Mt. Apo in flames
URGENT, INDEED radical, measures are needed to preserve Mt. Apo, and if these include closing the Philippines’ tallest mountain to the public for an indefinite period, then the agencies and local government units involved are correct to bite the bullet.
As it is, Apo has been at the short end of the stick as far as the rash behavior of certain climbers, campers and similar groups is concerned. Now the raging fire that began on Black Saturday, purportedly caused by a group of campers, and that has destroyed more than 300 hectares of grasslands and forests, adds to the urgency of the matter.
Rising to 2,954 meters (almost 10,000 feet), the mountain straddles Davao City, Davao del Sur and North Cotabato. It is the most popular climbing destination in the country, with 6,000 climbers visiting it in a year. It is also a massively important nature preserve, including being the home of the endangered Philippine eagle. There are over 100 endemic bird species in the area that also includes four lakes, 19 rivers and eight watersheds.
First declared a national park in 1936 and recognized worldwide for its biodiversity, the Mt. Apo Natural Park (MANP) has unfortunately suffered from its popularity. The irony is that the very people drawn by the mountain’s regal beauty are contributing to its destruction. In 2014, for example, climbers left 2.6 tons of garbage—discarded food wrappers, empty water bottles, cigarette butts, even sanitary napkins, all nonbiodegradable—for volunteers to gather and dispose of. “This is total disregard of our desire to keep flora and fauna at the national park healthy,” lamented Joey Recimilla, chair of the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) committee on ecotourism.
The influx of climbers and the kaingin (slash and burn) farming practice have occasionally led to forest fires on the mountain, particularly in 1998 and 2003. (On the other hand, it’s said that forest fires are not always bad. Many mountains similar to Apo in size and life actually benefit from fires that effectively clean the forest floor, providing new areas for animals and plants to grow and enriching the soil. In the natural scheme of things, forest fires lead to periods of time when the mountain “heals” itself through regrowth. But not all fires are good.)
The drought in Mindanao had indicated a high risk of forest fire, leading the MANP-PAMB to earlier decide to limit the number of climbers allowed on Apo. Summer being peak climbing season on the mountain, it was announced that only 1,000 climbers would be permitted to climb Apo during Holy Week.
Disaster struck on March 26, Black Saturday, when a massive fire blitzed through 100 hectares of forest cover in just one day. “The temperature on Saturday was negative 3,” said Janice Javellona of the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council in Bansalan, Davao del Sur. She said rescuers had “received information that some climbers lighted a fire in front of their camp.”
The fire quickly went out of control, and some 1,000 foreign and local trekkers had to be evacuated from campsites. A military chopper was deployed to dump water on the burning areas. Ill-equipped but determined volunteers worked around the clock to fashion a “containment zone.” Wild animals fled toward Lake Venado. But the fire continued to rage at this writing.
Even as containment efforts continue, attention is now focused on what should come next. Here’s where the PAMB has to flex muscle and impose controls, and to direct the concerned LGUs on the necessary course of action. Town mayors have canceled certain summer events on the mountain. North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Talino-Mendoza has moved to find “who should be held accountable for this abominable act.”
Perhaps the most radical measure being considered is a five-year closure of the mountain to climbers, to allow it to heal itself. The proposal, initiated by North Cotabato officials, is finding favor among the LGUs. There is merit to the idea of letting nature take its course on Apo, but then there is also the matter of the livelihoods of those who make their living from the mountain. The issue will require resolve and creativity from the government, and compliance and cooperation among civilians. There is a reason that indigenous peoples have long considered Mt. Apo sacred. It’s time the rest of us displayed the same reverence.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.