Sustainable mountains: people, resources, community and environment

If nature and ecology conservation concerns, in their many forms, seem not able to demonstrate an adequately sustainable global response paradigm, perhaps it is not so much for lack of effort or heart. It may be that the core of each problem in each situation has not been lanced, and the right moves simply cannot be conceived unless after a process just as complex as the problem itself.

Or, the effort itself at getting to a right solution may have made it so. It could be that in the so-called holistic and integrated approach concepts, prescriptions may have become so top-heavy with human technology interventions, including the element of good intentions, as to have made these prescriptions nearly alien to the actual situation and, for that reason, intolerable to the nature of nature itself.

What could have been done before anything else, and perhaps the time is ripe for this, is to look at the quality of the approaches, ones that seem to bear greater promise than the normally technology-heavy interventions crafted by urban-based experts.

Experts of United Nations agencies may have hit pay dirt in the conservation model search when they turned their sights on the mountains of the world, and on the human groupings populating these mountains as the possible show window and reference point in formulating a more effective and applied model in conservation—one that, who knows, may apply as well to the lowlands.

People of the mountains seem to have acclimatized themselves to the conditions of their habitats in the sky, ever since the mountains were there—millions of years back in the past—up to the present. They seem to have found the secret of living on the land, living off it, and literally depending on the bounties of nature, attuned to its whims, in the ecology of their mountain settlements.

The UN count of these mountain people places it at 10% of the world population. At the 6 billion present world count, the number could place them at some 600 million strong up there in their aeries in the sky. The inaccessibility of the heights in which their settlements are located is but the start, however, of the problem and the challenge of getting to them in the physical sense. Getting to them in terms of getting their attention and interest would prove to be another, in the long list of problems to be hurdled.

So critical is the depletion of nature’s resources in many spots of the globe and so potent is the promise perceived by concerned world agencies in getting insights from the experience of mountain peoples in survival and conservation that the Food and Agri-culture Organization (FAO) of the UN named 2002 the International Year of the Mountains, with activities being encouraged to be replicated worldwide, all of which are to culminate in a summit conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, from October 29 to November 4 this year.

The Philippines has responded eagerly to the call with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declaring 2002 the Year of the Mountains, but setting aside a “Month of the Mountains in the Philippines” in a presidential proclamation.

Topping the list, from the point of view of the UN and other world entities, of the areas of learning expected to be derived from the summit, is an insight into the indigenous dynamics under-pinning the sustainability of mountains as a global ecosystem. This larger issue cascades into other no less critical issues, among which is the fact that “mountains supply the world’s freshwater, and are a rich source of biodiversity,” said Jacques Diouf, director general of FAO.

Still ramifying from the role of the mountains as freshwater and biodiversity source is the fact that the inaccessible and still virgin parts of mountains are perhaps the only parts of them left where mountain people still find their means of survival in terms of food from wildlife and fuelwood for cooking, and a source of marginal livelihood in terms of staple forest products they trade with people in the lowlands.

Sensitive and perceptive handling will have to be given these issues, against the backdrop of the wide divergence in culture, tradition and mindsets of mountain tribes. Insensitivity to these considerations has spawned and can ignite mortal and irrevocable conflicts among them, and new ideas may cause similar reaction. In fact, according to Diouf in a recent press statement, “armed conflict is the major obstacle” in FAO attaining its goals among mountain people. “Mountain regions (are) torn by 23 of the 27 armed conflicts currently raging.”

Also, indigenous enclaves often portray an inflexibility, as a matter of principle and tribal pride, in the way they perceive their condition, as apart from that of other groups outside their culture. But with better communication, they can be open to discovering and exploring convergent lines.

For example, in the Philippines, the people of the Cordilleras in Luzon (spanning the northern provinces of Benguet, Mt. Province, Kalinga, Apayao, Abra and Ifugao) look back to their life before the intrusion of civilization as “one characterized by peace, integrity and harmony,” but have increasingly made their case at point through negotiation and advocacy in both local and international fora.

In a position paper presented by Joseph Gadit, chair of the Tribal Council of Elders of the Cordillera tribes, at the Asia High Summit in Nepal in May this year, the Cordillera tribes decried the “deleterious effects of modernity”… and the “threat to human, social, and environmental sustainability” in their habitat.

The paper likewise reported that the incursion of industrial development in their region has contracted the life span of their people from the traditional norm of 100 years to only over 50 years. “Trees that used to grow to a hundred years are now cut after five years. Mountain slopes that are used to be covered with vegetation are now pocked with quarrying, mining and slash-burn agriculture. Communities that used to nurture and respect nature are now causing the exhaustion of our mountain resources.”

Threat. The adverse effects of the uncontrolled exploitation of mountain resources have long been noted, but the current focus on the ecology of the mountains may now point up as well to the threat that this environmental blight presents to mountain people in terms of their survival and future.

Unmitigated cutting of trees in a forest, in the larger picture, of course depletes a country’s timber resource. But a closer look uncovers a worse scenario. Cutting the big trees brings down living things with it, destroys the habitat of wildlife and displaces a horde of them, endangering an untold number of plant and animal species to possible extinction.

What is not often noted is that, as the rug is pulled away from the forest’s resources, from its biodiversity, on which mountain people largely depend for survival, for food and livelihood, they are themselves threatened with destitution, hunger, poverty and possible extinction, alongside the mountain ecology. The land becomes more liable to lose its vegetative cover and stability, and this can lead to erosion, desertification and floods.

With the loss of biodiversity in mountain forests goes as well the otherwise rich non-wood and non-mineral resources endemic to the mountain. The ultimate depletion of these resources impacts adversely on the economy of a country and its population, not only on the people living in the mountains.

Citing a couple of sample cases should vividly demonstrate this.

Opportunities. Examples of non-wood mountain resources which feed major industries in the Philippines are rattan and abaca. Both popularly known as traditional materials for furniture and fabrics, respectively, rattan and abaca have also been tapped as materials in the manufacture of heretofore unknown specialty products, which should open the minds of many local entrepreneurs, both large and small.

The industry reports that the Philippines remains the biggest furniture exporter among ASEAN countries, and rattan furniture accounts for more than 65% of export volume in this sector. Aside from use in furniture making, rattan is also used as raw material in the manufacture of walking sticks, fish traps, hammocks or sleeping mats, handicraft, footballs, carpet beaters, hat, bags and baskets, buggy whips, twines and toothbrushes.

On the other hand, the Philippines supplies about 90% of the world’s supply of abaca. The only other abaca-producing country in the world, Ecuador, accounts for only 10%. Abaca fiber and pulp are being extensively used in the manufacture of specialty products, such as fashion bags, giftware, houseware, toys, tea bags, meat and sausage casings, cigarette paper, filter paper, currency notes, stencil paper, etc.

Its superior tensile strength, compared with other fibers, and the increasing awareness and trend for environment-friendly products have pushed the continuing robust export demand for this Philippine high-profile raw material.

Rattan, however, grows in forested areas. A constant diminution of the country’s forests would have its impact on the availability of this material. In Mr. Gadit’s report, “of the Philippines’ 16 million hectares of forest areas, only one million hectares of forest are left. While logging activity has declined with the imposition of control, the remaining area may not be able to support any expansion of rattan production. A downslide in supply has already been felt by rattan furniture makers in recent years.”

In the case of abaca, which grows abundantly on volcanic soil of which the country has large areas, the demand for it as raw material for specialty paper and packaging has been on the rise, but the industry is reported to be traditionally beset by problems in trading practices, packaging and storage. Also alternative sites for plantations can be explored, together with the introduction of improved technology in the cited problem areas.

Actually, abaca may be found to be suitable, much like coffee and cocoa, as plant hedge to crops planted on a sloping land, which is that to be found at the foot of volcanoes, of which the country has a number, applying the sloping agricultural land technology, better known as SALT. This technology was developed in the Philippines and has now been adopted in a growing number of other countries.

Potentials. If the rattan and abaca industries may be perceived as too big and perhaps too complex for mountain communities to get involved in, even an activity of less ambitious proportions, such as simple basket-weaving, can trigger and bring off similar desirable results.

Basketware is identified as one of the 15 priority export products of the Philippines. These are almost 100% handmade, and are thus labor-intensive. Basketware enterprises employ today as many as one million laborers nationwide, as the skill is endemic in both coastal and mountain communities. But, alas, there is a reported dwindling in supply of raw materials.

The raw materials for basket-weaving, which are now dwindling, are rattan, as mentioned above, anahaw, coconut, kaong, buri, bamboo, cogon, vines (gogo and higgin) ferns (hagnaya and nito), reeds and brushes (tikog and tikiw), screwpines (bariw pandan and tikiw), herbs (bamban, abaca and maguey), tree barks, twigs, and leaves (salago and anabiong).

The wide variety of these materials and the relative unfamiliarity of the local names must imply that they must be in great profusion everywhere, largely unrecognized and unappreciated. The irony persists, however, that it has to take foreign markets to recognize the utilitarian and economic value of these resources for the people in this country to give each one of these a second look.

The case is similar in powdered plant used as fabric dyes. Actually, minority tribes such as the Ifugao, Itneg, Mandaya and T’boli have been using plants as part of their indigenous technology in dyeing their well-known colorful fabric products.

Using these traditional skills, researchers of the Philippine Textile Research Institute (PTRI), the Bureau of Agricultural Research (BAR), and the Katutubong Filipino Foundation have refined these skills and have come up with quality fabric dyes using local plants such as luyang dilaw, talisay, achuete, even duhat and kamachile bark.

With the availability of the powder form of these local dyeing plant materials, local manufacturers are now using them in fabrics like silk, rayon, cotton, abaca, piña and raffia.

Two-way approach. In studying and dealing with the mountains of the world, and their indigenous peoples, perhaps it would be best in order to ensure best results to think of it as a two-way street. Modernity, or civilization, has definitely a role to play in terms of being able to share with mountain peoples the advances of human technology to improve the quality of life in their communities and to discover the plumb potentialities of mountain resources.

On the other hand, meeting modernity half-way, indigenous peoples should be enabled to enjoy the excitement in taking the road of discovery together, eventually having been made aware that modernity is their partner in meeting the challenges ahead of them, so that their potentials are realized even as their culture and traditions are protected and respected.

The two-way approach should enable the partners to skip across the quicksands of culture shock, and mutually assimilate the culture, mindset and perspectives of the other.

Interestingly, this two-way fusion of cultures between peoples of the mountain and those of the surrounding lowlands will find a happy occasion in the Philippines in March next year. To come hot on the heels of the summit conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippine event to culminate the observance of the Year of the Mountains, will be held, appropriately, in the Cordillera administrative region. The high point will be an exhibit of mountain arts and crafts bespeaking the rich quilt and intriguing fabric of local cultures on top of the world.