Brighter hope for the Cordillera watersheds

BAGUIO CITY – It is believed that Indigenous Peoples have a spiritual connection to watersheds because ritual places are often in the headwaters. Some community stories narrate that sometime ago, children died of diarrhea because of flooding after logging, and communities attributed it to angering the spirits because trees were cut.

With the cordillerans’ close relationship with our nature and watersheds, it is not surprising that there unique indigenous practices in agriculture that are being employed by IPs in the Cordilleras. One example of it is Ifugao’s muyong or pinugo. From the muyong, the family or clan gets fuel, housing lumber, and nowadays, income The Ifugaos also claim the muyong is the best preventive measure against soil erosion. The muyong looks like a wild forest to the eye, but it is actually a well-managed resource.

According to one research, the size of a muyong ranges from a few hundred square meters to around five hectares. The size as well as its quality varies, depending on the size of the rice terrace or pond field of its owners. It is most often an area that used to be a farm, where the Ifugaos allow trees and other plant species to regenerate themselves. Afterwards, the area is cleared of weeds and other undesirable plant species that hamper the growth of the more important plant and tree varieties.

However, not anyone is allowed to enter a muyong.  The customary laws of the Ifugao open the cultivation of the muyong to clan members only owned, and only members of the said clan can access the resources from the muyong. Oftentimes, non-members of the clan are allowed to cut only branches of trees. But during times of need, like the death of a member of the village, access to lumber that is to be used to make the coffin of the deceased is granted.

While there are plenty of indigenous practices in the field of agriculture, the continuation of these practices is being challenged by the threat of deforestation. Forest Degradation in many parts of the world continues at a high pace, as a result of agricultural conversion, mining, and sometimes infrastructure development. These activities lead to pollution, water shortages, gradual loss of biodiversity, and environmental conflicts which pose threat to the capability of our forest landscapes to provide environmental goods and services that cater to basic human needs such as food security.

The 1.81 million-hectare Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) acts as the watershed cradle of the entire northern Luzon. Serving as a home for numerous Indigenous Peoples, there is a need to respond to the environmental problems the region faces because the protection of the forests and watersheds are integral to the welfare and the culture of the communities residing in it.

Aside from contributing resources such as timber and minor forest products to the wood-based industries, more importantly, the watersheds play important role to our Indigenous communities, making them more susceptible and exposed to the dangers that can be brought by the degradation of environmental resources.

Affected in the problem of our watershed are the agricultural practices, thus the practice of various communities of indigenous practices in sustainable farming. According to the Center for Development Programs in the Cordillera (CDPC), there has already been initiatives that have been launched to support indigenous practices of our farmers in their agriculture, such as distribution of indigenous seeds, introduction of technologies that are appropriate for their situation, and their initiative for System for Rice Intensification (SRI) that educates farmers on how they would manage their seeds, soil, pests, and water. However, they emphasized that the entire agricultural livelihood needs the protection of the entire watershed of the Cordilleras.

As a manifestation of indigenous creativity in agriculture, a group of farmers termed a technology which they use in plowing their lands as “kuliglette” or a mini kuliglig which they use in their farming practice, a version of micro tiller which is more appropriate in terrace farming.

On the other hand, the local government offices have also not lacked in proposing various initiatives, campaigns and programs that they deem as a response to the entire environmental situation of the region.

In 2017 State of the Region report of Mayor Mauricio Domogan, he highlighted that  there are 174,056 hectares of reforested areas in the region., showing proof that the reforestation activities led by the government has resulted to an increase in the forest cover in CAR.

Despite these current moves, Rhoda Dalang of CDPC, said that there is a great need to consider the Indigenous Peoples in every step of the way that are being taken by the government and various groups in their attempt to solve the problems in our watershed. This is because that some of the introduced greening projects such as the introduction of foreign seedlings, and even introduction of modern renewable energy systems, are not exactly appropriate to the situation of the Indigenous peoples in a specific area. Not only does these cause problems in the water sources for their farms, but sometimes causes displacement of indigenous peoples from their “Ilis” as well.

Dalang said that the Natural resource management of indigenous communities are based from the “Ili” or the Ancestral domains, as termed by the Indigenous Peoples Right Act (IPRA).  The communities within the Ili share the responsibility and burden to take care of the water system, because water sources play detrimental roles in their agricultural practices.

“It is in the Ili where we fight for our right to self-determination in protection, access, and control of our natural resources which is tied to our survival. Anything that will affect that, will also affect our survival, but all the more, it will affect the management, conservation, and protection of our natural resources.” she said.

On the other hand, the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) stated that the vanishing forest cover in the Cordillera should also be seen historically. According to a statement they released before, this environmental problem did not happen overnight because in Benguet alone, corporate mining has denuded forests in Itogon; Baguio, Tuba and Tublay.

Last April 2018, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Regional Director Ralph Pablo noted that their action points for forest and watershed management and protection include the continuation of the enhanced national greening program, forest management program and the integrated natural resources and environmental management program.

Also, heeding the concerns of Indigenous groups, the DENR started an initiative that would hopefully resolve the issues of Indigenous Peoples with the currently developed greening projects—the Sustainable Traditional Indigenous Forest Management System and Practices (STIFMSP).

The STIFMSP aims to record the indigenous practices of every group, and will be eventually recognized so that the IPs will eventually be managing their own forests in their own indigenous methods. The process, however, includes the Municipalities’ recognition of these practices first, along with land area’s Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT).

According to Dancio P. Martinez, Chief, PAFCS, Forester III, this will be better because this will give authority to the Indigenous groups to take care and administer of the environment. However he emphasized that there is still a possibility that these areas would be abused, thus the need for DENR’s supervision of the areas.

The said program will document the indigenous practices of groups, and will draft appropriate measures and punishments to those will do things that are beyond the documented practices, however, the forester doubt that these indigenous peoples will break their own rules and destroy the watersheds they manage.

Although this has started to be developed in 2008, there are only four recognized places with STIFMSP practices today, namely Tadian, Sagada, Besao,and Asipulo, and they’re still convincing other municipalities to start documenting their indigenous practices. However, Martinez explained that this number is due to the tedious process before the indigenous practices of a place is recognized.

“Ang kailangan nating tutukan ay ang ating mga stakeholders, ang mga IPs. Let’s give them livelihood, mai-employ natin sila into agriculture para ma-encourage sila. Kasi sa huli tayo at kasama sila rin ang maka-kawawa pag di natin naalagan ang watersheds natin” he said.

Advocating for the restoration of our environmental resources is one; keeping in mind the welfare of our Indigenous peoples is another. If there are people who are being greatly affected by the degradation of our environment, it would be the local indigenous communities. How can the rich agriculture traditions of the Cordillera such as the muyong develop and prosper when there’s no more space for trees to be planted? How can our farmers continue to develop technologies like the ‘kuliglette’ if here will be no more land to till for their crops?

Hopefully the STIFMSP not only serves as a compromise, but rather serves as a measure that will connect the plight of the Indigenous Peoples to the goal of restoring the watershed of the Cordillera. Its implementation and genuine acknowledgement of Indigenous practices and methods in agriculture will bring the Indigenous people into a situation where in they will not be deemed as people who abuse environmental resources, but rather people who help in nurturing the richness of the Cordillera region.

“May pag-asa.”

This was how Forester Martinez described what is in store for the Cordillera watershed. With the government’s conduct of projects that would help the Cordillera restore its watersheds, while at the same time recognizing the essential role of the Indigenous Peoples in our region and keeping their welfare in mind, for sure there is hope in the Cordillera and its environmental resources.

By JAPHETH G. TOBIAS

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