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From mossy forests to vegetable farms

/ 05:07 AM June 17, 2022

Baguio City—Yesterday, I climbed Mount Pulag once more, and for the first time since the pandemic started. I have lost count of all my hikes up Luzon’s highest peak, from my first climb as a first-year UP student back in 2003, to my last visit as a first-year UP faculty in 2018, but I have had some memorable adventures across its different trails—Ambangeg, Akiki, Tawangan, Ambaguio, even a traverse from Mount Ugo.

This time around, I day-hiked the 2,922-meter mountain via the Akiki and Ambangeg trails—my third time to do such a compressed but exhilarating itinerary that involves ascending 1,800 meters in a span of several hours, across pine and mossy forests, as well as the mountain’s famed summit of dwarf bamboo. For the most part, I enjoyed the hike: I had the company of longtime hiking buddies, we had great weather during the ascent, and I even spotted (what I believe to be) a cloud rat in the mossy forest.

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Great was my dismay, however, when, as we were descending to Ambangeg, I saw that what was once mossy or pine forest had been turned into vegetable farms, encroaching on the very heart of the mountain itself. Indeed, almost as soon as we had reached the rough road from Camp 1, the distinctive, unpleasant odor of fertilizer made from chicken dung permeated the air.

The existence of vegetable farms on the slopes of Mount Pulag is nothing new, and I still have pictures of that 2003 hike walking past plots of carrot and cabbage. Equally longstanding are efforts to arrest the conversion of forests in Mount Pulag into vegetable farms. In 2012, for instance, Department of Environment and Natural Resources officials were already lamenting that “at least 24 percent” of the national park had been “converted into agricultural or residential purposes”; over the years, I would hear similar frustrations from park superintendent Emerita Albas and other park officials whenever I would have the chance to talk to them.

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The pandemic has only accelerated the encroachments in Mount Pulag, likely spurred by the lack of supervision and the loss of ecotourism, and other economic opportunities due to the lockdowns.

This is happening not just on Mount Pulag but all over the Cordilleras. A national park in its own right and habitat to unique rodent species, Mount Data further north has become so degraded—vegetable farms have taken over 70 percent of the park—that in 2016 the Protected Area Management Board itself recommended its downgrade from a protected area. Some of Luzon’s other high points, like Mounts Timbak and Osdung, are likewise virtually vegetable farms.

This phenomenon is ultimately tied to the broader economy in which the Cordillera region serves as the “salad bowl” of the country. As Karlston Lapniten wrote in a Mongabay report in 2020, “half a century of toiling the land to feed millions across the country is leading to the slow decimation of forest cover and the soil’s inevitable deterioration as farmers resort to chemical-heavy fertilizers to boost yields.” Even as farmers turn their land into farms, however, their lives remain precarious, being at the mercy of, to quote Lapniten, “fluctuating vegetable prices and oversupply, which often leads to spoilage and losses.”

The anthropologist Padmapani Perez, who conducted fieldwork in Mount Pulag in the early 2000s, warns us in “Green Entanglements” that we cannot romanticize indigenous peoples as “noble green primitives” and that their everyday needs cannot be ignored in environmental discourse. Mount Pulag may be home to my memories, and I would like to see it stay the same, but locals for whom the mountain is actually home may be impelled by more overriding material concerns.

Even so, beyond its impacts on biodiversity, the impending ecological disaster in Mount Pulag and elsewhere will ultimately affect those same communities, making them vulnerable to landslides and floods—and ever more dependent on fertilizers as soil quality degrades even further. Given that the Cordillera mountains are important watersheds, the continued resort to unsustainable farming will also imperil the water supply of thousands, if not millions, of people.

It is not too late to protect our mountains while preserving local communities’ livelihoods, but it will require a multisectoral approach that involves expertise in sustainable agroforestry and agriculture; environmental science and engineering; leadership from local communities and local government; involvement from ecotourism and other sustainable forms of enterprise, and strong political will.

And of course, sustained activism and advocacy. Inspired by the courage of Macli-ing Dulag, can we recognize vegetable farms as an insidious but no less dangerous threat as a dam or a mining project?

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