They came at the first light of day.
Walking through the unsuspecting mossy forests, they passed by the life-size images of Jesus and Roman Centurions depicting the Christianity’s Station of the Cross just below the two gigantic government television antennas and half a dozen more communications transmitters.
While the trees slept, cradling birds in their boughs, they brought out their weapons of mass destruction — the chainsaws.
Wasting no time, they set to work. Birds scrambled in panic. One by one, the trees fell. It will not be long before nothing is left standing.
The massacre of Mount Santo Tomas Forest Reservation in Tuba, Benguet, one of the nation’s most important watersheds, continues to this day.
The wanton destruction has been reported by the nongovernment organization Cordillera Ecological Center, known as the PINE TREE, and the environmental group A Tree A Day (ATAD).
They identified the culprits as the vegetable gardeners and medicinal plant vendors with spurious claims to the land under Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA). Areas where valuable trees and rare plants once grew have now been converted into potato and cabbage fields.
PINE TREE said the mossy forests of Mount Santo Tomas contain rare and endangered trees, such as the Philippine oak (Lithocarpus spp), the Philippine fig tree (Ficus pseudopalma), petroleum nut (Pittosporum resineferum), alagau (Premna odorata), the dwarf bamboo (Pleioblastus variegatus), anonang (Cordia dichotoma), and threatened fauna such as the civet cat (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) and the bushy-tailed cloud rat (Crateromys schadenbergi) called “bowet” by farmers.
It said mossy forests are important to the watershed because the trees hold water and slowly release it to recharge groundwater levels, especially during summer.
Mount Santo Tomas was declared a forest reserve through Proclamation No 581 issued on July 18, 1940 by President Manuel L. Quezon. It covered 300 hectares up until the highest point of the 2,256 meters.
On Feb. 22, 1965, then President Diosdado Macapagal issued Proclamation No. 362 that excluded a portion of the reservation at Sitio Guiset in Barangay Cabuyao, for military purposes under the AFP chief of staff’s administration.
As a reservation, it is a state property .No one yet has been known to have settled there.
It’s a favorite destination of hikers, bikers, mountaineers and tourists because from there one can enjoy the breathtaking scenery of the lowlands and Baguio City.
Arthur Shontogan, a councilor of Benguet’s La Trinidad town and a member of the group A TREE A DAY which advocates tree planting daily, said his group has destroyed animal traps set by farmers in the forest. The endangered animals are being hunted for food, he added.
Because of widespread deforestation, the 90-million gallon city reservoir which sits on top of the mountain has gone dry. The reservoir, costing more than P5 million, was constructed in the late 1950s to capture water from the springs of the mountain, impound it and supply it to Baguio City.
Environmentalists have documented the widespread agricultural activities at Mount Santo Tomas, which are already of commercial scale.
Victor Ciriaco, of the Petroleum Nut Growers Association, noted the heavy use of insecticides, fungicides and weedicides in the farms at Mount Santo Tomas as evidenced by the bottle and plastic chemical containers that are scattered in the vegetable gardens.
“These chemicals are dangerous especially when they reach the groundwater,” Ciriaco said. “Some active ingredients of these chemicals can stay for many years inside the soil and water table.”
PINE TREE also disclosed that the plant diversity on the mountain is being ravaged by herbalists, who comb the peaks for various medicinal plants.
The herbalists, known as wildcrafters, have no training in appropriate harvesting and gathering of medicinal plants, thus leading to the death of many plants.
Some of the plants being destroyed by herbalists are hauili (Ficus septica), which is a medicine for herpes, rheumatism and boils; kalingag (Cinnamomum mercadoi), a cure for tuberculosis and indigestion; and tebbeg or tebbel (Ficus nota), a fig tree that is used to relieve muscle pain.
George Facsoy of PINE TREE explained the most sought medicinal plants at Mount Santo Tomas are albustra, a cure for urinary tract infection and kidney stones; danum-danum, a fern which is used to cure goiter; ramay-ramayan, for menstrual pains; and teb-teba, a rhizome from a grass that prevents excessive bleeding.
“I have followed these herbalists and they sell the plants to peddlers along Baguio City’s streets,” Facsoy bared.
The deforestation of Mount Santo Tomas also makes it difficult to repair communications antennas and transmitters.
A communications technician of the government-owned television channel bared that travel to the site is very dangerous especially during rainy season. Rockslides are frequent and sudden mudflows are dangerous for personnel and equipment in the area, he said.
The transmitters are located at towering peaks accessible only to front gear-driven vehicles. During typhoons and storms, it is almost impossible to travel to and from these communication nerve lines to make necessary repairs. The narrow-rock-spiked dirt roads fall almost a thousand feet down.
Ecologists have used the social networking group Facebook to bare the saddening state of the mountain, which is responsible for providing half of the water needs of Baguio City and surrounding towns.