Monday, November 30, 2009

Palaui: An island bastion against the changing climate

Last year, when Seacology agreed to fund the rehabilitation of thelocator map1  Community Center (Bayanihan Hall) of Palaui Island, Cagayan Province in exchange for the island villagers’ commitment to protect their 2,172.5 hectares of watershed forest, not much thought was given to the typhoons that regularly hit this tiny green dot on the map once or twice every year. After all, the islanders are no strangers to typhoons (the Philippines is hit by an average of 20 typhoon isang copy typhoons per year), and they have gone through some of the worst. But two particular typhoons this year were different.

No less than five typhoons came within a hundred kilometers of the island this season. Three followed thetyphoon jolina copy usual pattern of coming from the southeast and proceeding either north, northeast or northwest.  Two however made paths that made it seem like they had a mind of their own.

First was Typhoon Isang on the second week of July with winds of up Typhoon nando copyto 120 km per hour. At its heels came Typhoon Jolina on the first week of August, which while weaker at 75 km per hour almost made a direct hit. In the mainland Jolina left 8 fatalities. Typhoon Nando came on the second week of September also with 75 typhoon pepeng copy km per hour, triggering landslides, road closures and evacuations in nearby Kalinga Province.

Then came the unusual typhoons. Category 4 Super Typhoon Pepeng came straight from the southeast and headed directly for Palaui. It went past Cagayan Province, then went back typhoon ramil copy and made landfall again, going back and forth during the first two weeks of October for a total of three landfalls before finally heading out towards Hainan Island, China.

On the third and fourth week of October, Category 4 Super Typhoon Ramil tracked like it Bayanihan Hall 2was going past the Philippines, going east northeast of Palaui a little  bit. Then it unexpectedly veered straight for the island like a dive bomber, and just as suddenly, it pulled up before actually making landfall and headed north.

Bayanihan Hall All this time, we in Manila were a bit concerned about how the typhoons affected the Community Center being constructed in the island. The Advocate of Philippine Fare Trade (APFTI), Seacology’s partner in this project, had little to report as communication with the islanders palaui site visit 052was spotty. Travel was made extremely difficult too, as four bridges to Cagayan Province  were damaged in Pepeng’s aftermath.

So when APFTI consultants Chen and Louie Mencias informed me that the Palaui Community Center is palaui site visit 030finished and invited me for a visit at the end of November, I jumped at the  offer.

We left Manila by bus, 7:00 pm on November 27, 2009, and arrived at the Sta. Ana Pier about 10:00 am the following day. A 20 minute boat ride brought us to the house of Mang Diony, in whose backyard we made camp during our visit last year.

According to Mang Diony, they were left relatively unscathed by the typhoons. Problems in the palaui site visit 032construction of the Community Center were more on the difficulties encountered ferrying the construction materials to the island than anything else. The thick foliage of the primary and secondary growth forest kept the winds from doing any damage, even as much of the mainland was reeling from the succession of typhoons.

IMG_0202 Palaui is legally protected under the National Integrated Protected Area System Act (passed by Congress in 1992), and like many of the areas defined in the NIPAS Act, little or no community consultation was done, resulting in little or no community support. The original structure was built by the palaui site visit 005Department of Natural Resource and Environment in late 1993, but it  was never maintained over the years. Illegal logging and “slash and burn" farming occasionally occurred due to lack of agricultural land, decreasing productivity of the soil and the need to palaui site visit 059 produce food crops for the local population.

We proceeded to the Community Center where we were met by Barangay Captain Edgar Ugale. The building we saw is a far cry from the rundown shack we saw last year. There is a kitchen, a serving area, two toilet enclosures, a shower area, a stockroom where the solar powered batteries are kept, a guest room, and a wide activity center. The anahaw roofing keeps temperatures cool even at noon. The water tank outside, fed by a palaui site visit 069hand pumped deep well, keeps water flowing throughout the  building. A solar panel jutting out of the roof provides clean and renewable electricity.

Simple ceremonies, where the villagers reaffirmed their commitment to protect their watershed for 20 palaui site visit 071 years, marked the turnover of the Community Center to the care of the community. Alternative livelihood training programs will be conducted in the center, with the hoped effect of easing economic pressure off the watershed. It will also serve as a place where the villagers may gather and organize themselves.palaui site visit 072

As a tourist destination, Palaui has much to offer. In the island are three beautiful waterfalls, several potential nature trails for flora and fauna enthusiasts, and numerous rest points with scenic views. Narra and other high value hardwood trees are palaui site visit 076abundant, as are birds and butterflies not often seen anymore in mainland Luzon. There is no electricity, and lodging is limited to  camping or home-stay (renting a room from a local). But maybe it is better this way as too many tourists and tourism-related establishments may impose too heavy a tax on the fragile ecosystem.palaui site visit 080

After lunch with the community, we headed out for one of the waterfalls. The one-hour hike wasn’t too bad, even if we did wade through a few creeks, cross a  rickety two-plank hanging bridge, and stare down a couple of barking dogs along the way. My palaui site visit 133shirt was wet with sweat by the time we got there, but I think anyone would feel as reinvigorated as I did after seeing all  that   clear water cascading down the steep slope.

The following day, we went to the northern tip of Palaui – Cape EngaƱo, where the last lighthouse built by the Spaniards in the Philippines is located.palaui site visit 104

According to the lighthouse keeper, the Americans built the perimeter wall of the lighthouse and the Japanese used it as a garrison during World War   II. And it is also supposed to be haunted by the ghosts of the Japanese troops that died defending it at the end of the war. He said he would sometimes wake up to the sound of marching boots just before dawn, though nothing or no one was ostensibly making it.

palaui site visit 115As spooky as the lighthouse keeper’s stories may be, one cannot help but be enchanted just by the panoramic view from the lighthouse. From the beaches of the east and west shores start the grasslands, and from thence the  edges of the forest. Where we were, we witnessed the huge waves crashing on the left side in contrast with the calm sea on the right. It is as good a metaphor as any of the island defending against the wildly changing weather patterns.palaui site visit 086

Food for thought as we left the island for the overnight bus trip back to Manila.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Water can flow higher than its source

Descending into the gully, we heard the faint 128clanging of metal against metal, like there was a fairy blacksmith amidst the ferns and lichen hammering on a horseshoe somewhere down there. There was no fairy, of course, but the machine we saw is nearly as magical – it pumps 10 099liters of water per minute up a steep 89-meter cliff without electricity. It is called a hydraulic ram pump system.

How we came to be here needs a bit of history to explain.

In 1992, the Philippine Government enacted the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, which designated "biologically important public lands that are habitats of rare and endangered species". Unfortunately, very little community consultation occurred in the101 process, if at all, so consequently there is scant grassroots support for the protected areas.

One of the areas so designated is Northern Negros Island, Western  Visayas Region, and Murcia is one of the municipalities located within both the North Negros Forest Reserve and Mt. Kanlaon Natural Park. Closed-canopy forests in these areas serve as an important part of the island’s watershed. They are also very 160important habitats for several threatened species; such as the Negros Bleeding Heart Pigeon, the Blue-crowned Racquet-tailed Parrot, Blue-naped Parrot, the spotted Wood-kingfisher, the White-Winged Cuckoo Shrike, the Flame-templed Babbler, among others; and two critically 159threatened hornbills:  Tarictic Hornbill and the Visayan Writhed or Walden’s Hornbill. Likewise, it has all the six Negros Island species of large mammals, two of which are endangered: the Philippine Spotted 161Deer and the Visayan Warty Pig. Moreover, timber species like Red and White Lauan, Nato, Bagtikan, Tangele, Almon, Almaciga, Udling among others are  abundant in the area. Illegal logging, backyard charcoal production, and indiscriminate hunting persist as threats to the "protected area."

In 2007, AID Foundation asked Seacology to help them build ram pump systems for 3 villages (barangays) within the  North Negros Forest Reserve and Mt. Kanlaon Natural Park. In return, the villages, i.e. 092Barangays Canlandog, Sta. Cruz and Buenavista, all in the Municipality of Murcia, will commit themselves to protecting 2,000 hectares of watershed forest area adjacent to their villages for at least 30 years.

The installation of the ram pumps and water distribution system was completed last July, and now, October 17, 2009, I am visiting the sites to see how these are. With me is Auke Idzenga of AID Foundation. Auke is a 122Dutch immigrant who has  been a resident of Negros since the late 1980s, and he speaks the Negros Island dialect fluently. He, along with 3 Filipinos, set up AID Foundation in 1992 to help the impoverished communities of Negros Island. In most of my conversations with104 community members, he was my interpreter.

The most extensive distribution network is at the village of Calandog, where the lines laid out total about 11 kilometers. This is also the first village to have had their ram pumps installed. So far, the 147distribution in Sta. Cruz village is  limited to Sitio Lacson, while in Buenavista village the water reaches Sitios Bug-as and Igkalay.

The ram pumps need very little maintenance. Just a little cleaning once a week or so, and some parts have to be inspected every 6 months to check if they need to be replaced. Right 152now, each house is paying a fixed amount of Php20 (about 45 US cents) per month to draw water from the reservoir. The money goes to the system’s maintenance.

Paterno Ledesma, chairman of the Purok Lacson Water Consumers Association, has a novel way of collecting payment, which is incorporated in one of the association’s clauses. Valves from the reservoir service a certain group 157of households.  Should a group member forget to pay by the due date, Paterno shuts off the valve servicing that group until everyone pays. So far, he has had to shut off a valve 3 times in the past, and only for one day at most.

At each of the communities benefitting from the ram pumps, we  were greeted with food painstakingly prepared by the grateful residents. It wasn’t much really. Different preparations of suman (sweetened rice wrapped in leaves), boiled sweet potatoes, macaroni salad, and pots of native coffee at153 every stop. But I felt like we were being served a costly feast, coming from families living on less than fifty pesos (about a dollar) a day.

Over and over one woman spoke to me in their  dialect of how, before the ram pumps were installed, a family 130member, sometimes a son or daughter, had to spend hours to go  down all the way to the water source every day to fill up a few containers and climb back up. Now, they have more time to do other things. The children have more time to devote to their studies, the men can spend more time at extra income-augmenting activities such as hog raising, and the women can do more house 154 chores.

And everyone can bathe regularly. Not a joke. I’ve been told that incidences of skin diseases went down dramatically in Calandog, which had their ram pumps in place since mid last year.

138 The villages have set up their own Forest Guards who patrol the watershed regularly, mindful of its significance to the accessible water they now enjoy. About 3,000 seedlings (assorted indigenous species) were planted around the ram pump sites, and the no-take zone is being enforced.

For the 217 households presently being served by the ram pumps, finding time to work for the future suddenly seems possible.


Fine-tuning the ram pump.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

There is Power at the Top

And it is clean and renewable.

IMG_0024 Sitio Malumpine of Barangay Old Bulatukan is composed of about 65 Manobo households. It is one of the isolated upland communities of Mt. Apo, and is among the 16 barangays of Malasila, North Cotabato. Located some 25 kilometers from Kidapawan City, North Cotabato, the community is composed of Manobos, and their barangay is within the recently recognized 3,500 hectare ancestral land of the Manobo Tribe.

The community is off-grid, and when I visited them last year, theIMG_0015  residents relied on kerosene lamps for lighting and firewood for cooking. The province's electric cooperative, the Cotabato Electric Cooperative (COTELCO) will not be able to extend the grid to this community for the next 10 years at least, due to budget limitations.

IMG_0040 In exchange for funding from Seacology to build a micro-hydro power station and a tree nursery, the Manobo community pledged to protect 300.998 hectares of forest land within their ancestral domain for 30 years. Seacology’s partner in the project, Yamog Renewable Energy Development Group Inc provided the technical expertise and sourced the needed materials and counterpart funding.

I first visited the smallDSC00823 community of Manobos living on the slopes  of Mt. Apo in July 2008. Datu Enoch Gascon (the tribe’s chief), Nonoy Cacayan (Yamog), and Ben Baril (Yamog) took me on a 4-hour hike up the mountain until we got to where the micro-hydro power station was to be built. Leeches and slippery slopes dogged me during the hike, and I realized then how malumpine 031ill-prepared, attire-wise, I was for the hike. Ditching the shorts and rubber shoes for cargo pants and hiking boots this time around, I hoped to manage the hike better.

It took us only two hours to get to the site yesterday, August 15, 2009. The Municipal Government of Malasila came through with its promise tomalumpine 011 construct a road on the periphery of the watershed where the materials for the project may be carried. We hiked through a steep 2-kilometer road that I reckon can be traversed only by bulldozers, donkeys, and some pretty determined mountain climbers like us. The road was meant to run for at least four kilometers, until the earth on a cliff was determined too soft for the bulldozer to risk going any further. But it was enough to halve the journey time, and I got through still pretty dry thankfully.

malumpine 019 Last year, I was asked “What tribe are you from?” I was taken aback, but I answered “Tagalog” after a second or two. Tagalog is my ethnic group, though I’ve never really thought of it that way. Growing up in an urban area has a way of relegating words like ethnicity and tribe to Tarzan or John Wayne movies. This pointed query from Datu Enoch is, to me, an eloquent window to theirmalumpine 034 perception of the world.

The people from this Manobo community, I learned, spoke three dialects: their own Manobo dialect, which they use when talking to each other; Visaya, which they use when with the lowlanders; and Tagalog when they talk to me.

The province of North Cotabato is one of the watershed frontiers of Mindanao, a portion of it being under the Mt. Apo National Park. The whole of Mt. Apo, the tallest malumpine 049 mountain in the Philippines, is already a protected area by virtue of a 1936 edict, but very little enforcement had been done. It has one of the highest land-based biological diversity per unit area in the Philippines, and is home to many threatened and endangered species.

Electricity, 10 kilowatts of it 24 hours a day from the micro-hydro power station, has given these Manobos a renewed respect for their watershed. Tribe elder Charlie malumpine 068 Ili, who served us a humble meal of eel soup and rice spoke animatedly of the brighter prospects ahead – better value for their coffee crop  processed  from an electro-mechanized coffee bean husker and drier, new income from a potential base camp for tourist-hikers to the peak of Mt. Apo, their children’s exposure to malumpine 072modern, erstwhile unthinkable technologies like computers, and many more.

With this Manobo community deriving clean and renewable energy from their watershed, there is little doubt that, at least in the area of Mt. Apo where they hold sway, the forest and everything in it will remain pristine for their next generation.