BAGUIO CITY — Community elders and environmental groups in the region branded the Asian Development Bank (ADB)-funded reforestation projects of the Agno and Chico Rivers’ watersheds as an exercise in futility.
Cordillera Elders’ Alliance (CEA) and Benguet Mining Action Alert Network (BMAAN) hit the project that is supposed to protect the watersheds as useless, because the government also allows mining applications that threaten to destroy these watersheds.
The watersheds for the Chico and Agno Rivers were among the forest areas in the country which would be financed by the $80 million loan from the ADB under the Integrated Natural Resources and Environmental Management (INREM) to be implemented by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
Johnny Sawadan, an elder from the upper stream of the Chico River in Kalinga and CEA deputy secretary-general said the government reforestation program is a manifestation of its inconsistent policies.
Useless reforestation with large mines
“While it mouthed to reforest the critical watershed areas of the Agno and Chico Rivers, it also accepted large mine applications from both local and foreign corporations in these watershed areas,” added Sawadan,
An elder from the brave and fierce Tulgao sub-tribe of Kalinga, Sawadan added that these watershed areas were covered by mine applications due to the revitalization of the mining program by the present administration of Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
He claimed that in the considered watershed areas of the Chico River in the boundaries of Ifugao-Mountain Province and Mountain Province-Kalinga, there are at least six applications for financial and technical assistance agreement (AFTA) mostly by foreign corporations, two applications for production and sharing agreements (PSA), and five exploration permit agreements (EXPA) which is almost 49.92 percent of the total mine applications covering 1,111,995.4351 hectares listed at the records of the MGB-DENR-CAR.
The region’s total land area is 1.8 million hectares.
Forest reserves, national park
The watershed areas of the Chico and Agno rivers are part of the Central Cordillera Forest Reserve declared during the time of the American colonial period.
In the case of Agno River where Ambuclao and Binga dams are found, while a part of the Cordillera Forest Reserve, the upper areas of the dams were also declared watershed reservations after they were built in the 1950s.
In 1987, former Pres. Corazon Aquino also declared Mount Pulag as a National Park. It is the second highest peak in the country and hosts major tributaries to major rivers that flow into the Ambuclao and Binga dams in Benguet, and the Magat dam in Ifugao. The three dams are now under the management of the SN-Aboitiz Power.
As watershed or protected areas, indigenous peoples are prohibited to engage in any economic activities – even their traditional practices, said Sawadan by enumerating various state laws like the Revised Forestry Code and the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS). He wonders however how these applications had been accepted yet allegedly covering critical forest and watersheds.
Another Ibaloi leader downstream the Agno River in Benguet said that the reforestation project could be better implemented by the community.
Virgilio Aniceto, BMAAN spokesperson, said that the reforestation project could be better given to the communities.
“There might be non-realization of these projects with the extent of anomalies, including of rigging of contracts, by the present administration of GMA,” added Aniceto, a former miner and now a pastor, in an interview.
Sawadan added these projects will not succeed if the community is not involved monitoring and management.
Jaime Dugao, a Sangguniang Bayan of Sagada, also a water source of Chico River said that communities are the appropriate partners for reforestation as they have their indigenous systems of forest management like the pirahwa system among the Tulgao of Kalinga, batangan in upper Mountain Province, muyong in Ifugao, and also in Benguet.
It is actually these systems that maintained the region’s forests added Dugao, a Kankanaey. These systems are not being utilized, supported, and appreciated by the government, he said adding, “this would be our contribution to climate change – the adoption, institutionalization, and operationalization of these indigenous forest management systems.”
Aniceto pointed out that reforestation is useless if the government allows large scale mining in the water sources in the region. He cited that the Abra River was polluted by mining in the upstream and the government should learn from this experience.
The bottom line is to repeal RA 7942, the mining act of 1995, which institutionalized large scale mining over the conservation of the environment. # Arthur L. Allad-iw