Ivy Marie Mangadlao

Published: May 9, 2024

DAVAO DE ORO, Philippines – When Gladys Manto and her family permanently relocated to a part of Barangay Banlag in Monkayo town in 2012, she vividly remembered the widespread cutting of trees in the area, including those of endemic species, which lasted for years.

The area was a 22.4-hectare degraded lowland forest titled to absentee landowners, where they have been residing as informal settlers after Super Typhoon Pablo (international name: Bopha) hit their home in Mount Diwata, a mining village in the same town, in 2012.

Now, Manto, 28, said the once-degraded lowland forest has undergone significant improvements through tree-planting. Illegal logging is now a thing of the past. 

“If I compare the situation now to before, it’s really very different. Before, trees were disappearing rapidly because they were being cut down indiscriminately,” Manto said.

The forest is now part of the Monkayo Pagasa Carbon Forest (MPCF), managed by the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF). In 2017, the Iloilo-based Yap family donated the land to the PEF to honor the memory of their parents.

It was while watching a certain documentary about the Philippine Eagle that inspired them to donate the property to the foundation, with the condition that it will be used in pursuit of conservation; it cannot be sold, leased, or transferred,” said Jayson Ibañez, director for operations at the PEF.

According to Ibañez, the MPCF is designed to restore the area as a natural lowland forest, serving as slope protection, wildlife habitat, water source for surrounding villages, and carbon sink.

“I think this is what nature-based solutions really offer. They address societal problems, not only a single issue but multiple ones. That’s the power of designs and initiatives inspired by nature. For instance, ecosystems provide multiple benefits to people, biodiversity, and climate,” Ibañez said.

Among the solutions that emerged was involving and empowering the land’s informal settlers such as Manto to protect and conserve the forest.

From informal settlers to conservation partners

Members of the Banlag Santol Kalikasan Workers Association (BASAKWA) plant tree seedlings in a nursery at the Monkayo Pag-asa Carbon Forest in Davao de Oro. (Erwin Mascarinas file photo)

The PEF helped the informal settlers organize themselves into a people’s organization called the Banlag Santol Kalikasan Workers Association (BASAKWA). 

“The historical context of the struggles of the informal settlers is quite sensitive, and we don’t want to contribute to their further marginalization. Rather than becoming villains in their story, we encourage their participation and strive for meaningful partnerships,” Ibañez said.

“So, there have been no evictions of informal settlers, but they have pledged not to occupy additional areas within the property,” he added.

BASAKWA is composed of over 65 families that help in restoring the forest by caring for the plant nursery, clearing weeds, planting, and acting as a “social fence” around the property, protecting it from intruders. 

“We lack the resources to hire security guards or establish perimeter walls, but through this meaningful engagement based on transparency, trust, and partnership, they assist in securing our prevention efforts against encroachment and resource depletion by non-owners of the land,” Ibañez added.

PEF provides compensation of P400 per day for the work that a BASAKWA member does. Manto said that as a single mother, the payment she receives is helpful in making ends meet.

“Apart from the money we receive, it’s also through our involvement with the restoration initiative that I realized the necessity of taking care of the trees, especially since our organization does the tree planting, manages the nursery, and maintains it as well. So, what we do will not only help us but also revive the land for the benefit of future generations,” she said.

As a victim of a super typhoon herself, Manto added that forest restoration has become more important than ever as a way to help mitigate the effects of climate change.

According to the United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP), forest ecosystems play a pivotal role in combating climate change by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it. 

“Known as forest mitigation, this process is essential in reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus averting more extreme global temperature rises,” the UNEP said.

Native trees

A BASAKWA member plants tree seedlings in a Monkayo Pag-asa Carbon Forest nursery in Davao de Oro. (Erwin Mascarinas file photo)

Grace Abundo, who is in-charge of the restoration and nursery establishment at MPCF, recalled that most of the land was overrun by invasive species when the area was turned over to them, highlighting the need for significant restoration.

Abundo said that they first planted fast-growing native species in the open areas, which grow within three to five years, providing good shade cover. 

Once these trees can provide shade, they can then plant shade-loving trees such as Lauan and other dipterocarps that will last longer and grow bigger. They also removed invasive species while maintaining existing endemic trees such as Narra and Balete.

The native trees they have planted and propagated include Bakan (Litsea philippinensis), Tibig (Ficus nota), Kahoy Dalaga (Mussaenda philippica) and Molave/tugas (Vitex parviflora). Apart from the native trees, they also planted around 1,000 fruit-bearing trees.

According to the Forest Foundation Philippines, while all trees play a crucial role in mitigating climate change, native trees offer better prospects than exotic trees because they have a higher likelihood of growth and can attract wildlife.

In a 2018 lecture, Dr. Pastor L. Malabrigo Jr., professor at the Department of Forest Biological Science at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños, pointed out that native trees are more resilient to pests and diseases, and are better equipped to withstand typhoons compared to exotic species, which often have shallow roots.

Based on MPCF’s latest inventory in December 2023, more than a hundred species of trees have been planted, including both fast-growing and shade-loving endemic species, equivalent to around 12,500 trees individually. The nursery, meanwhile, houses over 15,000 seedlings.  

According to Abundo, mortality rate has been low, with only around 20 to 50 out of 500 seedlings lost.

“BASAKWA members are truly invaluable; not only do they help maintain the area, but with their training in environmental awareness, they also play a crucial role in disseminating information throughout the MPCF perimeter in case there are encroachers,” she said.

Sustaining the forest 

BASAKWA members remove the weeds around the newly planted tree seedlings in Monkayo Pag-asa Carbon Forest in Davao de Oro. (Erwin Mascarinas file photo)

Maintaining the forest, however, necessitates resources for sustainability.

“The support from our partners is crucial in sustaining forest restoration. Monetary donations are essential to compensate BASAKWA for their maintenance work, as they depend on these green jobs for income,” Abundo said, appealing for more donors.  

Apart from monetary donations, Abundo said they also welcome those who want to donate tree seedlings, adopt a plot of land, or volunteer.

The local government of Monkayo has issued an ordinance in September 2023 declaring the MPCF as a Local Conservation Area (LCA), further protecting the area as a carbon sink, biodiversity sanctuary, and watershed.

In addition, Monkayo also committed to provide an annual subsidy to BASAKWA amounting to P100,000 and adopted 1.6 hectares of the land where they deploy their own personnel to maintain the area.

Rita Fe Gunn, officer-in-charge of the Davao de Oro Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office, emphasized the importance of multi-stakeholder involvement in the success of MPCF.

“The success of our endeavor would never be realized without cooperation from the community. Hence, there is a real need to tap into all sectors of society. With concerted efforts, the likelihood of success is higher compared to acting alone,” Gunn said.

Ibañez pointed out that whatever type of forest restoration is being done, engaging with local communities proves to be a crucial best practice.

“The engagement of local communities remains an important formula. The idea of crowdfunding and providing opportunities for people to contribute and restore the area remains an important component, including LGU participation,” Ibañez added.

 

This story was supported by the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines