For­est par­adise re-emerges in Philip­pine cap­i­tal

The China Post - - LIFE - BY CE­CIL MORELLA

A trop­i­cal rain­for­est has re­grown against all odds on the edge of the Philip­pine cap­i­tal’s big­gest open-air dump, and is now a patch of green par­adise in a sprawl­ing me­trop­o­lis blighted by gi­ant slums.

The only na­ture park in Manila, the La Mesa wa­ter­shed, a thicket about a fifth the size of Paris, wraps around a dam that stores drink­ing wa­ter for the me­trop­o­lis of 14 mil­lion peo­ple.

“It’s as if you’ve left Manila,” An­ton Halt­land, manager of a car deal­er­ship, told AFP af­ter he and his friends spent half a day rid­ing moun­tain bikes un­der thick canopies and knee-deep river cross­ings.

“As if you’ve slipped into a dif­fer­ent time zone of a by­gone era ... it ticks all the boxes for chal­lenge and beauty.”

About 300,000 peo­ple visit the wa­ter­shed and its more than 50 kilo­me­ters (30 miles) of na­ture trails each year, ac­cord­ing to park of­fi­cials.

The trop­i­cal rain­for­est within a city is the prod­uct of a 15-year part­ner­ship in­volv­ing the na­tional gov­ern­ment, wa­ter com­pa­nies and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups.

Be­fore then, the for­est sur­round­ing the reser­voir had been largely burnt off, re­placed with a patch­work of farms and shanties that had been ex­pand­ing in par­al­lel with the na­tion’s fast-grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

“Most of th­ese in­for­mal set­tlers de­pended on the wa­ter­shed’s re­sources to make a living, so they cut trees for lum­ber, char­coal or fire­wood. The cleared ar­eas were turned into veg­etable plots,” project manager Dave Azurin told AFP.

To un­der­stand what would have hap­pened to the area if not for the con­ser­va­tion ef­forts re­quires sim­ply look­ing from a ridge across to the mas­sive slums that bor­der the wa­ter­shed and are home to about 350,000 peo­ple.

One of the city’s big­gest open-air dump sites is also next to it.

But since the re-green­ing ef­forts started, more than 750,000 trees have been planted and are now home to 125 bird species, ac­cord­ing to Azurin.

He said 99 of the tree species were en­demic to the Philip­pines, and many of them were en­dan­gered.

More than 7,000 il­le­gal set­tlers who were living in the wa­ter­shed were also grad­u­ally re­lo­cated to nearby ar­eas, thanks to free hous­ing pro­vided by the state wa­ter util­ity, the Metropoli­tan Wa­ter­works and Sew­er­age Sys­tem.

Dan­gers

Nev­er­the­less, the pro­gram has not been a com­plete suc­cess, nor with­out its dan­gers.

Un­known to many vis­i­tors, the park re­mains be­sieged by in­trud­ers who cut and steal trees, and at times even build shanties in­side.

The park’s first line of de­fense is a perime­ter wall about the height of two adults, but tres­passers eas­ily use crow­bars and ham­mers to make holes, ac­cord­ing to for­est ranger Ex­e­quiel Lo­bres.

In the most in­fa­mous in­ci­dent, armed set­tlers raided the rangers’ bunkhouse in 2002 and be­headed its care­taker.

The as­sailants also set fire to the build­ing and sev­eral watch­tow­ers along the wa­ter­shed, ac­cord­ing to Azurin, who was among a group of rangers and project of­fi­cials threat­ened at gun­point dur­ing the raid.

He said four sus­pects were later ar­rested, tried and con­victed of the mur­der, while an­other re­mained at large.

Be­tween three and five peo­ple are still charged in court each year for cut­ting and steal­ing trees or burning the for­est, while many more mi­nor vi­o­la­tors are sent away on a rep­ri­mand, ac­cord­ing to Azurin.

The park has 59 for­est rangers, but they are armed only with ma­chetes and chem­i­cal sprays with which to fight fires.

How­ever he said the prob­lem of in­ter­fer­ence by peo­ple in neigh­bor­ing ar­eas was start­ing to im­prove.

“We be­lieve the worst is be­hind us. Th­ese in­ci­dents are on a down­trend,” he said, cred­it­ing an ed­u­ca­tional cam­paign in the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties as key to pre­vent­ing fur­ther vi­o­lence.

Nev­er­the­less, Azurin said in­for­mal set­tlers still re­mained on about 225 hectares (555 acres), just over 10 per­cent of the for­est, in an own­er­ship dis­pute with the state wa­ter util­ity, he added.

The case has been tied up in the courts for years, hold­ing up the re­for­esta­tion ef­fort.

And the wa­ter­shed’s fu­ture is by no means se­cure, ac­cord­ing to Gina Lopez, the head of the re­for­esta­tion pro­gram.

She said the pro­gram is due to end next year and the na­tional gov­ern­ment had yet to de­cide whether to ex­tend the part­ner­ship with the green groups and var­i­ous state agen­cies in­volved.

She warned that, with­out proper fund­ing to guard the wa­ter­shed, tres­passers would eas­ily come in and cut down the trees, which would be­come in­creas­ingly valu­able as they ma­tured.

“In a few years’ time this for­est is go­ing to be worth zil­lions of pe­sos,” Lopez said.

AFP

This photo taken on Feb. 14 shows for­est rangers on moun­tain bikes pa­trolling the La Mesa wa­ter­shed, a thicket about a fifth the size of Paris wrapped around a dam that stores drink­ing wa­ter for the me­trop­o­lis of 14 mil­lion peo­ple in Manila.

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