WITH so many options available, environment managers still lament over “not-easy-to-implement” office directives, most of which are stuck on their tables and do not take off. Stakeholders such as forest occupants for the longest time opposed many of the orders that seemed to treat them as adversaries.
Just recently, environment department officials in the Cordillera proposed a “Forest Occupancy Agreement” and the conditions under which the draft agreement was issued. The Busol occupants, composed of migrants and ancestral land claimants, rejected the draft proposals.
For them, the DENR proposals consistently focused on the collection of fees that had no basis in law but came as an idea from a business-minded individual. They stated in their answer that the imposition of fees is an “ultra vires act or beyond lawful authority” and unnecessarily angers them.
If the proposal pushes through, the rightful IP occupants of the forest reserve will be paying rental fees over their own ancestral lands and ancestral homes. It is a calculated move to slowly displace the occupants from the place, an act that the American colonizers and their replacements or successors had been doing to Baguio and Benguet IPs since the beginning.
“Evicting the occupants due to failure to pay the fees does not embrace lawful coexistence in a democratic government which calls for the protection of basic rights as provided for by law whether the occupants are IPs, ancestral land claimants or others,” they further said.
With the terms “lawful coexistence,” the forest occupants were simply asking that they become the government’s partner in forest protection. Government can enter into a public-private partnership as enshrined in many environmental laws that were never fully applied before.
By the way, residents at the Busol forest reserve feel that the heat is unfairly directed at them while those who illegally squatted on Forbes Park 1, 2, and 3 forest reserves along Gibraltar, South Drive, and Teachers Camp are treated differently. There were already attempts by politicians to enact laws to segregate these lands in exchange for electoral votes.
And every time the topic on forest protection comes up, I am reminded of the hundreds of fully grown trees right inside Busol that were allowed by LGU, environment, and water officials to be cut down so as to construct a rain catchment basin that did not function just the same.
This mocked forest protection principles in the highest order. Catchment basins can be built on open spaces that are available around the Busol area. It is shocking that hundreds of fully grown trees have to be killed just to implement a water-impounding project. Maybe that was why a hiker alleged that the project was a treasure-hunting mission.
With its vast resources, the government can be more open-minded and be more creative. It is time our officials get out of the box and use more of their imagination in dealing with communities inside the forest reservations, instead of issuing one-sided orders that are fruitless.
Public-private partnership may be applied differently, instead of the usual way of bidding out projects to non-government organizations. Here, the neighborhood organizations inside the forests could be tapped by the government and become partners in environmental protection.
When President Marcos inspected Maguindanao which was hit by floods and mudslides due to typhoon Paeng two weeks ago, he said that the communities in the forests, particularly the indigenous peoples should be the LGUs’ partners in safeguarding the trees because they will protect them since they own them.
What the president noticed during an aerial inspection over Maguindanao was that the devastated areas had thinning forest covers or no trees due to logging. With that, he ordered massive tree planting to be incorporated into the government’s flood-control and reforestation projects.
Every summer vacation in the late 70s, high school and college students in Benguet were usually hired by the National Power Corporation to plant trees along the Agno River that supplied water to the Binga and Ambuklao dams.
That was then when the partnership between NPC and the communities around it was strong even without the PPP program. Now, the hydroelectric power companies that exploit our rivers do not care to reforest the spaces around their operations. They just go on exploiting and continue grossing.
Passing by Paracelis, Mtn.Province in 2013, I asked a farmer why the hundreds of Narra trees that stood in one area were now gone and replaced with corn. He replied that with the trees, only the rich few were making a killing. Now with cornfields, hundreds of farmers and their families are benefiting.
That is proof that only a few benefit from revenues in the logging business. Not even the LGUs gain something, especially when the logging activities are illegal. People recognize the importance of forests but they are persuaded to act illegally due to the absence of income from livelihood.
Again, with its vast resources, the government should not be tight-fisted in offering financial assistance to people who are willing to protect Busol and other communal forests under the PPP. Environmental laws authorized the government to provide livelihood to IPs in order that trees are not cut for money. The DENR should not disregard the judgment of President Marcos.