As humanity, we are tasked to have the ability to treat the environment as the umbilical cord that sustains life, without which, it forfeits our right to exist. For that reason, we should shun looking at the environment as a source of profit to satisfy our greed – our wants and not our needs. Our inability to appreciate the invaluable role that our environment plays in the survival of the present and future generations would result in the cessation of the world as we know it.

Lately, we have been bombarded with alarming figures and events that portray a dying planet. There is the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere, massive forest fires that further negatively impacts an already greatly denuded and degraded forest, rising water level that threatens to engulf communities along coastlines, scarcity of water supply, and even short intervals of stronger typhoons that have wreaked havoc and sufferings to lives, property, and livelihood. With these realities on the ground, people have taken notice and have started to make interventions to avert further disaster.

Teeming with Diverse Flora and Fauna

The province of Southern Leyte has been known to be a stalwart of environmental advocacies. They have been promoting the planting of trees, protecting their remaining dense forest, and keeping their air clean by prohibiting the sale and use of cigarettes in public. These are important steps in protecting the healthy ecology of the province considering that more than half of the land area of the province is still covered with forest – 88,812 hectares out of 163,271 hectares or an impressive 54%. This is a positive indicator that necessitates aggressive interventions and innovations to maintain, and even strengthen its rich biodiversity.

Based on the biodiversity assessment conducted, the forest of Southern Leyte is home to 350 species of trees, 133 species of birds, 27 species of amphibians, 57 species of reptiles, and 40 species of mammals. With these remarkable figures, we can just imagine the negative impact on the environment and its diverse flora and fauna if not protected, conserved, and properly managed.

LGUs Leading the Way: Mt. Nacolod as A Local Conservation Area

As a true environmental advocate that values a healthy ecology, the political leaders of Southern Leyte have enacted an ordinance declaring Mt. Nacolod as a Forest Protected Area then eventually declaring Mt. Nacolod range within the province of Southern Leyte as Mt. Nacolod Local Conservation Area through a provincial ordinance. With this, the local governments from the provincial level down to the municipal level accepted the challenge of leading the way in protecting and conserving Mt. Nacolod together with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the academe, the non-government organizations (NGOs), people’s organizations (POs) and various stakeholders. This is epitomized in the provincial level through the formation of the Provincial Management Council (PMC) and to the local government units, the Site Management Committee (SMC).

As shared by Mr. Servando L. Acedo, the Supervising Ecosystems Management Specialist (SVEMS) of PENRO-Southern Leyte, “Mt. Nacolod finds home to a diverse species of flora and fauna. It is said that there are 229 flora species with 14% of them endemic to the Philippines, 9% classified as vulnerable, and 4% critically endangered. Not to be outdone is also the fauna that inhabits the mountain range. Studies conducted would reveal that there are 212 terrestrial vertebrates with a high percentage considered as endemic including the Philippine Eagle and Mindanao bleeding-heart pigeon, Philippine eagle owl, Philippine dwarf kingfisher, Visayan broadbill, all classifies as threatened”.

Mt. Nacolod Sustaining Life and Source of Livelihood

The Mt, Nacolod range within Southern Leyte encompasses five (5) municipalities, namely, Sogod, Silago, Libagon, St. Bernard, and Hinunangan. The relatively dense forest of the mountain range, directly and indirectly, benefits more than 200,000 residents. The richness of its natural resources, including minerals, forests, and non-timber raw materials provide economic opportunities to residents. Likewise, Mt. Nacolod is the primary source of major watersheds of Higasaan, Hinabian-Lawigan, Buac, and Das-ay. In fact, the Buac and Hinabian-Lawigan Watershed Reservation have been considered as major watershed reserves. Preserving the landscape, specifically the trees that remain bountiful in the area is a matter of necessity for carbon sequestration and a steady source of water for household use and irrigation.

Mr. Junie B. Alas, vice-president of the Pontana Livelihood Project for Environmental Development Association (PLPEDA) from Brgy. Pontana, Silago, Southern Leyte, underscores the importance of their watersheds. “Water supply was never a  problem in our area. Not only was the government able to construct the needed infrastructures to facilitate the delivery of water services to every household for our convenience, it is of no cost to us. Water is free,” says Mr. Bohol.

Indeed, Mt. Nacolod has provided the needed materials to sustain the life and livelihood of thousands of residents. Aside from the abundant water supply that is utilized for the daily consumption of its residents, the forests of Mt. Nacolod have provided food, fuel wood, and other raw materials for commercial purposes such as for furniture and house construction.

The PLPEDA is one of the many people’s organizations that not only has planted thousands of seedlings on hectares of timberland awarded to them under the National Greening Program (NGP), and other projects from the Department. They were able to plant seedlings of rattan on a 25 hectares area, 20 hectares of fruit-bearing trees, 30 hectares of fuel wood, and 60 hectares of mangium under the Upland Development Project (UDP).

“Just recently we were given the permit to harvest our planted mangium trees and we were able to utilize the wood to build our office, improve the houses of members and sell some where the proceeds are divided among the members while a portion of fund raised is set aside as operational fund for the association,” shared Mr. Bohol.

Another people’s organization that has played an important role in managing the resources of Mt. Nacolod mountain range is that of the Kahupian Upland Farmer’s Association (KUFA) from Brgy. Kahupian, Sogod, Southern Leyte. Through the 2,152 hectares tenurial instrument awarded to them, they also planted assorted commodities of forest trees, fruit trees, rattan, and bamboo.

“There is a noticeable improvement of our forest in the area today. A few years back, the timberland was almost barren and denuded. Now, with the trees fully grown, the cool atmosphere is again a welcome feeling and various species of wildlife have returned and settled in the area,” shared Mr. Mariejun H. Pacati, president of KUFA.

Lately, they have noticed that not only birds of different species can be spotted in the area, there were also confirmed sighting of tarsier in the area. “We plan to venture into ecotourism by offering nature trekking in the area for visitors. Not only will we be more motivated to protect the restored forests, it will also be added as an alternative livelihood to our members and the community, as a whole,” added Mr. Pacati.

Nature Returns the Favor

Threats to the delicate balance once abound in the area. Among those that conservationist has to contend with were the rampant timber poaching, slash and burn farming (kaingin), illegal wildlife trade, and encroachment of human settlement to land classified as timberland areas. But through aggressive and sustained community education and public awareness to the various stakeholders on the importance of protecting and conserving resources of Mt. Nacolod, there was a noticeable change in the attitude of the people. Such conversion became more apparent with the intervention of government programs and projects that provided the people alternative livelihood.

Interventions made by the Department through the different people’s organizations enabled the planting of 2,762 assorted commodities of forest trees, rattan and bamboo spread across the 5,524 National Greening Program area within the Mt. Nacolod mountain range within Southern Leyte.

With the forest rehabilitated and stakeholders benefitting from it, they took it upon themselves to ensure that it does not revert back to its old sorry state. Through vigilance and the formation of Bantay Lasang volunteers and enactment of ordinances, there was a decrease of reported illegal utilization of forest resources.

Indeed, nature has its own way of giving back. People were able to plant and harvest root crops and vegetables within the awarded timberland areas that they have rehabilitated. From the funds provided for the planting and maintenance of plantation sites, members of the people’s organization were able to provide food for their families, make needed repairs and improvements of their respective homes and provide for their other necessities. 

“With the money I earned from the projects of the DENR, I was able to support the education of my children. One was able to graduate and after finding a job, is now helping us back”, shared Ms. Maritess Triller, a member of KUFA.

Maritess is just one of many beneficiaries who have expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to be part in rehabilitating and protecting Mt. Nacolod while at the same time earning something from it. No longer do they have to resort to illegal utilization of forest resources to earn a living.

As a forest rehabilitation, food security and poverty alleviation program, the implementation of NGP in the province of Southern Leyte was able to provide employment to 72,580 individuals and families from 2011 to present alone, 39% of which are beneficiaries from Mt. Nacolod mountain range.

A Bright Prospect

While declaring Mt. Nacolod Mountain Range within Southern Leyte has created a positive impact for its protection and conservation, it has its own limitations. Two of the identified limiting factors are the limited funding of the local government units and the lack of experts on biodiversity conservation, not to mention, the lack of support staff and multiple functions of designated as focal persons.

Faced with that challenge, there is now the campaign to declare the entire Mt. Nacolod mountain range as a protected area. If this will materialize, it will include the municipalities of Mahaplag and Abuyog which are part of the Leyte province.

Various stakeholders are working hard for Mt. Nacolod to eventually be declared as a protected area under the Expanded National Integrated Protected Area System (ENIPAS). Through this, it is projected that the establishment of a Protected Area will ensure the continued existence of all native plants and animals for the benefit of the present and future generations.

Likewise, if declared as a protected area, it will unburden the concerned local government units of their budget allocation under Mt. Nacolod as a Local Conservation Area (LCA). A fund that the LGUs can allocate to other priorities while strengthening the collaboration and support to the Department on its mandate to protect, conserve and properly utilize the resources found within Mt. Nacolod.

With funding from the national budget if declared as a protected area, it will provide the needed stimulus to further improve biodiversity conservation in the area.

“The protected area sustainability and assessment report together with other required documents have already been submitted to the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) for their assessment and consideration. We hope that the effort of all stakeholders to declare Mt. Nacolod Mountain Range as a protected area will become a reality. The prospect is promising”, says Mr. Servando.

Meantime, all the stakeholders of Mt, Nacolod will remain steadfast on its commitment for a healthy and balanced ecology of this beautiful and majestic mountain range. After all, as one Indian Guru said, “Taking care of the environment is not an obligation – our environment is our life. ###