‘Playground of the Gods’

IT IS Luzon island’s roof and highest peak, and the Philippines’ second highest, after Mount Apo in Mindanao. Now that it is almost summertime, Mount Pulag is bound to be at its busiest, having earned a spot on the itinerary of many nature-lovers and mountaineers.

HIKERS traverse the mossy forest of Mount Pulag, the highest peak in Luzon at 2,922 meters above sea level. Many residents from the towns of Bokod and Kabayan, Benguet, which play host to the protected mountain, expressed opposed to any mining activity within the coverage of Mount Pulag National Park. [photo by Harley Palangchao]

But for the indigenous Ibaloi, Mount Pulag (also called Pulog) is where the gods live, rest, and play year-round.

Even mountaineers attest to the mystique of Pulag, pointing to the ever-present sea of clouds that provides a constant puffy cover to its evergreen summit. Too, this “playground of the gods” boasts of a great array of flora and fauna, including the pitcher plant, the Philippine brown deer, the pygmy fruit bat (Otopteropus cartilagonodus), the bushy-tailed cloud rat (Crateromys schadenbergi), and the Northern Luzon giant cloud rat (Phloemys palidos), said to be the biggest rat species in the world that grows up to 40 centimeters long.

Last May, a team of Filipino and American scientists even rediscovered “a highly distinctive mammal” in Pulag: the greater dwarf cloud rat (Carpomys melanurus) that was last seen 112 years ago.

This species — until then believed to have been extinct — was described in press reports as having dense, soft reddish-brown fur, a black mask around large dark eyes, small rounded ears, a broad and blunt snout, and a long tail covered with dark hair. An adult weighs about 185 grams.

But there has been trouble in the paradise of Ibaloi lore. Large parts of Pulag’s mossy forest where the dwarf cloud rat was found last year had been logged over in the 1960s, and only a few large trees remain standing today.

Part of the forest had disappeared, a gradual regeneration unfolds in other parts, even as many local residents have shifted to planting vegetables, Mount Pulag National Park Superintendent Emerita Albas was quoted in press reports.

“Other parts of the park have extensive areas of mossy forest but where there are roads into the park, the vegetable farms are expanding,” Albas, herself an Ibaloi, said. “The people deserve to have a place to live and to have their farms, but the mossy forest needs to be protected”

In 2007, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) had also raised an alarm over habitat loss in Pulag because of excessive hunting and agricultural expansion.

This had left rare bird species at risk of extinction, among them the whiskered pitta and the Luzon water-redstrad.

Other birds such as the flame-breasted fruit-dove (Ptilinopus marchei), Luzon scopes-owl (Otus longicornis), chestnut-faced babbler (Stachyris white headi), long-tailed bush warbler (Bradypterus caudatus), and white-browed jungle-flycatcher (Rhinomyias insignis), also landed in the “near-threatened” list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resource (IUCN), said Teber Dionisio, then chief of the DENR’s Wildlife Management Section. Species are deemed vulnerable to extinction when its population has dipped to less than 10,000 nationwide.

Meanwhile, the Ibaloi themselves seem to be dwindling in number. From a peak of 174,337 in 1986, the Ibaloi population dipped to 112,443 just four years later.

Of the total, 86,000 were living in Benguet. 13,000 in Nueva Vizcaya, a few hundreds across Luzon, dozens across the Visayas, and even a handful had moved far down to Basilan, South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat in Mindanao, according to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

Throughout Philippine history, discrimination and displacement have become the tragic story of the Ibaloi, like most other indigenous communities, notes Jacqueline K. Carino of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, in her 1999 seminal study titled “Dams, Indigenous People and Vulnerable Ethic Minorities: A Case Study on the Ibaloy People and the Agno River Basin.”

Where the dams of the Marcos regime from the ’70s inundated entire Ibaloi communities, today mining companies threaten to make the gentle Ibaloi’s haven into virtual graves.

There could even come a time when the Ibaloi may be hard to find anywhere near their sacred mountain, with the museum in Kabayan town and the centuries-old mummies at the Opdas Mass Burial Cave the only evidence that they were there at all.

Then again, the Ibaloi will always return to Pulag. According to Hamada-Pawid and Bagamaspad, authors of A People’s History of Benguet, the majestic mountain is “the final resting place in the afterlife” for the Ibaloi. — PCIJ