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Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Journey Through Mount Malindang Range Natural Park

After researching on Mount Malindang for over three weeks, both through literature review and information sharing sessions with concerned organizations, the MDP Team could not wait to have the opportunity to experience the natural park first-hand. The expectations for the hike were high for two reasons: (a) the Mount Malindang Range Natural Park (MMRNP) is an enchanting environment to traverse; but most importantly, (b) the scheduled immersion with the upland communities is of inestimable value for the assessment of MMRNP’s potential for a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (BR) designation. The hike through Mount Malindang was designed for the team to encounter both the biophysical aspect of the mountain, by visiting key sites of interest, and at the same time the socio-cultural component, by immersing and consulting with the communities on Mount Malindang. The key focus of the community consultation was Don Victoriano Municipality, as it consists of villages (barangays) that are in the core and buffer zones of the protected area. Through the community consultation, the team aimed to convey the rationale of the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Programme, the potential benefits for the communities and stakeholders of Mount Malindang if it earns a Biosphere Reserve designation, and most importantly, the team planned to investigate the connection of the community with the mountain range. Roughly based on the Biocultural Community Protocol, the team set out to ask the communities the following questions: 

1) What are the natural resources in Mount Malindang that are important to them?
2) What are the activities (in the past and in the present) that the community does in the mountain?
3) What are the indigenous ways, knowledge, practices that they did or have been doing to help protect, conserve, and manage Mount Malindang?
4) What is their vision for Mount Malindang?

The communities were asked to respond in their preferred language(s) through the manila paper (broadsheets) that the team provided. The outputs would then be collated into a document (to be translated) that will form part of the draft nomination for the proposed Mount Malindang Biosphere Reserve.

The MDP Team, together with their project adviser, Dave Wilsey, was accompanied by a local delegation headed by the Deputy Protected Area Superintendent Bobby Alaman, DENR staff, and a security team from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP).

June 17

After a courtesy call on Don Victoriano Mayor Rodolfo Luna, the team headed towards the Municipal Hall, where they met with the tribal provincial chieftain Timuay Sofronio Cabatuan. The timuay accompanied the team as a ritual was conducted by a baylan (a tribal representative who performs rituals) to ask the permission and the blessing of the spirits of the forest as the team embarks on their seven-day hike. Chickens, eggs, rice, and a local wine were offered to the spirits through the ritual. Afterwards, the team spent the night at the municipality’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) office where they got to know the rest of the delegation.

June 18

From the municipality hall, the team rode a military humvee that traversed the narrow road clearings of the mountain range for about 45 minutes to get to the access point of the team’s first destination. The first community consulted was Mansawan, a barangay located right outside of the core zone of the protected area. Mansawan is a very lively community and is the largest barangay visited by the MDP Team, with approximately 70 households. On the day of the Team’s arrival, an event called by the security forces (Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippines National Police) was taking place and it gathered residents from many neighboring communities. This allowed for the Team to meet in advance the barangay captains of Liboron, Gandawan, and Lake Duminagat--three other communities where consultations were scheduled. The reception of the community towards the team was positive, which enabled them to build rapport with the barangay leaders right away. The barangay captain of Mansawan, Mr. Rustico Palaran generously offered his home to host the MDP Team. After settling in the captain’s house, the team proceeded with the consultation with the community at the barangay hall. As a theme that would recur in the latter consultations, Mansawan residents were participative in the process once the two starkly different groups (the students and the community) have broken the ice and paved the way towards active dialogue. The consultation had an interesting mixture of fun, curiosity, seriousness, and collaboration--all that simultaneously communicated in four different languages (English, Tagalog, Visayan, and Subanon).

The Team and residents pose for the closing picture
 of the consultation (c) teammalindang
Mansawan is located at the outskirts of the protected area and while it is in the buffer zone, it is a convenient access point to the core zone of the mountain. From the capital city of Oroquieta, Mansawan could be reached through a long travel by land through a road network that traverses two other provinces in the Zamboanga peninsula and the rough road access ends at Mansawan’s central area, where small convenience stores, (locally referred to as sari-sari stores), market, open spaces, and the barangay hall are located. As the team will realize later on, Mansawan enjoys a relatively easier access to the lowlands as compared to the other barangays on Mount Malindang, which facilitates greater interaction with other communities in cities. This is reflected by the community members’ general disposition during the consultation--once the community became more comfortable with the MDP team, they eagerly answered all questions in a lively and verbally expressive manner. An interesting observation was that this barangay’s answers seemed to be concentrated on the natural resources (flowers, rootcrops, vegetables) that they grow to sell at the lowlands markets.  

Mansawan was the Team’s home for two nights.

June 19

The second community the team visited was New Liboron, which was conveniently just a short hike away from Mansawan. The active participation of the community in New Liboron was in similar fashion as Mansawan’s. Although, there were stark contrasts between the two villages. The New Liboron community was much smaller than Mansawan, with only about 30 households. Most of the members also only spoke the indigenous language Subanon with only select members speaking both Subanon and the regional language Visayan. It was also observed that the community members were quieter and were more subdued in disposition even when they are readily answering the team’s questions.

Apart from the small size of this community, it was shared that New Liboron was previously located within the core zone of the mountain, in an area that was only accessible by hiking steep slopes and well within the cradle of the forests. In the 1990s, the community was relocated to its present area, which was still in the buffer zone of the protected area, although nearer the core compared to Mansawan’s location.

Residents listen to the Team's explanation of the
MAB Programme (c) Dave Wilsey
Again, the nature of the community may be seen through their output in the consultation process. Besides listing down natural resources found only in Mount Malindang, the community enumerated a range of rituals as their answer to the question regarding activities. This showed that the community was connected to the mountain through a spiritual prism as exemplified by the rituals they perform before, during, and after activities like farming through which they connect with the spirits of the forests and of the mountain.

After the consultation concluded, the team was treated to a flavorful meal of local dishes at the home of the Villamino family. The team feasted on fresh vegetables, pancit (noodles), and sweet yam. On the hike back to Mansawan, some soldiers prodded the Team to try some “wild berries” found alongside the trail - which served as a pleasant surprise dessert.

June 20

A stunning view of the mountains that surround
Barangay Gandawan (c) Felipe Barroso
The third community the Team visited was Gandawan. Deep in the mountain range, the trail to Gandawan rewarded the hikers with a stunning view of the valleys and high ridges that surrounded them. Along the trail, the team encountered many locals from Gandawan who are carrying produce or using work animals to transport their products, which they would sell at a local market in Mansawan. Gandawan, however, was ready for the consultation shortly after the Team’s arrival.

The community was located in the core zone of the protected area and it was literally surrounded by mountains. Hence, it was much to the Team’s surprise to notice that the barangay hall was equipped with a powerful sound system, complemented by a disco ball and strobe lights. It seemed like an unusual go-to-place for fun within the mountain range. The barangay officials occasionally played some music during the short breaks during the consultation, much for the amusement of the visitors. More than anything, this was perhaps a testament to how Filipinos value having fun.

The Team was initially afraid of the possible drawback from the scheduling of the consultation, with Saturday being the “market day,” most of the community members were preoccupied buying and selling produce in Mansawan. However, the barangay captain was able to mobilize a good number of the community members who were still around - which was composed of barangay officials, farmers, women, youth, and children.  

Residents of Gandawan gather for the closing picture with
the Team (c) teammalindang
What was a pleasant surprise in Gandawan was how the community organized themselves into groups to simultaneously answer the Team’s questions. An improvised blackboard was mounted where the Team posted two manila papers to enable the community to answer two questions at the same time. While “scribes” seemed to be elected by consensus, it was interesting to see how community members approach each manila paper to discuss their inputs with the assigned writers. Similar to New Liboron, the Gandawan, community members quickly listed down natural resources which focused on plants they grow to sell and medicinal plants. For the question on activities done in the mountain, they enumerated a range of rituals they perform in the event of childbirth, to aid those who fell ill, and prayers for the plants to grow well and to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. The community also included fermenting their indigenous wine from cassava and rice. 

In the early afternoon the Team left for another hike to another barangay in the core zone, Lake Duminagat. The hike that ensued involved a less travelled trail, which included some river-crossing. Barangay Lake Duminagat earns its name after a volcanic lake that is considered sacred by the Subanen indigenous people. Both the lake and the barangay adjacent to it are approximately 1,500 meters above sea level and are in the heart of the mountain range.

The serenity of Lake Duminagat on a sunny afternoon
(c) Felipe Barroso
Despite being exhausted from the climb, the Team, accompanied by the DENR staff and security detail, still traversed another steep trail to reach Lake Duminagat, arguably the most famous site of the entire range. Their extra effort paid off: the serenity of the lake inspired the entire Team, who experienced first-hand the natural beauty of the hidden lake through its setting and the solemnity that it evokes. Through this encounter, the Team now had a heightened appreciation of the conservation and cultural values associated with the lake. During from the visit, local partners expressed to the Team how they hold the lake as the “special site” in the whole mountain range and that they commit to helping protect it not merely as a function of their job, but based on their personal beliefs.

Before nightfall, the Team returned to the barangay for a much needed rest at the home of Mr. Carmelo Comilap, former councilor of the barangay and father of Reniel, a DENR staff member.

June 21

The consultation at Barangay Lake Duminagat took place in the morning. Once again, the Team was pleased with the participants’ eagerness, who organized themselves in different groups to tackle each question separately and discuss the results together at the end. The consultation process had become familiar to the Team, who executed it smoothly, always adapting it to accommodate the ways and strategies that the community comes up with to answer the questions.

Lake Duminagat's residents divide themselves in groups
to simultaneously answer the questions (c) Abdiwahab Ali
Similar to New Liboron and Gandawan, Barangay Lake Duminagat also had a quiet disposition. Although, the barangay measured up to the activeness and eagerness of the other barangays in answering the questions. The community members grouped themselves into two and simultaneously answered two questions at a time. What was striking was the level of detail that the barangay conveyed their answers. For example, on the question about natural resources, they answered “water” and distinguished three different sources: “spring, lake, and river.” When they enumerated plant species, they categorized them into “plants” for which they listed 42 kinds that they sell and/or eat, and “medicinal or herbal plants” for which they listed 72 kinds of plants they use to cure illnesses. As for the activities question, it was interesting that the community again made two categories for their answers. The first one was for the rituals they perform, which surprisingly covered even the ritual or prayer to say before walk on the mountain trails, while the second category was for the activities they undertake to earn livelihood, which included an answer that translated to “providing labor for others in exchange for financial compensation.”

When the consultation ended, the Team hurried to have lunch and to prepare for perhaps the most challenging part of the 7-day hike: climbing to North Peak, located 2,100 meters above sea level. What made it more challenging was the time constraint - the team had to complete the ascend and descend within five hours, to avoid getting caught in the narrow and steep trails by sunset. Fortunately, the Team made it to the North Peak and back to the barangay in four hours, a respectable climb time for first-time hikers, Ali and Felipe, and even for experienced hiker, such as Dave. Mavic chose to sit-out this challenging climb and instead used the entire afternoon conversing with some soldiers and DENR staff as well as reflecting on the experience at the spring located at the home’s backyard. **Stay tuned for Mavic’s special blog entry about that afternoon of reflection.**

The team spent the night at Lake Duminagat.

June 22

The Team is joined by Deputy PASu Bobby Alaman for a
picture in front of the oldest & biggest Almaciga tree
(c) team malindang

The delegation left for Old Liboron, the site where a DENR tree nursery is located. From this site, the “Almaciga Forest” could be reached through a short but challenging hike. Almaciga or Agathis philippinensis is a tree species endemic to the Philippines and only typically grows in upland forests. Its wood is considered to be of high value and quality, hence, it is considered in high demand. The Almaciga tree can grow up to 60 meters tall and 3 meters in diameter--a fact the team would appreciate when they reach the oldest and biggest Almaciga in the forest.

Through the tree nursery, the Mount Malindang Park Office has conducted reforestation efforts all throughout the range. A project that was supported by a Netherlands-based organization, Trees for Travel, the reforestation aimed to recover lost forest cover and help mitigate effects of climate change.

A modest research facility was constructed by the tree nursery, which served as the Team’s home for one night. After settling in, the team hiked through the Almaciga Forest and reached the site of the largest Almaciga tree, which was estimated to be several hundred years old. The trunk’s circumference was large enough that it would take eight men to completely embrace it. The trail to the oldest Almaciga tree revealed the thickness of the forest and the rich biodiversity that is dependent on it--the roots of the trees the Team encountered were so mature and intricately webbed within the soil. The variety of plant life that the Team encountered in a small patch of the forests speaks of the biodiversity data that they have been reading about for weeks prior to the hike. In no small measure, this first-hand encounter of the range has built such a high appreciation among the Team of the mountain range’s conservation values.

June 23

On the following day, the Team and the security detail used the morning for resting--the physical demands of the hike combined with the daily schedule of community consultations have so far visibly taken a toll on the Team. Although far from considering their health and well-being at risk, the travel pace had slowed down since the beginning of the trip and sleep deprivation due to the hike conditions added to the overall discomfort.

Thankfully, there was only one remaining barangay to be visited, Sebucal. Barangay Sebucal is located at the core zone of the protected area but is under the political jurisdiction of another locality, Oroquieta City, while the rest of the barangays that the Team visited were within the Don Victoriano municipality boundaries.

Both in Visaya and Filipino (the national language), “bucal” means spring, which is perhaps the inspiration for the barangay’s name as three springs are found in the village. Similar to the cases of the previous barangays, Sebucal’s location within the mountain range was a factor that plays in the dynamics of the community and its connection with the mountain. While it is still in the core zone, it is much nearer to the other side of the mountain, towards the capital city of Oroquieta. Hence, one can consider this village as an exit point from the mountain range. While the trek from Sebucal to the downslopes of the mountain was still steep and difficult to traverse (at least for non-locals), village locals have more frequent access with the communities in the city. In fact, some of them are employed at the lowlands or go to school there, but continue to live in Sebucal.  There are some differences, too, that are quite visible--compared to the previous barangays, Sebucal seems to enjoy better infrastructure, such as a transient house for visitors (in which the Team stayed for a night), multi-purpose halls, basketball and volleyball courts, all beautifully set on a valley of the range.

Sebucal, the last barangay, participates in the consultation.
(c) Abdiwahab Ali
The team conducted the community consultation at the multipurpose hall. As with the previous barangays, the community was receptive, participative, though bore a quiet demeanor. What was interesting was that they (the elders) requested a young lady to be their scribe and to the Team’s delight, she also helped facilitate discussions with the community, even engaging elders who were sitting away from the bigger group.

Like the previous barangays, the Sebucal community’s answers were characterized by the high number and variety of medicinal plants they listed under the question about natural resources. The medicinal plants were also the primary category that they created while plants they cultivate were listed under the second category, “livelihoods.” What was unique about Barangay Sebucal’s answers was that they distinguished the natural resources that they depend on based on its source. They had categories of “from the river or by the river” and “from the forest.” This frame of mind can definitely be attributed to the geographical location of the barangay, which happens to be adjacent to the Layawan river and hotsprings.

As a means to rejuvenate and prepare for the long hike down from Mount Malindang, the Team eagerly went through a short trek towards the Sebucal hotspring. Though the spring was small, the short excursion was fun for the hikers, the DENR staff, and the security detail. It was a marvel seeing the spring of mineralized hot water within the range. The spring is believed to be a source of energy and healing for those who bathe in it.

The team spent their last night on Mount Malindang in Barangay Sebucal.

June 24

True to its reputation, the descend from Mount Malindang from Barangay Sebucal towards Barangay Mialen was challenging. The estimated hike time was seven hours and the team completed it in nine hours (with a one-hour lunch break). Undeniably the team’s tired disposition showed in their last hike. The physical and mental exhaustion of the delegation following the community consultations, sleepless nights, consuming humble (but healthy) meals was the main obstacle they had to deal with in conquering the steep and extensive trail downslope Mount Malindang. In some cases, these steep trails were literally on the edge of the mountain and one can see (if one dares!) the beautiful river down the mountain.

Another challenge were the prompts from the DENR staff and the security detail: the team had to do its best to complete the descend before sunset. As the Philippines had already entered the southwest monsoon season, it had been raining every afternoon during the team’s stay in the mountain range. Hence, it they get caught with heavy rainfall, they may not be able to cross the river since the current may be too strong by then.

The security team strategizes on how to cross the Layawan river
(c) M. V. Punay
Perhaps the beauty and difficulty of the hike was crossing the Layawan river. It is a major body of water that delivers most of the freshwater of the Zamboanga peninsula and locals marvel at its way of just “flowing where it wants to flow.” The Deputy Park Superintendent also shared that the river is called Layawan because layaw refers to being pampered or having one’s way. Nonetheless, the hike down involved seven major crossings of this river and that meant exciting traverses on bamboo bridges and wading through it with everyone holding hands (to ensure that no one gets taken by the current).

After ten gruelling hours, the team made it to Barangay Mialen and was picked up by the DENR vehicle at an area closest to the end of the road access. Despite the hardships, the exit trail was filled with exuberant views, impressive displays of biodiversity, and even occasional river swims that reinvigorated the spirit of the Team members.

Once in the city proper, all hikers had a farewell dinner at a restaurant by the Iligan bay. Tired, but utterly accomplished, Ali, Dave, Felipe, and Mavic welcomed a restful night in the city.

(c) Dave Wilsey

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