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Notes from a Bukidnon volunteer

/ 05:22 AM October 19, 2018

Hiking, trekking and climbing mountains are all the rage these days. Just ask your everyday millennial, whose social media feeds are likely peppered with hilltop sunrise photos and trekking-inspired hugot lines.

Among these posts, one piqued my interest recently. It was a call for volunteers for a tree-planting trip on the slopes of Mt. Kalatungan in Bukidnon.

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“This is not a mountain-climbing activity,” the signup page clarified. This was a reforestation effort involving simple uphill trails. Nevertheless, all 100 volunteer slots were filled within an hour.

I know what you’re thinking; I thought it, too. This was easy pickings for young people eager to post photos of themselves on the green highlands. Hashtag nature. And the tree-planting? Bonus feel-good environmentalism.

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But I was glad to be proven wrong. In fact, that tree-planting trip provided plenty of takeaways that could be valuable in other environmental efforts.

One was that these efforts must be science-based and strategic. The organizer of the trip was Xavier Science Foundation, a 50-year-old NGO that supports development programs in Mindanao. When XSF said the trip was a reforestation effort, it wasn’t just throwing around buzzwords to make Instagrammers feel better about themselves. We soon learned that the organization and their partners had scientifically designed the whole activity.

Moved by the devastation of Tropical Storm “Sendong” in the low-lying city of Cagayan de Oro, they had conducted a hydrology study to map out priority areas in the mountains for reforestation. That’s how they picked out the sites where we were to plant trees. They further consulted with the indigenous Talaandig tribe, not just to gain permission for the planting activity, but also to properly choose the native tree species that would grow alongside Red Bourbon coffee, a cash crop in the area.

And we, volunteers, were learning it all in one immersive activity.

This was another salient point. The activity was an excellent example of how environmental organizations and programs can involve common citizens in their initiatives, perhaps even spark in them an individual commitment to the cause. XSF adeptly sought us out and pulled us in. They tapped into a popular interest of my demographic and transformed it into a purposeful experience for us, more profound than our usual camera-oriented travels.

Beyond that, it was an illustration of how stakeholders could come together for a cause, even one as encompassing and complex as environmental preservation. I was particularly awed at the deep level of involvement of the indigenous people in the area. It was a far cry from traditional development projects where locals were seen as mere recipients of aid, or where beneficiaries were given one-off capacity-building seminars without a concrete baseline or follow-up.

In Talakag, Bukidnon, the Talaandig are equal partners in decision-making, tree-growing and other functions in reforestation. The land, after all, is their ancestral domain, and the forest an integral element of their culture. XSF and other project leaders have continually conferred with the indigenous people to harmonize their practices with the modern-day science of conservation. It’s not a one-way introduction of technology from the lowlands, but a balanced sharing of knowledge between parties. And from this, they arrive at mutual solutions for the protection of the watershed—or in Binukid, the talugan.

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The underlying reason that the tree-planting activity was engaging across various sectors—whether public, business, indigenous, or data-hogging city youth—was that the organizers used a unique approach. They formed the “Payment for Ecosystem Services” mechanism. PES considers ecological protection as a kind of market, where there are “sellers” who provide ecological services, and “buyers” who reap the intangible benefits.

In the current reforestation effort, the Talaandig remain the managers of their ancestral land, but because this involves the protection of the forests on that land, they take on the role of “sellers.” Meanwhile, the “buyers” are the people in Cagayan de Oro and other lowland areas who benefit from the flood mitigation, as well as the clean air and water, from the healthy mountain forests. The buyers then “pay” the sellers through various forms of support, including tree-planting activities.

It’s this ingenious approach that allowed the organizers to market the tree-planting trip to us social media dwellers. Before this, many of us wouldn’t have realized our role in environmental protection, specifically where we live. But the market beckoned to us. We are buyers in this grand exchange, and I’m glad we’re now able to buy in.

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TAGS: Bukidnon, Mt. Kalatungan, opinion, Philippines, tree-planting, volunteers
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