CAGAYAN DE ORO City, June 4, 2013—Protecting the environment is the best way to protect the people from the devastating impacts of climate change. Thus, people must do their part in ensuring that the environment is shielded from further degradation.

But how can people be responsible for the environment when they are not aware of their great responsibility? How can they help elective officials when they who are in power also do not have a unified systematic plan of action for the good of the environment?

How can the people help the government when they perceive that those who are in government are themselves the culprit in raping the environment through their inaction to stop the continued exploitation of the abundant natural resources in the almighty name of greed?

Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, this city’s and Mindanao’s foremost environmental advocate, has repeatedly sounded the clarion call to protect the environment. Unfortunately, the call fell on ears grown deaf by the sound of mining and logging machines and on eyes grown blind by the sight of money.

Then Tropical Storm Washi (Sendong) came.

Inspite of Sendong and despite warnings that flash floods will again drown the city if people do not protect the city’s watershed, unscrupulous village officials—allegedly protected by corrupt officials at City Hall and the regional office of the Environment department—continue raping the city’s environment through illegal hydraulic flush mining and illegal logging activities.

Their activities are allegedly funded by foreign capitalists, mostly Chinese, and abetted by corrupt officials.

Systematic action

“Since 2009, I have been consistently reporting to City Hall illegal mining activities going on in the hinterland villages of the city. But until now, City Hall have not lifted a finger to stop these illegal activities,” lamented 66-year-old Fausto “Datu Sandigan” Orasan of the Higaonon tribe of the village of Pigsag-an.

For his vehement opposition to the illegal flush mining activities in the city’s hinterlands, Orasan was threatened. On the night of May 17, his house was rammed by no less than Pigsag-an village chief Salvador Misca, whom he identified as one of the leaders of the illegal mining activities there.

Then on May 31, Misca shot Orasan with a shotgun. He survived while Misca was detained.

“He [Misca] is not only a protector of the illegal mining activities in the barangay, he is the leader,” Orasan told the CBCPNews in a May 30 interview at the Archbishop Patrick Cronin Hall during the 10th meeting of the Cagayan de Oro River Basin Management Council (CDORBMC).

During that meeting, Dr. Esteban Godilano of the Climate Change Congress of the Philippines (CCCP), which Ledesma heads, urged all Kagay-anons, including residents of Bukidnon and Iligan, to work together to draw a unified systematic plan of action to protect the city’s watershed, a vast 179,350.66 hectares, that straddles a large part of the provinces of Bukidnon, Lanao del Norte, and Misamis Oriental.

The city is just 48,000 hectares.

“The challenge is up to all of us. It is crucial for all of us especially young people, to get involved.  This will be the most urgent fight of our lives.  Ultimately it is us who are going to bring about changes through our individual actions. While the time may not be on our side, our ability to innovate appears to be with us,” he said.

Time to act

Godilano lamented that despite having the world’s best environmental laws, Filipinos are complacent and lazy in implementing these laws.

“Let’s walk the talk,” he stressed.

He warned that the city is in danger of being erased from the map by flood waters if the Cagayan de Oro River will once again overflow its banks if people will not do their part in protecting the environment, most particularly the city’s vast watershed area, since the city is the drainage area of its catchbasin which is Bukidnon.

The Cagayan de Oro River is 1,342 kms long. 81 percent of its total length or 1,087.0 kms is part of the city’s river basin or watershed. Its headwaters are in the Kalatungan and Kitanglad mountain ranges in Bukidnon.

Mt. Kalatungan (2,824 meters above sea level) and Mt. Kitanglad (2,900 meters ASL) are considered as the second and third tallest mountains in the Philippines. Due to high elevation and lack of vegetation, excess water from an overflowing catchbasin that is Bukidnon naturally run down the slopes into the drainage area that is Cagayan de Oro.

“The floodwaters cascade through various tributaries and converge along the main river before rampaging to the settled plains,” environmentalist Raoul Geollegue told the CBCPNews in an earlier interview.

Of the city’s total land area, 15,317 hectares of 50.15% is covered by pasture and grassland where approximately 2,344 hectares or 31% is threatened by landslides. Aside from that, 10,779 hectares or 35% of the city’s land area is susceptible to flooding. Also the city’s location is “prone to sea level rise that could affect approximately 1,472 hectares or five percent of the total area.”

Also, in the Iponan River Watershed,there are three fault lines with a total length of 20.31 kms that will exacerbate the occurrence of landslides and liquefaction.

The Iponan Watershed occupied 35,870 hectares or 20% of the total watershed area of the city. And 18,347 hectares or 60% of the city’s land area falls within the Iponan Watershed.

“We should be aware [of all of these] and be responsible for our environment…We need to start protecting our environment in a systematic way,” Ledesma told the CBCPNews.

“We should not wait for more meetings and/or disasters to happen before we act,” he added.

Local officials are key

Ledesma stressed that the CDORBMC alone cannot do the job.

“The key here is the local chief executives” of the areas that are within the Cagayan de Oro river basin or watershed, he said.

The areas within the Cagayan de Oro watershed are Bukidnon and Misamis Oriental. In Bukidnon, the areas involved are the municipalities of Talakag, Baungon and Libona. In Misamis Oriental, the areas are the municipalities of Opol and Manticao and the cities of Cagayan de Oro and El Salvador; and also the city of Iligan in Lanao del Norte.

“The zigzagging patterns of rivers and streams in the uplands of Bukidnon may served as temporary water reservoir during heavy rains and may burst endangering communities living along river banks and Cagayan de Oro City,” Godilano said.

Ledesma urged newly-elected and reelected government officials to partner with civil society organizations (CSOs) and the community in general in the implementation of a systematic plan of action that will protect people from the effects of climate change on the environment.

He explained that protecting the environment is also protecting the people.

“I am hoping that our newly elected officials will give priority to this [the protection of the environment],” he said.

Rehab Framework

Meanwhile, Geollegue reiterated his proposal of a full-scale plan to fortify the Cagayan de Oro River basin ecosystem to prevent loss of lives and properties if another storm visits the city.

Geollegue, technical team leader of the Relief Philippines-affiliate Enterprise Works Worldwide/Philippines who predicted 20 years ago a Sendong-like devastation in the city if nothing is done to rehabilitate its watershed area, said there is an urgent need to rehabilitate the Cagayan de Oro River basin so it could provide the basin’s drainage areas with lifegiving water instead of death due to floods.

If implemented, his Integrated Ecosystem Rehabilitation Management Framework will make the Cagayan de Oro River basin “resilient to adverse climatic disturbances” by “[restoring] the integrity of the Cagayan de Oro Watershed as a life-support system providing water at the right quality and quantity over time within its confines and beyond.”

The Framework’s objectives are to (1) increase forest cover; (2) conserve biodiversity; (3) improve water quality and quantity over time; (4) enhance the socioeconomic well-being of dependent communities; and (5) strengthen the local communities’ capacity in watershed conservation and management.

The Framework calls for a comprehensive approach to solve the devastating floods due to extreme weather events and watershed-resource degradation toward sustainable development. It also presents seven guiding principles that answer the five objectives of the plan. (Bong D. Fabe)