When rivers were roads
She is the longest navigable river in the Philippines. A child of the rainforests fringing Davao’s Maragusan Valley, the Agusan starts with a gentle meander through the great banana plantations of Davao del Norte. After receiving runoff tainted by the small-scale gold mines of Monkayo, her waters percolate through the filters of the Agusan Marsh. Gliding past Talacogon, Esperanza and Las Nieves, she is recharged by the rains of the Bukidnon plateau, that propel this mighty current to its widest definition at the vast delta of Butuan.
This river basin is eastern Mindanao’s lifeway. She captures and channels the rains that spill down from the uplands, and refreshes a belt of land stretching almost 350 kilometers. Historically, she was a river of gold. A century ago, the Golden Tara was found peeping from one of her muddy banks. She was also a conveyor belt for tropical hardwood. Those days are gone. Today, her fisheries still provide the Agusanon Manobo, and a multigenerational flood of migrants, with a crucial protein supply. Her waters, in a manner very much like the Nile, bring the annual season of floods that give renewed life to the land, feeding the broad expanses of corn, coconut, banana and rice that line her banks.
Our goal was simple: to run the river from Bunawan to Butuan, to relive a time when rivers were roads. We had heard stories about worsening sedimentation. If anything, we wanted to see if this trip could still be done, despite the ravages of land conversion. We also wanted to see what the river is like today, to meet people along the route and learn what is changing, and what remains of a colorful past, the way things used to be.
Personally, I was searching for hope. With climate change, freshwater sources are going to be more and more important. The national obsession with deep wells has become a bane. As early as 15 years ago, a study conducted by Jica (Japan International Cooperation Agency) pointed out how surface water would be our salvation. We are going to have to learn how to manage our rivers.
I have long been convinced that if we are going to figure out how to cope with increased population, extraction and consumption, then ecosystems—embracing both humans and their biosphere—will emerge as the appropriate management envelope. Seeing how political realities impose their own boundaries, in the form of cities, provinces and regions, it will be critical that all of us learn how to work together. In a climate-defined future, where Mindanao will no longer be typhoon-free, what can be done to keep this vital freshwater resource resilient, viable and relevant?
We visited at the height of the Philippine summer, when water levels were at their lowest. Along the Agusan’s deepest straights, we breezed down a gentle, calming benevolence. We saw no major rapids. This was what they call “big sky.” With the river laid bare, however, I was unsettled by the fear of shallows. It was obvious that her tall ramparts of mud were scoured, gnawed and retreating. Broad strands of gravel formed expanding bars of swirling turbulence. At these confluences, navigation was like a slow slalom. Great tree trunks and fallen bamboo clumps sat midstream—artifacts of floods past. This lifeway was clearly in rapid transition.
Despite that, the Agusan was alive. Along the banks, circles of bathers enjoyed their morning ablutions, while washerwomen chatted and joked—just as they had in times past. Carabaos wallowed in the wet coolness. At Talacogon, we espied a Philippine sailfin dragon slithering up the bank. Herons, egrets, terns, ducks and a coterie of birds flew, flocked and fed on the wealth of the river—as did the people. All along our route, haluwan (snakehead), tilapia, casili (river eels), carp and a variety of river fish defined local cuisine. Sago palms continued to yield material for starchy-sweet onaw. And, the corn was high. It is not too late. But we must act soon.
Fifty years ago, this region was one of the least populated portions of Mindanao. That is no longer true. We saw riverside communities mushrooming here and there, becoming thicker and more dense as we approached Butuan. Although fast-food outlets were nowhere in sight, colored shreds of plastic hung from the bushes that lined the river’s banks—a constant reminder that we are all connected. Huddles of graceful traditional dugouts (casco) jockeyed for riverside parking with motorized “slicers” and flatboats now getting the choice spots. Even if gasoline and diesel were still being sold in reused pop bottles, power lines and television antennas gave ample proof that telenovelas were likely taking the place of other traditional forms of entertainment. Even here, living remnants of a riverine past shared the peace with figments of intruding urbanization.
Like all of Mindanao’s river basins, the vitality of the Agusan will define this island’s future. It is a river of tradition, facing new risks and accelerated change. No, it is not too late. Thankfully, the luxury of remoteness has kept pockets of this vast ecosystem intact. Mythical denizens of the river and marsh survive, shrouded in alluring mystery. Philippine eagles still soar above its forested watersheds. A little-known giant soft-shell turtle, danata, continues to show itself once in a while. Within the marsh, vast rafts of water hyacinth conceal aggregations of nesting purple herons. And, deep within the thousands of hectares of forest and bedded peat, great saltwater crocodiles still cruise the lakes and streams of this ancient stream.
Amid all this, the floating homes of the Agusanon Manobo still rise and fall, bowing to the fluid moods of this seasonally-flooded forest, flexing through space and time with the fates and fortunes of Mindanao.
Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan is vice chair of the WWF National Advisory Council (Philippines). Aside from conservation and sustainable development, his passions include wildlife photography, ecotourism, scuba diving and Filipino food.
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