Jimmy K. Laking
The scenery that greeted us on a recent trip to Marilog in the highlands of Davao City was in sharp contrast to a time when it was covered mostly by dipterocarps and oak trees laced with vines and orchids.
Most of the people you see back then way back early in the 1990s belonged to the indigenous Manobo populations. You can spot their menfolk on horseback along the road, their hips strapped with bladed weapons.
They are still up there but much of their land is now being changed slowly but surely by the backhoe. This is the reality that is unfolding in the highlands of Davao City. Trust me, this is also the same story that is unfolding in the foothills of Mt. Apo.
On impulse, we followed a paved road branching out from the highway in Barangay Marahan eastward. We were told it was leading to a village and followed it to where it was supposed to end. It stopped abruptly a kilometer away smack in the middle of a mossy forest. Work was halted but we were given the impression it would push through.
On the way back, we gathered that the stretch of forest land we just passed through will be converted into a subdivision.
This is called land conversion. I am sure that with the new road in place, other speculators will be coming in to introduce a much deadlier intrusion: conversion into farm lands. And it reminded me in part of a slow but systematic conversion of the slopes of Mt. Pulag (reputedly the country’s third highest mountain at 9,606 ft. above sea level) that is going on to this day in the province of Benguet.
In 2013, I accompanied one provincial governor in going up near the top of Mt. Pulag and I was surprised to see half of the way upwards already planted to all kinds of temperate crops.
All around me were rows of month-old robust cabbage plants on farms that seemed to be inching their way to the top.The spot where we stopped looked higher than Atok’s barangay Paoay (an emerging tourist spots for its innovative flower and vegetable industry) in the distance, and is located 7,748 ft. above sea level, more than a thousand feet to the top. Nearby, a backhoe provided a backdrop to rows of cabbage that seemed to welcome the gusty rains that whipped the slopes occasionally.
But this did not seem to dampen personnel of the Benguet PPO headed by then S/Supt. Rodolfo S. Azurin who trekked to a spot in the middle of a forested slope to inspect the massive conversion of forestland into farmlands.
His men also chanced upon another backhoe and took pictures of felled trees and bulldozed earth in the middle of Naobanan, a part of Mt. Pulag described by then Bokod mayor Mauricio Macay as the watershed of roughly half of the town and the headwater of the Bokod river that helps feed the Ambuclao, Binga and San Roque dams.
The devastation described was systematic, considering the use of machinery and chainsaws. Had not local officials led by then Gov. Nestor Fongwan and Macay stepped into the scene, it seemed likely the culprits would have laid bare that part of the forest in a matter of months, setting off the process of desertification and siltation.
How the culprits (or whoever was behind them) managed to get inside a protected area unmolested could be explained perhaps by the presence of a road that was carved mid-slope as if on purpose.
The situation reminded of me of an Irish missionary’s research that attributed the denudation of forested lands in parts of Mindanao to roads abandoned by logging companies, allowing ‘carabao logging’ (so-called because the logs were pulled by carabaos) to thrive.
And where the roads and trails led, there followed trickles of settlers that brought along with them their system of farming from the Visayas that did not spare even the steep slopes from the plow—setting off the process of siltation and desertification in the long run.
In his book, To Care For the Earth, Fr. Sean McDonagh, bared that much of the top soil of South Cotabato and Sarangani have long been washed ashore to Sarangani Bay due in part to the system of farming introduced by settlers. The implication is that the bay’s corrals have long been decimated by silt and it was the reason why local fishermen had to go beyond the boundary with Indonesia to fish.
The other implication is that much of the once-fertile valleys from Koronodal to Polomolok where the vast pineapple plantations are found are sustained not by the richness of the soil but by a heavy dose of synthetics.
In contrast, the farms up the slopes of Mt. Pulag maybe smaller by comparison. But the method of farming suggests the farmers did come to settle permanently with the introduction of GI-roofed houses, schools and more roads.
Most of the vegetable terraces were haphazardly done and showed signs of being deprived of their top soil. The plant rows themselves were mostly pointed down slope, not across it to preserve the soil.
The sloping agriculture techniques mastered by pre-Spanish Igorot settlements seemed long forgotten.
In a few years from now, the soil will become acidic and the Mt. Pulag farmer is again constrained to move up farther.
In the meantime, all concerned agencies and foreign-funded special programs that profess to environmental protection, mitigating climate change, holistic and sustainable development, good agricultural practices, reduction of poverty, are just content to watch by.
Some concern is raised occasionally but it is of no moment. No one seemed to see the impending signs for so long as infrastructures are in place and project proposals (especially for foreign consortiums) are approved.
Methinks this not different from what is happening in the highlands of Davao City.