Local people key to thriving forests

Our latest series gives another perspective on the currently raging issue of logging and deforestation. As the country reels from yet another logging-linked disaster and politicians search for ways to address the public’s concerns about deforestation, the most workable and sustainable solutions — involving communities in the struggle to preserve the environment — are once again being ignored.

This series examines the successes of community-based solutions to environmental conservation and concludes that in the long term, these solutions are the only viable ones for addressing current ecological woes. Last week, President Arroyo created a Task Force to hunt down illegal loggers. While effective law enforcement may provide temporary relief, it does not provide a permanent solution. Solving deforestation and other ecological problems, expert studies have shown, entail balancing the need to provide livelihood with respecting the environment.

This series shows that achieving such a balance is not impossible. It cites what have been accomplished in some of the country’s protected areas, such as those in Palawan, Negros Oriental, Bukidnon, and Negros island. It shows how forests and seas were revived with the involvement of local communities, local governments, conservation groups, NGOs, academe, and in some cases, foreign donors.

PUERTO PRINCESA SUBTERRANEAN RIVER NATIONAL PARK — The future of the Philippines may well hang on places like this — a mountain with a majestic canopy of virgin forest and a coastline fringed with towering stands of mangrove trees.

As the country reels from yet another disaster linked to large-scale deforestation and politicians search for ways to appease public outrage about logging, the most workable and sustainable solutions — involving communities in the struggle to preserve the environment — are once again being ignored.

Last week, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo created a Task Force to hunt down illegal loggers in an effort to avoid a repeat of the logging-linked disaster that recently hit Luzon’s eastern coast. But while effective law enforcement may provide temporary relief, it does not provide a long-term solution. Solving deforestation and other ecological problems, expert studies have shown, entail balancing the need to provide livelihood with respecting the environment.

Achieving such a balance is not impossible and has in fact been accomplished in some of the country’s protected areas, such as those here in Palawan, as well as in Negros Oriental, Bukidnon, and Negros Island.

The national government, however, needs to show more support for community-based management of protected areas, which make up 5.7 percent of the country’s total land area. With an annual deforestation rate of 1.2 percent, the Philippines today has a forest cover of only 19.4 percent, or about six million of the country’s entire land area of about 30 million hectares. About a third of all the country’s forests, however, are in protected zones.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines a protected area as “an area of land and/or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means.”

Here in the Philippines, the common factors among the successful protected areas, which include national parks, are participation of local communities and the support of various institutions – academe, nongovernmental organizations and local governments.

This park that includes the famous Underground River is a prime example. The local government has linked up with cooperatives that provide the park with services, such as the interpretative tour given by the Mangrove Paddle Boat Tour Guide Association to visitors. The city also gave villagers three fiberglass boats for their tour-guide business.

Brigida Muyano, the association’s 55-year-old president, never fails to impress guests with her knowledge of the scientific names of species found in the park’s four-hectare mangrove forest, where most trees are estimated to be at least 50 years old. In exchange for tour-guide services, association members receive part of the visitor fees, lessening their dependence on the extraction of park resources.

In Mount Kanlaon on Negros Island, meanwhile, logged-over areas gradually recovered after a two-year closure, and residents formed a Green Brigade. A similar strategy was employed in Bukidnon, where the Kitanglad Guard Volunteers help patrol their mountain range and 82 percent of respondents in a community survey said they actively participated in managing the protected area.

According to a study by the Resources, Environment and Economic Center for Studies (REECS), most residents in Kanlaon and Kitanglad found that the number of species sighted increased and forests and other ecosystems became healthier.

They also noted that destructive activities like the over-harvesting of rattan, the cutting of wood for charcoal and the collection of native orchids decreased. In addition, zoning the protected areas by setting aside multiple-use and core zones reduced human disturbance in restricted areas, thereby enhancing conservation.

The most positive result, however, was that respondents in Mt. Kanlaon and Mt. Kitanglad reported rising incomes because of the improved resource base and access to seedlings and livestock.

Environmental lawyer Rodolfo Quicho Jr, who works as law enforcement officer of World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Philippines at the Sierra Madre Natural Park in northern Luzon, says community participation is essential to effective protected-area management. Many have blamed the wanton destruction of Sierra Madre forests for the recent disaster in Quezon and Aurora. There have been reports as well that the national park there became prey to illegal loggers.

Interviewed months before, Quicho said, “I can see a lot of potential on the part of local people. (But) the key is still tugging at their guts — food, livelihood.”

Last year, the World Parks Congress held in Durban, South Africa emphasized the links between the conservation of natural resources and sustainable livelihood even as it called for the inclusion of cultural and spiritual values in parks preservation and maintenance.

Protecting the country’s natural resources has long been an urgent task, way before the devastation in Quezon and Aurora or the Ormoc tragedy of 1991. The importance of setting up protected areas where wildlife and vital habitats such as forests and coral reefs would be safe from human exploitation was first recognized in this country in 1932, when the U.S. colonial government-sponsored Republic Act 3915 established the Philippines’ first national parks. The law declared all parks as game refuges and bird sanctuaries, created advisory committees that assisted forestry officials in managing each park and penalized illegal activities such as squatting and poaching.

But most national parks were only on paper, with the government never allocating enough funds or personnel for them. As a result, migrants converted vast tracts of land in national parks such as Mount Apo into settlements. Illegal trade in wildlife such as parrots and cockatoos also flourished in resource-rich areas like Palawan.

According to a recent IUCN report, community-based management such as those currently done here in Palawan is becoming the most acceptable approach to protected areas. The strategy allows people living in and around national parks to participate in management efforts, as opposed to the “fortress conservation” mentality of the past that often removed people from protected zones.

In the last several years, a special project of the United Nations Development Program called the Community Management of Protected Areas or COMPACT has provided livelihood funds for village associations working with NGOs, on the condition that part of the money would be used for conservation work. One local cooperative near this park, for instance, put up a store with COMPACT funds. In return for the grant, the cooperative’s members are required to establish a nursery of seedlings for plants found in the habitat of endangered species.

With a complete mountain-to-sea ecosystem that includes tropical rainforest, beach forest, mangroves, sandy beaches and coral reefs, the stakes are certainly high for this park. In 1998, a survey by the Palawan Tropical Forestry Protection Program showed that at least one-third of all floral species in the province are found in the park, including 800 species of plants and 280 species of trees. The survey also recorded around 90 species of birds, 30 species of mammals and 10 species of amphibians.

The Sabang Sea Ferry Service Cooperative, whose members transport guests to the Underground River, received funds to buy a boat. In return, its members join park rangers in patrolling St. Paul Bay, initiate coastal clean-up and tree planting activities, and assist in educational campaigns about biodiversity conservation.

The same approach is working in Tubbataha Reefs, which shares distinction with this park as the only two natural World Heritage Sites in the country. In exchange for giving up fishing rights in the abundant coral atolls, residents of Cagayancillo, where Tubbataha is located, receive a seven-percent share of the park fees for their livelihood projects and social services. They also benefit from foreign grants in setting up marine reserves that would help increase their catch.

Cagayancillo has received more than P600,000 since park fees were collected. The money went to loans to seaweed farmers and other entrepreneurs, on condition that they will not engage in environmentally destructive activities. Some of the funds were also used to build a concrete farm-to-market road in the far-flung municipality.

“It may be a small amount but it’s really a big help to the people of Cagayancillo,” says Mayor Joel Carceler. The island municipality is so remote that children in multigrade classes are using 10-year-old textbooks and most residents have migrated to other parts of the province.

Tubbataha park manager Angelique Songco says the reefs are reaping benefits from the partnership. In the past, rangers would find lighters and even legs of plastic dolls in the nests of booby birds at the North Islet, indicating negative human impact on the park. But now most guests and residents respect the sanctity of core zones. Local officials and diving operators are also active in crafting policies and assisting law enforcers.

Parks in Palawan, however, do not strictly follow the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) law. Passed on June 1, 1992, the law was meant to provide a realistic and updated framework for managing national parks, with two-thirds facing problems from human encroachment, according to a DENR report.

Palawan, which has been successfully enforcing a total commercial log ban (the law allows cutting in 5,000 hectare-communal forests per municipality) since 1992, uses its own Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) law to guide its conservation efforts. Its parks, though, have adopted one particular feature from the NIPAS law: the creation of a Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) that serves as a site’s policy-making body.

In principle, the PAMB allows various stakeholders to have an equal voice in making decisions about park management. In reality however, its application varies depending on the influence of government officials in a given area. Tubbataha for instance, has the governor as chairman representing the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, which implements the SEP law. Here in Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National park, the mayor has headed the PAMB since the city government wrested control of the park from the DENR in 1993, invoking the Local Government Code.

Park manager James Albert Mendoza admits that one major weakness of the park’s devolution is that it is subject to the whims of whoever is elected mayor. The city government hopes to correct legally untenable issues once the protected area bill for this park is passed, says Mendoza, himself a political appointee who has gained the respect of local residents through years of training.

Governance is a crucial issue in the park, as it is linked to many threats such as possible road construction, population increase, uncontrolled tourism and commercial development, increased sediment and pesticides from farm lands upstream, inappropriate land use in watershed areas outside park boundaries, and deforestation.

Yet even with its flaws, retaining control of this park under the city government remains a more practical option than giving it back to the DENR, says Cleofe Bernardino, executive director of the Palawan NGO Network and a long-time PAMB member. Mendoza agrees, saying local governments are more effective in park management because they can respond more quickly and there are fewer layers of decision-making unlike in the DENR.

“There is so much to change in the DENR perspective,” observes WWF-Philippines’ Quicho. “It has to learn how to work with local communities and local government units. I do not blame the DENR for now because I think this is an age-old problem – a culture – that they need to shake off.”

In contrast to Palawan’s experience, Apo Island in Negros Oriental follows the NIPAS law to the letter. This includes having a PAMB chaired by the DENR’s regional director, who is based in Cebu. Mayor Rodrigo Alanano of Dauin municipality, where Apo Island is located, is a PAMB member and he has complained why meetings have to be held in Cebu or Dumaguete instead of Apo Island. Like the Palawan parks, however, Apo Island was not part of a DENR pilot project on the NIPAS law.

The DENR had flirted with the idea of co-management as well when it allowed the newly organized consortium NGOs for Protected Areas (NIPA) to control the project on the NIPAS law, which initially covers 209 sites (based on a list drawn up by the DENR).

The project had bright spots like Mt. Kanlaon and Mt. Kitanglad, but on the whole, it has been seen as a failure. An evaluation report of the Conservation of Priority Protected Areas Project (CPPAP) noted that only one NGO partner was supposed to co-manage the project with DENR. Protests from a prominent environment leader, however, led to the creation of the 25-member NIPA instead, reveals an insider, who also notes, “The very concept of protected area management was that it should be done by locals.”

NIPA was supposed to work with site-based NGOs that would assist local residents in managing national parks and creating environment-friendly livelihood opportunities. But lack of expertise and allegations of corruption got in the way of political correctness. The project ended in 2002 with an investigation on mismanagement hounding NIPA officials.

Despite the controversy, the DENR remained upbeat on the co-management scheme. “(The CPPAP) has changed the people’s notion that the stewardship of natural resources is the sole responsibility of the DENR,” assistant director Mundita Lim of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) asserted in the project-completion report.

Former CPPAP manager Ipat Luna says project sites can also benefit from project gains including “an efficient Biodiversity Monitoring System now entrenched in the DENR process, a democratic way to do bill drafting for site specific laws, a shortened management planning process and honest to goodness lessons on what economic alternatives can be realistic.”

In Apo Reef in Mindoro, for instance, fishers who are members of Bantay Apo have learned how to keep field diaries, helping park staff monitor the condition of the park’s marine resources. The fishers also report violators in exchange for limited fishing rights in the country’s largest coral atoll. The only fly in the ointment there is a reported decrease in the fishers’ income due to restrictions in fishing activities.