The killers came at the first light of day.
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 .
The killers stealthily walked for more than an hour towards the unsuspecting mossy forests. While the trees slept, cradling birds in their boughs and protecting small wildlife underneath their branches and jutting roots, the killers lugged out their weapons of mass destruction.
And, without warning, the killers gunned their chainsaws for a massacre.
A scrambling flurry of birds were what warned the trees. And that was all they needed to know.
The tree killers have come. And the trees have no protection at all.
They stood and awaited their fate. The sharp gasoline-run blades of the chainsaws bit and sank deep into the trees’ trunks.
One by one they fell. One after the other, bearing all the pain and agony, the trees crumpled to the ground, breaking their branches, twigs and boughs. Others fell over each other.. And even while there were no screams of pain and anguish, it was evident that the chainsaw massacre was diabolic and senseless.
Gangs of men jumped at the defenseless trees, chopping off their branches with blade-sharp bolos as if separating limbs from the torso, like a butcher does to a carcass of an animal.
The massacre has began. The mossy forests. of Mount Santo Tomas, one of the nation’s most important watersheds, are being killed and wiped out.
It will not be long before nothing is left standing.
Cry Me a Forest
This is at what happened and is happening at Mount Santo Tomas Forest Reservation located at Poblacion Barangay, Tuba, Benguet,Philippine. Visited yearly by thousands of hikers, bikers, mountaineers and tourists because of the breathtaking scenery of the lowlands and Baguio City that it provides, it also evokes a sense of love and appreciation of nature’s beauty and grandeur.
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 and during the pronunciation of those declarations, no one yet was known to have settled there.
It was a very thick mossy and very cold forest.
Most of the visitors do not know of the dreadful thing happening beyond the mist and clouds that shield their eyes.
The massacre of the trees. The killing of a mountain which contains Baguio and the Cordillera region’s communication “neuron’ (because it contains most of the communication antennas )..
The forest reservation actually sits on an inactive volcano that last erupted in 1641, the mountain, formerly called Tonglong.
The forest has now been invaded by illegal vegetable gardeners and destructive medicinal plant vendors.
The gardeners profess ancestral claim to the lands using the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) to buttress their claim but the municipal government of Tuba aver that these are illegal migrants who have come from different Benguet towns such as Kibungan aand Bakun.
“These gardeners are not even Ibalois (original people of Tuba), they are Kankanaeys from northern Benguet. How can they lay claim to a land which no one has ever lived on for hundreds of years”, Celito Nicmas, an old Santo Tomas resident said.
Hundreds of hectares of mossy forests have gone down under chainsaw, hoe and shovel and thousands of trees and plants, as well as animals, many of which are considered endangered and threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Handbook have been killed, destroyed and left dying across many sections of the mountain.
Potato and cabbage fields are taking over where important trees and plants once stood on.
Baguio’s Main Source of Water
The wanton destruction has been reported by the non-government organization Cordillera Ecological Center known as the PINE TREE, and the environmental groups Petroleum Nut Growers of the Philippines and A Tree A Day.
PINE TREE said the mossy forests of Mount Santo Tomas contain some of the rare and endangered biodiversity 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 which are covered by lichen, epiphytes (moss) and ferns from the Podocarpaceae, Myrtaceae, and Fagaceae plant families hold water and slowly release it to recharge aquifer and groundwater levels, especially during summer. The highlands and more importantly the lowlands of Mount Santo Tomas benefit so much from this phenomenon, it added..
The rich and endangered faunal life are threatened as well. Arthur Shontogan, a councilor of Benguet’s La Trinidad town and member of the group A TREE A DAY which advocates tree planting daily, said his group destroyed animal traps set by farmers in the forest.
“Obviously, the endangered animals are being hunted for food”, he said, indicating that some of the traps destroyed were right at the animals’ stamping grounds—underneath the oak trees which provide many acorn as food for the cloud rats.
The ecologists reached out to the social networking group Facebook to bare the saddening state of the mountain which is responsible in providing half of the water needs of Baguio City and surrounding towns.
Shontogan said they have written Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Ramon Paje and Benguet governor Nestor B. Fongwan regarding their findings and their request for urgent measures to be implemented to stop further deterioration of the mountain’s ecosystem.
Because of the widespread deforestation, the 90 million gallon city reservoir which sits at the top of the mountain has become dry.
The reservoir costs more than five million pesos and it was constructed in the late 1950s to capture water from the springs of the mountain, impound it and supply it to Baguio City. The impounded water helped to keep the forest land moist and thus able to support the once-rich floral biodioversity.
Threatening Unsafe Agricultural Practices
The environmentalists documented the widespread agricultural activities which are already of commercial scale while the rest are of the swidden or “kaingin” type.
These farms, according to Victor Ciriaco, president of the Petroleum Nut Growers Assn. are prepared by cutting all the trees with chainsaws and burning the trees and debris to the ground. The land is then planted with cabbages and potatoes but the soil has now become exposed to potential soil run-off and erosion.
Ciriaco noted the heavy use of insecticides, fungicides and weedicides in the area as evidenced by the bottle and plastic chemical containers that are scattered among the vegetable gardens.
“These chemicals are dangerous especially when they reach the groundwater”, Ciriaco said, adding that “some active ingredients of these chemicals can stay for many years inside the soil and water table”.
Herbalists Join the Fray
PINE TREE also disclosed that the plant diversity in the mountain is being ravaged by herbalists who comb the peaks for various medicinal plants.
The herbalists, known as wildcrafters, have no training on appropriate harvesting and gathering of medicinal plants thus leading to the death of many plants.
Some of the plants seen destroyed by herbalists are hauili (Ficus septica) which is a cure 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.
Goerge Facsoy of PINE TREE explained the most sought medicinal plant in Mount Santo Tomas is 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, disclosing that the herbalists have a storage in the city where they dry, cut and pack the said herbs.
The deforestation of Mount Santo Tomas does not bode well for the communications antennas and transmitters too.
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 equipments in the area, he said.
The transmitters are located at the towering peaks where only frontgear-driven vehicles can venture to. In times of typhoons and storms, it is almost impossible to travel to and from these communication nervelines to repair damage. The narrow-rock-spiked dirt roads fall almost a thousand feet down.
Last Mossy Forest Standing
Facsoy said the problem faced by Mount Santo Tomas should be treated with utmost urgency.
“This is perhaps the last mossy forest that Baguio has as it shares a boundary with Tuba, and for hundreds of years, it has done its share in carbon sequestration, releasing oxygen and most of all, providing water for Baguio”.
The municipal government and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) are aware of this and have drawn a comprehensive forest and watershed management plan based on a memorandum of agreement they signed.
But its implementation is being stalled by the so-called ancestral claimant who appeared from nowhere and invoking the IPRA.
As a result, protection and conservation efforts are absent. Tuba and the DENR do not have park rangers nor forest guards in the forest reservation.
The Baguio Water District implements a very limited protection around the 90 million liter reservoir and tree planting activities by schools and private groups are limited to this site.
“Baguio gets almost half of its water here, but what has Baguio done in return?”, he sneered, explaining that the few trees that the Baguio Water District has planted cannot substitute the thousands of trees felled.
He pointed to a group of farmers going single file towards a sparsely wooded part of the forest and said, “They will continue cutting the trees, who will and can stop them?”
“So many environmental laws but no implementation”, he finally gestured as if surrendering the trees’s fate.
“This”, he said, “is one of the last mossy forests standing”.