From Reef to Ridge

A Sunday Stroll through the Philippine’s latest ASEAN Heritage Park

Plummeting down a 500 meter deep valley on your Sunday trip is perhaps not the most tempting outlook for most readers. But once you become finally conscious about the fact that you are safely strapped to a reassuringly strong steel cable, spanning the whooping 1.5 km between two mountain ridges, you might actually enjoy this unique zipline experience in Misamis Occidental, Mindanao. As soon as the adrenaline rush settles down a little, it is worthwhile taking a glance around: The mountain Barangay Hoyohoy, behind you, Barangay Guimad in front of you, Ozamiz, 850m lower, on the coastline to the right, Mt. Malindang to the left and Labo River, running down the mountain range, beyond you. In next to no time you will make out a remarkable difference between the lush and vivid rainforest on the left hand side, and the landscape on the right hand side, featuring bare land and endless parallel rows of monotonous palm plantations.

ASEAN Heritage Parks as answer to staggering deforestation

Sadly, the latter represents much of the present day Philippines, and Southeast Asia for that matter. Only about 15% forest cover are left in the once entirely woody Philippines, with one-third lost just between 1990 and 2005. In Southeast Asia deforestation accounts for jaw-dropping 555,587 km² between 1980 and 2007, equivalent to the total area of Thailand.

This ravage of ecosystems has dire consequences for mankind, including the alteration of local and global climates, soil erosion, pollution of water resources, extinction of species and desertification, among many others. Accordingly, deforestation is estimated to reduce the global GDP by about 7% in 2050, if only measured in economic terms. However, we cannot afford to lose forests as the livelihoods for hundreds of millions of indigenous people, the warrant of a stable climate and ultimately for its intrinsic value and beauty.

A beauty worth defending. Galvanized by such sad and costly effects, it is imperative to preserve the indispensable values of our natural ecosystems and resources, which brings us back to the left hand side of the picture: The Mount Malindang Range Natural Park, part of the 10 to 15% of the world’s land surface that is categorized as protected areas. The Philippines feature 240 of such protected areas, which proved to be the single most effective way of conservation. Since environmental problems, however, are not confined to individual countries like the Philippines, protection beyond national boarders is essential.

For Southeast Asia such supra-national protection is realized through the network of ASEAN Heritage Parks (AHPs), areas of high-conservation importance, preserving an inclusive and representative spectrum of ecosystems in the region. The 32 AHPs in the 10 ASEAN member states are established to facilitate greater awareness, appreciation, and conservation of the ASEAN’s rich natural heritage, and to generate collaboration among the states in its conservation.

The recent launching of Mount Malindang last year, as the fourth Philippine AHP, provides a rather suitable occasion for a nice Sunday stroll up the green slopes of this stunning mountain range, giving a prime example for the features, importance and challenges of AHPs.

A Snapshot of Mt Malindang’s Ecosystems form shore to top

To begin the trip, we have to put our bathing trunks on and immerse ourselves into the aquatic landscape of the park. The coastal zone consists of shallow marine waters, which harbour colourful coral reefs, thriving seagrass beds, a seaweed ecosystem, diverse mangrove forest and nipa swamps. Here we can marvel the voluptuous richness of 59 seaweed species, 60 algae species, over 100 plankton species, among manifold fish, sponges, sea fans, anemones, worms, shrimps, lobsters, crabs, shells, slugs, nudibranchs, clams, octopods, starfish, sea-urchins, feather stars and sea snakes, to only name a few. This habitat type serves as important sanctuary for fish and nursery for their young, it support the marine food web and protects the shoreline from erosion. Considering that 87% of the province’s population lives within 50km of the coast and directly or indirectly depends on marine natural resources, this ecosystem is of utter most importance, but also at peril: Much of the coastal area is already converted to residential area, coconut farms or rice fields.

Well-towelled, we shoulder our bag and leave the coast to follow along the river system of Mt. Malindang, equally influenced by human settlement and utilization. Despite the domestic and irrigation use of water, fishing and the mining of gravel and sand, the two main streams of the park, Langaran and Layawan River could so far maintain a fair water quality.

It is important to recognize that energy and material flows link the aquatic system intimately to the terrestrial ecosystem, which we enter now. This is especially true for the agro-ecosystem in lower altitudes, consuming high amounts of irrigation water. The system features 73 species of cultivated crops, including vegetables, cereals, agro-forestry and grass-dominated areas, besides 164 animal species. It is also home to the majority of the over one million people, who depend on the Malindang Range.

Already less populated is the adjacent natural Lowland Dipterocarp Forest, from 220-500 m above sea level, featuring 175 plant species, with 25 m high trees, and over 250 different animals. Increasing human encroachment for cultivation, and unregulated extraction of forest products, such as firewood and timber, however, convert this ecosystem to much less diverse mixed forest or plantation forest. These plantations are mostly monocultures, dominated by Cocos and Acacia.

Likewise, also the Dipterocarp Forest from 450-900 m is affected and the remaining forest can be found only in small and discrete patches. Moreover, areas cleared by logging cannot be cultivated here, due to the steep slopes.

Following along Layawan River uphill, were the vegetation becomes more and more dense, we will encounter the Subanen, the indigenous ‘river people’ community of Misamis Occidental. They comprise 75% of the occupants of the natural park and are traditionally hunters and gatherers, but most have settled down to plant corn, vegetables, bananas and coconuts. Thus they shape the agricultural systems of higher altitudes, using mainly the traditional form of shifting cultivation, which involves a short period of agriculture with subsistence crops like cassava, followed by fallow. Besides providing food and material for shelter, the forests are also a source of traditional medicine to them, some of which remain available and are used to this day. One example is the bark of Almaciga, used to treat stomach-ache. The Subanos still enjoy an intimate relationship with nature, and take only what is needed for their subsistence. Furthermore, they protect the mountain by reporting poachers and by supporting the Protected Area Office in their conservation efforts. Fernando Magante, provincial tribal coordinator for the Subanen, laments that Malindang’s rich biodiversity is increasingly affected by incidences of illegal logging. He hopes that the declaration as an AHP will strengthen the commitment to defend the park and their home.

After this first exhausting ascent let us catch our breath and cool our feet in picturesque Lake Duminagat. This eight ha crater lake, located at the heart of the park is not only an important water source for the adjacent rural villages, but also a silent witness of the geologic history of Mt. Malindang. A series of volcanic eruptions over some two million years followed by severe erosion has formed this deeply dissected mountain range of lavas and built-ups. Other indicators of Malindang’s fiery past are the hot springs of Sebucal and Tuminawan, extensive volcanic rocks and the carbonized woods are Mansawan.

Sufficiently refreshed, we now leave the Subanos and ascent the very steep slopes of the Submontane Diperocarp forest. It features over 160 plant and 150 animal species, many endemic to Mindanao and found nowhere else in the world. This forest type provides important ecological services, above all the stabilisation of the steep terrain. The steepness makes the forest also poorly accessible to illegal logging, the fortunate reason why only its lower parts have been logged.

At a similar altitude, up to 1,400 m, we will come across a true forest giant, Agathis philippinensis, eponymous for the Almaciga Forest. The tallest representative reaches remarkable 45 m into the cloudy sky and has a circumference of 11 m, rendering it also a sought-after and now threatened source for timber.

From 1,400 onwards we cross the threshold to the biodiversity hotspot of the park. The very dense Montane Forest harbours with over 270 plant species alone, a big share of Malindang’s 2,283 recorded species, a number which is estimated to be higher by magnitudes. The most prominent inhabitant is the Philippine Eagle, which, contrary to its synonym ‘Monkey Eating Eagle’, mainly feeds on flying lemurs. 36 individuals of the about 400 remaining and highly endangered pairs of eagles in the country find shelter in the park. To protect this heraldic Philippine animal, the private Philippine Eagle Foundation works together with the local communities and prepares the release of eagles, hatched in the Davao Eagle Centre.

The Philippine Eagle is however in no way the only noteworthy bird in the park, which is lucky enough to host 162 different bird species. 60 of them can be found at the last leg of our hike from 1,700 m to the cold and windy 2,424 m peak of Mt. Malindang, where, according to Loreto Ocampos, congress man of Misamis Occidental and also a keen mountaineer, the only sound you hear is the chattering of your bones. This altitude is dominated by the Mossy Forest. On our way through this enchanted world of dwarfed trees with gnarled trunks and prop roots, covered with mosses and ferns you begin to appreciate why the Subanos considered this place sacred and used it for religious ceremonies. Luckily, this forest remains fairly intact and gives a very neat example of the enduring 18,000 ha primary forest of the park’s 33,700 ha forested area.

On the way back we have time to recap the extraordinary diversity in species and habitats, caused by the plentiful environmental conditions along the slopes of Mt. Malindang, and supporting a huge number of people. However, as we have also witnessed, there are many man-made threats putting the ecological integrity of the park at peril. As Herminia Ramiro, the Governor of Misamis Occidental, put it, ‘it is not the righteous people who will protect their village from the storm, but it is the swamps and forests surrounding it, which provide the protection. In turn, it is the mission of righteous people to safeguard these swamps and forests’. A gloomy reminder of this was last year’s devastating flood in Metro Manila. Its million or so residents affected would certainly agree and appreciate intact ecosystems around them, holding back the torrential water masses.

Good Governance to protect our Web of Life

Having seen the significance of preserving ecosystems, such as Mt. Malindang, what is the best way to achieve this?

This question will be at the heart of the Fourth ASEAN Heritage Parks Conference in Cagayan de Oro City on 1-4 October 2013. The Conference is spearheaded by the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) with support from the German Development Cooperation’s Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (GIZ BCCP), and the Government of the Philippines through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Tourism.

Already during the last National ASEAN Heritage Parks Conference on 4-5 August 2012 in Oroquieta City, Misamis Occidental, Nereus Acosta, secretary and presidential adviser for environment protection, tried to answer this question. He cogently pointed out the four elements of good governance for sustainable development in the Natural Parks and beyond: ‘Its natural capital, the people dependent on it, the technology to protect it, and the economy supported by it’. He further emphasized three capital Cs as prerequisites for ecological protection:

Conservation, like motherhood and apple pie, comes first, now strongly supported by the declaration of areas as AHPs. To achieve this, Capacity needs to be strengthened, both carrying capacity of the ecosystem, as well as the caring capacity of the stakeholders involved with its protection.

And last, but not least, Cost is an essential factor of appreciating the value of the services ecosystems provide us with. For instance, the major export of Misamis Occidental, the 7th poorest province, is fresh oxygen from the forests, a commodity, which does not have a price tag, and thus a low visibility for decision makers. The concepts of Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), applied in the natural park, are a promising way out.

On such solutions the conference in October will follow up on, and set them in the bigger picture: Not only, how the unique AHPs, and their effective management, can contribute to the international strategy on global biodiversity protection, but also to the reduction of poverty. This bigger picture will be filled with 32 smaller pictures of the ASEAN Heritage Park photo exhibit, showing the stunning and diverse heritage of Southeast-Asia.

‘Preserving this heritage and thus the ecological security of the country and the region, is at least as important for national security as the Scarborough Shoal,’ Mr. Acosta highlighted. ‘We can talk political security, employment and investment – at the end of the day we return to what sustains life and fuels our economy – ecology, which is more than just natural resources. If we hit the buffers of ecology, we get disconnected from the global web of life. If we cannot protect the support system of life, there is no life to sustain.’

And we have to be aware, that in contrast to the 500 m zipline fall into the Labo River valley, there is no harness and safety cable for our quickly plummeting biodiversity – the ecological support system of all life on earth.

First Published on Saturday, 06 July 2013 16:25, Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror and  Saturday, 27 July 2013 17:51 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror