay Bukid – watching over the area of Salaysay led by their chieftain Pastor Julito Ajao. In the beginning it was just Pastor Ajao who was very concerned about logging in this area, convinced that trees had to be protected if only to provide the Philippine Eagle its needed habitat. In fact, he has been able to make sure that eagles sighted in this part of Mt. Apo are well protected. As soon as a recent move of one landowner to start cutting trees took place, Pastor Ajao informed civil society organizations (CSOs) in the city. Immediately, the DENR was approached which then eventually cancelled the permit to cut trees.

Their numbers expanded around 2016 as CSOs, mainly the Interfacing Development Interventions for Sustainability (IDIS) and the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) made sure to recruit, train and support them. Through lobbying, the CSOs were able to convince Davao City’s local government unit to provide the forest guards with an allowance in exchange for seven to 10 days per month that they move across the area to make sure no cutting of trees takes place.

IDIS had pioneered identifying, recruiting and training the Lumad forest guards since 2005 when it began to be engaged in protecting the watershed areas around the Panigan-Tamugan barangays whose rivers are the alternate source of potable water for the city. Today there are more than 200 of them scattered across the Mt. Apo area from Sibulan to Salaysay. Even as there is a token allowance provided them, the forest guards need more assistance so IDIS, the PEF and partner CSOs are planning reach out programs to assist them with their livelihood.

Given the need for an ongoing campaign to halt the tree cutting and environmental issues in Mt. Macabol-Alikoson Conservation Areas, researchers from IDIS, PEF, UP-Mindanao, and the Lumad residents of Salaysay undertook a joint exploration and survey in the area last July 2022. It was their aim “to gather observations highlighting the identified nesting sites of the resident Philippine Eagle pair, as well as the presence of other endemic and threatened wildlife species.” 

In order to provide the public with the results on the Wildlife and Biodiversity profiles of the MMACA area, the participating CSOs together with the Ateneo de Davao-University-Ecoteneo Program and Sustainable Davao Movement (SDM) conducted a press conference last Thursday, September 15, 2022 at the Big House in Matina, Davao City. The event was to raise public awareness, discuss policy-sound protection and preservation measures and launch an appeal for public support to the declaration of the Philippine eagle-nesting site at MMACA as a “Critical Habitat.”

This is an urgent appeal that should be the concern of all Dabawenyos, especially the millennials who are beginning to be awakened to the urgent ecological crisis that could impact the rest of their lives. The future of Davao’s watershed areas and the reasonable expectation that in the century ahead, all Davao City’s citizens still have access to potable water – apart from our collective wish that the Philippine Eagle will never go extinct – are just some of the important reasons why the Critical Habitat Declaration should already be issued by our city’s LGU and fully supported not just by the City Environment Office but also by the Department of Energy and Natural Resources.

To protect Mt. Macabol-Alikoson and the rest of Mt. Apo should be taken to heart by every Dabawenyo if they hope that the children of their grandchildren still have a mountain they can climb and experience the kind of high that comes only through mountaineering. Climbing to the peak of Mt. Apo should be in the bucket list of every Dabawenyo because there is still nothing compared to actually walking the path leading to the peak and to actually see and touch the rich biodiversity of this previous gift. After a Dabawenyo reaches the peak, every time s/he gazes at Mt. Apo from a distance, sweet memories flood the mind and one can just break into a wide smile remembering how previous was the gift to have encountered this queen of mountains, up close and personal.

One should really ask – why is there a need for a Critical Habitat Declaration?  We have to remember that ours is a weak State – where laws are passed but somehow those in the top echelon of our elite society can just find loopholes in laws passed or find ways to circumnavigate around the laws and secure exceptions from following the law. 

On record, Davao City has already an ordinance setting up the Watershed Code. It was discussed by the City Council (Sangguniang Panglungsod) during their Third Regular session Series of 2007 with this title – Ordinance No. 0310-07series of 2007 – Watershed Protection, Conservation and Management Ordinance herein after referred to as the Watershed Code. The Ordinance was enacted on January 23, 2007, its Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) approved on October 15, 2008 and published in a locally circulated paper on January 7, 2009.

An Executive Order No. 3 was then issued by Mayor Sara Duterte on May 2011 with this title – An Order implementing the Reconstitution of the Watershed Management Council (WMC), The Barangay Management Councils and the Watershed Multi-Partite Monitoring Teams in Davao City as mandated in the Watershed Code.

Its rationale stems from the recognition of the “importance of a healthy and ecologically sound watershed area in achieving the ecological balance where human beings and nature thrive in harmony with each other; (as) the City Government of Davao recognizes that watershed areas are central to the aspirations of a livable city for the Dabawenyos who must maintain its sustainability through a participative, empowered and environmentally conscious community and that it also recognizes that the watershed areas for the City’s aquifers must be protected, conserved and managed as they are the sources of the City’s drinking water.”

That a protected area such as the Mt. Macabol and Alikoson can still be exploited by the landowners who feel entitled to do what they wish could be done in their respective areas, only highlight the risks to the remaining biodiversity of this locality. If not for the forest guards, the cutting of trees that is followed by clearing the land for agricultural purposes are inevitable in such ecologically delicate areas. This is where an additional guarantee is needed to make sure that Mt. Macabol and Alikoson will never be at risk, and this is through a critical habitat declaration that should be issued as additional ordinance from the city’s LGU.

We can no longer be complacent as to what is taking place in our rich biodiversity territories across the interior of our city as if they will continue to remain untouched and pristine. Competition to extract from nature grows by the day and where natural resources are still bountiful so also is the drive of human greed to exploit nature which has remained unchecked fueling skyrocketing increase of carbon emissions resulting in worsening climate change.

The CSOs whose eyes are focused on Mt. Macabol and Alikoson along with their partners on the ground – the brave Ovu-Manuvu who hold on to their myths regarding the sacredness of this mountain – are continuing their crusade. The public should find ways to support them as they undertake more research on just how rich is the biodiversity of this territory, dialogue with the private landowners to convince them to the value of keeping forests as a form of carbon payment and to provide more assistance to the Lumad communities.

A Watershed Summit is taking place in the city sometime in November.  It is their hope that by then, Davao’s city government would have been convinced to finally issue a Critical Habitat Declaration! By then, when one gazes at the beauty of Mt. Apo, one need not worry that somewhere out there, evil lurks that could ultimately lead to the destruction of this sacred mountain. And the river of clouds can continue their journey across Mt. Apo to the delight of all of us who can just marvel at such a fabulous sight!

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is Mindanao’s most prolific book author. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw). He is a Datu Bago awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents.]

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