Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A watershed of possibilities for Sitio Lubo

DSC_0007 Sitio Lubo is at a cusp. Economic activity is on the upswing, but  infrastructure support is not keeping up. Farms are yielding sacks and sacks of corn and peanuts, but the far upland community is not being served by the power grid running through the Municipality of LakeDSC_0039 Sebu, water is tapped from the many waterfalls through makeshift  flexible hoses, and the roads are so bad that mud is 3 to 4 feet deep in many sections. On one hand, coal mining companies have offered to fix the roads, provide electricity and even scholarship programs, DSC_0040in  exchange for rights to extract coal from the area. On the other, Seacology and its partners, Yamog, MISEREOR, and AMORE have offered to provide renewable energy through micro-hydro power in exchange for the community’s commitment to protect their watershed. The community chose renewable energy.DSC_0054

Barangay Ned is the biggest barangay in the Municipality of Lake Sebu. With a total area of 21,246.27 hectares, it is likely also the biggest barangay in Mindanao, if not the whole country, in  DSC_0109 terms of land area. Sitio Lubo, one of some 30 sitios in Barangay  Ned, has a total area of 7,345 hectares, 2,500 hectares of which is part of the Kabulnan Watershed Forest Reserve. The climate is cool, a consequence of the 900 meter average elevation.

We arrived in the village on September 10, 2010 at about 3:30 pm  after an hour and a half ride on a pick-up truck, which took us from the General Santos City airport to the Municipality of Sto. Nino, and another 4-hour ride on aDSC_0069 motorcycle up the southern Tiruray Highlands after a quick early lunch. We were supposed to have met with the community leaders at about 5:00 pm, but the meeting was preempted by an DSC_0018unscheduled PTA assembly at the Lubo High School on Responsible Parenthood, precipitated by an incidence of teenage pregnancy. We had to reschedule the following  day. Just as well. RidingDSC_0005 tandem on a motorcycle as it sloshed for hours uphill through thick mud and loose rock took a lot more from me than I expected. I was tired.

Sitio Lubo residents  generally rely on kerosene DSC_0038for lighting and fuel wood for cooking. A few households lease solar power home systems from a cooperative for P220 a month – pretty steep considering one unit can only power 3-4 lightbulbs per night. Still fewer households have small 3-kilowatt gas-fed generators, which provide enough power for several lights, a television set, and a satellite dish antenna. Gil Bopas, who graciously fed us and put us up for the night, is one of the latter.DSC_0020

Owners of a corn farm, corn mill and a sari-sari store, Gil Bopas and  his wife Josephine, who teaches at the Lubo High School, are one of the more affluent members of the community. But  they too are looking DSC_0031forward to the promise of clean energy from the micro-hydro because it would mean 24-hour electricity for their appliances without having to buy fuel all the way from municipal centers like Sto. Nino. There are simply no gas stations in these mountains.DSC_0033

Lubo High School itself owes much of its facilities from the local PTA. Its 12 computers were provided by the PTA, and the generator that powers them was also solicited from the PTA. Internet connection and fuel for the DSC_0044 generator? Monthly PTA dues. In a sense, the community seems to have been left to fend for themselves, but it also seems that they are doing a pretty decent job at coping as well.

Double-differential 4x4 10-wheeler trucks are the economic lifeblood DSC_0053 of the village. These and the nimble motorcycles are the only vehicles that can traverse the miry roads. Maybe a monster truck will do too, except I didn’t see any. Soap, sugar, fossil-based fuels, and other necessities are cargo going up. Sacks of corn, peanuts, and DSC_0064fertilizer from huge compost heaps are cargo going down. From the T’boli  sub-community, coffee and fruits like marang and durian occasionally make it to the lowland markets as well.

Meeting over brews of local coffee the following morning, the community leadersDSC_0062 reaffirmed their commitment to protect their  watershed as they expressed their gratitude to Seacology and partners for the micro-hydro project. A cooperative will be set up to manage and maintain the micro-hydro, meters will be installed in houses, and  DSC_0059revenues based on consumption will be collected.

Also discussed were the strategies the coal mining companies were employing to gain access to mining rights, as well as the steps the community is taking, with DSC_0095the help of local Christian  churches, to neutralize these. Anti-mining posters around town, some improvised, some church-provided, give a clue to their  sentiments.

The micro-hydro power station will be constructed nearby at the point where the Kalulo and Kabusong creeks meet, some 300 DSC_0099meters below the main village. But this is too far for electricity to reach the T’boli sub-community some 6 kilometers  further up the mountains. For a win-win solution, it was agreed that the cooperative will set aside a fixed amount from revenues for DSC_0076the  benefit of the T’bolis. This may then be used to construct and maintain a ram pump or 3-5 kilowatt pico hydro for the T’boli, depending on their preference. The T’boli will also have representation on the cooperative.

After a hearty breakfast DSC_0105at the Bopas’ home, we went off on motorcycles again for the 1-hour trip to the T’boli sub-community. Slopes devoted to corn gave way to coffee plantations  leased by a big company, before reaching the edge of the forest where we were welcomed intoDSC_0089 the main house of the T’boli.

Datu Victor Danyang is the leader of the T’boli in Sitio Lubo, and is also the Chair of the T'boli Manobo Sdaf Claim  Organization or TAMASCO. He spoke of the T’boli’s commitment to the protection of their DSC_0090watershed as something second-nature to them, that they shouldn’t even be asked about it in the first place. He spoke against the coal mining companies and exhorted those who were listening to unite in the struggle against any mining in their ancestral domain.DSC_0084 He spoke with such intensity and conviction, with a no-nonsense  grin blood red from betel nut chewing, that it was impossible not to be inspired by his words. And maybe a little frightened. I thought anyone would be  an idiot to contradict him then and there.

When my turn came to speak, I thanked them for their firm  commitment to protect their watershed, and that it is their commitment precisely that is making the funds for the micro-hydro DSC_0083possible. Fear has a way of making diplomats of us all. kidding. But the meeting left no doubt in my mind that the T’boli will hold up to their part of the bargain.

T’boli coffee has a smoky flavor and went very well with the boiled taro rootDSC_0094 served during the meeting. As talk turned to the needs of the T’boli, TAMASCO leader Abelardo Wali lamented the lack of a water distribution system in the sub-community. It turns out that a ram pump was installed in the area before, but it was not well constructed. It was generally agreed that the first funds from the micro-hydro revenue DSC_0075would be used to rehabilitate the ram pump.

Lubo is a T’boli word meaning disappearing water. Apparently, Sitio Lubo sits on top of a  network of limestone caves where water on higher elevations can suddenly divert to withoutDSC_0102 warning. The non-functioning ram pump was designed with a particular water source in mind, when the water abruptly flowed underground as construction was finished.

Around the main house the T’bolis gathered wildlings from which they would start the nursery with. Sustainable agriculture and forestry will occur just DSC_0103beyond the forest. The fruit trees they intend to plant are durian, mangosteen, rambutan and marang – highly marketable fruits that can be found to some degree within the watershed.

The planting of fruit trees brings with it the promiseDSC_0074 of a  continuation of the T’boli’s gathering ways. It will also serve as hunting ground for deer and wild boar that stray outside the forest.

Later a T’boli metalworker showed me how they make their tools and trinkets using DSC_0096bamboo blowers with feather-lined pistons. It was also where the communal lunch was singed before being stewed.

We left just after lunch for the long way back to General Santos City  where I will catch my flight back to Manila the following day. ThisDSC_0072 Thursday, September 16, there will be a groundbreaking ceremony at the micro-hydro project site to mark the start of construction – really the start of an endless slew of possibilities for Sitio Lubo.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

It takes the community to protect Cabilao

Here’s a trick question: What does it take for 5 villages to sustainably coexist with an island’s ecosystem? Answer: the mindsetclip_image002 that they are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem.

Human activity inside a complex and diverse island environment is often difficult to balance against what the rest of the organisms within require to thrive. According to the United Nations clip_image002[5]Environment Program (UNEP), the most diverse region of the world for coral reefs is centered on the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, with between 500 and 600 species of coral in each of these countries. Unfortunately these are also some of the most threatened coral reefs in the world. The UNEP publication World Atlas of Coral Reefs (2001), rang the alarm bells when itP3270002 reported that 97 percent of reefs in the Philippines are under threat from destructive fishing techniques, including blast fishing, cyanide poisoning, overfishing, or from deforestation and urbanization that result in harmful sediment spilling into the sea. Of the estimated 27,000 square kilometers of coral Cabacungan reef, only 5% remain in “excellent condition” (Reef Check, as quoted in previous link). Cabilao Island’s reefs seem to belong to the 5%.

Cabilao Island in Bohol Province is a prime scuba diving destination,  boasting of giant fan and table corals, wall dives pockmarked with loon_proposed_fish_sanctuarydark and foreboding crevices, schools and schools of reef fishes, and occasional sightings of thresher sharks and hammerheads. Even the resort operators in nearby Cebu Island bring their diver-guests here, despite the 2-hour travel time by boat.

P3260040 Sport scuba diving and the tourists the industry brings is a major source of income for the communities. Three resorts in the island cater to the tourists, and the communities support the resorts with manpower, as well as excess fish and vegetables they manage to catch or harvest.

In 2001, Cabilao’s villages (Talisay, Cambaquiz, Cabacungan, LoocP3260047 and Pantudlan) established two Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), one in Barangay Pantudlan (10 hectares) and another in Barangay Cabacungan (11.8 hectares) to address the growing need to ensure the protection of their reefs. At about this time, many dive destinations in other areas, notably the Jessie Beazley and Bastera Reefs in the Sulu Sea, have become so damaged by destructive fishing methods that many dive tour operators stopped offering them as P3270011 destinations. Having one of the most intact reefs in the country firmly positioned Cabilao as a must-see diving destination.

Early this year, the island’s villagers, through PROCESS Bohol (our NGO partner), asked Seacology for assistance in refurbishing a longP3270013 abandoned Spanish-era lighthouse on the northwestern tip of the  island. The intention is to convert it into a Tourist Information Center that will promote inland tourism and showcase their handcrafted mats and bags. In exchange, they agreed to extend the existing MPAs by 10 hectares more each, P3270009 and to actively protect these for at least 20 years.

I visited the project site last March 26 and 27, 2010. Emmie Roslinda, PROCESS Bohol’s Executive Director, and Rey Monreal of the Municipal Government, were my patient and solicitous companions and guides.P3270010

Scuba diving on the MPAs was first on the agenda. No mean feat,  considering strictly no activity whatsoever is allowed within. I am told that in the early years of the MPAs, a reef guard himself was found fishing P3270016in the Cabacungan MPA. He was severely reprimanded and penalized with such a hefty fine that no one else gave a thought to violating the MPAs  since. My dive buddy was Alain, a divemaster and instructor of the Polaris Beach and Dive Resort.

If you will imagine two doors of average dimension side by sideP3270015 underwater, that would be the approximate size of the biggest fan coral that greeted us at the Cabacungan MPA. Schools of batfish, surgeonfish, rabbitfish, purple antheas, and other reef fishes abound. Over at the Pantudlan MPA, huge P3270008table  corals, some about 3 meters across, cover the edges just before the drop-off. We saw reef fishes similar to those of Cabacungan, as well as a few barracudas. A testament to the integrity of the MPAs, it was Alain’s first time to dive the MPAs too, and he was very grateful for the opportunity.

Diving and traditional fishing are restricted to areas outside theP3270007 MPAs, and the spillover marine life seems sufficient for the needs of the dive industry and fisherfolk. But the villagers do not rely solely on what the ocean provides. An imaginative, environment-friendly farming method they fondly call “rock farming” has, well, gained ground in the island. P3270027Onions,  casava, rice and corn are grown from small pockets of fertile soil that have accumulated on rocky surfaces. Their onions, the farmers swear, are the biggest and sweetest anywhere. In fact, merchants from mainland Bohol would travel to  Cabilao to snap up the onions as soon as these areP3270028 harvested, and very few, if any, remain for export outside of the province.

Also, Cabilao is known for the beautiful mats and bags that its residents, mostly women, weave from the ubiquitous romblon plant (Pandanus sp.) of the island. The Cabilao Romblon Weavers P3260027Network  (CROWN) is the island’s association of weavers, with its own president, board of directors, and quality control group. Meeting them on Day 2 is one of the highlights of the trip, as I came to observe firsthand how the womenfolk discuss the orders in the pipeline (500 just met, 100 justP3270032 placed), their plans to procure a high-speed sewing machine  (for the bag zippers) from their earnings, and their ideas for the interior layout of the soon to be converted lighthouse. Their optimism, resourcefulness and industry, I think, is worth P3270026showcasing as well.

There were recent attempts to renovate the lighthouse, but these  were clumsy at best. Architect German Torero of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), who will assist in the restoration and preservation efforts, explained to me that the newly added thin layer of cement on the walls will have to be taken off to expose the Spanish-era coral stones used in the originalP3270003 construction.

Exploring inland, I was taken to a lagoon in Barangay Looc where an edible species of seaweed locally known as lato (Caulerpa sp.) grows in abundance. Red shrimp and clams are also harvested during full P3270021moons in a nearby shallow cavern.

In Barangay Pantudlan, they have a majestic lake frequented  by migratory birds. Locals do not venture into the lake for fear of being sucked in by quicksands. As a story Emmie told goes, a carabao once inadvertently wandered into the lake and was not seen again. TheP3270019 local fisherfolk constructed  viewing decks made from discarded wooden cable spools of a telecommunication company – taking recycling to a whole new level, literally.

From the looks of it, Cabilao can stand as a P3270018model for community-based sustainable resource management, and I  hope to visit again the praiseworthy villagers that make this possible as soon as the lighthouse is finished.