If only trees could vote

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By Ramon Dacawi


Friday, February 7, 2014

TREES cannot vote, but farmers can - and do.

A secretary at the central office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources offered this observation several years back. She had used it to explain what she felt was an annual, therefore regular, discrepancy in the way Congress was allocating a pittance of a budget for her department compared to a sizable slice for the agriculture department.

The insight just keeps flashing in my mind. I had used it several times to try to figure out why fires this time of the year continue to decimate our pine and mossy forests up here in the Cordillera, why this mountainous region, time and again labeled and reminded as the watershed cradle of Northern Luzon, remains neglected and remains the among poorest among our country’s regions.


It’s a theme of sorts I turn to when reflecting on the relationship of environment with disaster this archipelago is now being visited with increasing frequency. It helps explain why hardly any fund goes to the protection of the integrity of the Cordillera mossy forests which are the tanks that release water that is the life-blood of the lowland farms and the power-generating hydro plants.

Trees cannot vote, but their trunks and branches hold and are the convenient repository of election campaign materials along our nation’s roads and highways. Whatever the DENR and the poll body say about the need for decency and fair play in the conduct of the campaign, even our road riprap walls and river stones exposed dry by the ebbing water level are not spared. At least every three years, they get painted white with the names of our Pied Pipers to Malacanang, Congress, the province, city and town.

Trees can’t vote, yet we up here in the Cordillera watershed cradle of Northern Luzon get the flak for their loss. Their loss, of course, triggers drought crippling the farmlands of Regions 1, 2 and 3 and the power outages crippling industrial production and air conditioners down there in the lowlands that will soon swelter in the heat of summer.

Trees can’t vote but we up here get blamed for their loss that occasionally triggers flashfloods down there in Pangasinan.

However we try, it’s difficult for us to be understood, even by our neighboring lowland regions that, for centuries, have been benefitting from the water and electric power being generated through our forest watersheds up here. It’s difficult to explain that we hardly get a budget for the protection and preservation of the forest watersheds simply because trees cannot vote.

Given a “user-friendly” culture of development, the Cordillera, for so long now , has been ignored as a vital resource base for the nation’s development. Our gold had been mined out for the nation’s progress while we continue to beg for our share from this resource extraction. Our two dams in Benguet – the Binga and Ambuclao -, built in the 1950s at the sacrifice of tribal lands and communities, generated power that spurred the development of vote-rich Metro-Manila. Fifty years after they were built, some of our communities still have to enjoy the benefits of electricity, access to which Prof. Wally del Mundo of the University of the Philippines told us has been declared by no less than the United Nations as a basic human right.

Using then President Ramos’ two-sided “bibingka” formula for national development, then Benguet Governor Raul Molintas explained that the underside of the cake had long been overcooked by his province’s sacrifice. He was referring to tax shares of the province from the operation of gold mines in Benguet that were withhold and never given by the national government.

Exploration for what remains of Cordillera gold continues, this time labeled as “responsible” mining. This is a tacit admission that previous extractions were somehow irresponsible, not only in terms of sharing from the nation’s wealth with the “host communities”, but also in terms of environmental degradation that triggered flooding and siltation of lowland farms and communities.

Despite the new tack and the emerging sensitivity, the discrepancy in the sharing of national wealth continues. Specifically, this is illustrated in the case of the 345-megawatt San Roque Multi-purpose Dam built in San Manuel and San Nicolas towns in Pangasinan. While its turbines generate power through water coming from Benguet through the Agno River, Benguet is not entitled to a share from the one centavo being set aside for every kilowatt hour produced and sold. On the other hand, Pangasinan and Region 1 are entitled to the fund even while they do not contribute to the production and flow of water that runs the turbines of the San Roque Dam. This is so because the controversial Electric Power Industry Reform Act anchors the definition of a “host community” (and therefore entitled to a share from the fund) on where the dam is located, not on where the water comes from.

Because of this myopic definition, Isabela, the beneficiary of water coming from the rivers of Nueva Vizcaya, claims it is “host community” to the Magat Dam. Then Ifugao governor, now congressman Teddy Baguilat finds Isabela’s claim curious, saying that private lots surrounding the dam infrastructure have been registered for years now to be under the jurisdiction of Alfonso, Ifugao.

Part of the fund for “host communities” is supposed to be for the protection and enhancement of the watersheds serving the dams. The reality conveniently ignored is that the watersheds of San Roque Dam will always be in Benguet and that of the Magat Dam will always be in Nueva Vizcaya and Ifugao.

Let me reiterate the obvious, the neglected truth: Trees can’t vote but they form the watersheds that hold and produce water for the dams and lowland farmlands.

Equally ignored is the fact that over the centuries, the integrity of the trees and watersheds that are the pine and mossy forests up here were maintained by indigenous wisdom, even as they are neglected by the state that claims dominion over these resources.

The inconvenient truth is that we are losing the life-blood of our farmers and our nation’s progress because our national agencies concerned do not plow back incentives for the traditional keepers of our trees and watersheds.

Farmers can vote, trees cannot. Cordillerans can vote, but they are too few compared to those in the lowlands and urban centers. Those are the politically convenient truths.

In a forum years back of Cordillera Regional Development Council in Tabuk, Kalinga, we proposed electric energy production for our “One Town (Or One Province and One Region), One Product” program for development.

Not by private or national government firms which will own these in perpetuity but by our own local governments. Such arrangement has been done in the case of the .2 megawatt Ambangal Hydro in Kiangan, Ifugao.

It was built by the G-8 countries through Japan as a grant to the province, with only one condition: that part of the consumer payment be used for the restoration of the world-famous but endangered rice terraces in Kiangan, Hungduan, Banawe and Mayoyao towns.

Harnessing our remaining water wealth for our own regional development, not for the lowlands and Metro-Manila, may yet be the key to the Cordillera’s deliverance from its annual position as one of the country’s poorest regions. It can spell and flesh out the substance of autonomy, even without the paper structure of self-rule that we failed to ratify twice.

Meanwhile, we do need to mount a “One Region, One Protest” over the lack of national government support for the pine and mossy forests of the Cordillera simply because trees cannot vote. (email mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments).

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on February 08, 2014.


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