Neighbors in nature: the community’s role in preserving Mt. Makiling Forest Reserve

By Jairus Bellen and Coline Fortus

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Most of us would know of Maria Makiling, the diwata who lived in the mountain of her namesake. But Maria Makiling, a mythological figure, might be better known than what we really know to be actually true–Mt. Makiling. 

At just an hour and a half from Manila, one could reach Mt. Makiling. Being one of the nearest hiking sites from the bustling metro, the mountain receives 20,000 to 30,000 visitors annually. Its annual Lenten Season Visitors Management Program, “Make it Makiling!”, welcomed 4,000 visitors this year.

Mt. Makiling Forest Reserve Location Map from MCME

The mountain, which is labeled Mount Makiling Forest Reserve (MMFR), boasts more than its breathtaking views and flora and fauna. Little do we know, the forest reserve and ASEAN Heritage Park also has watersheds that supply the vast areas of Laguna and Batangas with water. These include Molawin Creek, Dampalit Falls, and Cambantoc River. 

According to the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (DOST-PCAARRD), a watershed is “an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet such as the outflow of a reservoir, mouth of a bay, or any point along a stream channel.” With this purpose, watersheds become sources of water for different purposes, while also being habitats for plants and animals. 

Study sites of the three major watersheds of Makiling Forest Reserve (modified after map by Labatos (2011) from http:// Makiling)

There is an array of tangible benefits that watersheds provide for communities, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). Among these are ecosystem goods and services that help increase the quality of human life. For one, the most obvious benefit is that watersheds help improve water quality. This would mean that the water humans would consume would require less treatment to be safe to use. 

When ecosystems such as watersheds are in great condition, they contribute to indigenous species protection and climate change resilience. This is because its natural processes capacitate indigenous species to compete against invasive species in the area, as well as help the area adapt to the harms brought about by extreme weather conditions.

In the context of the Mt. Makiling watersheds, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) notes that its uses include domestic, industrial, and agricultural. The watersheds provide resources for Los Banos, Calamba City, and Sto. Tomas, Batangas. 

However, a concern of the agencies tasked to oversee the conservation of Mt. Makiling’s resources is the fast-increasing number of resorts that cater to locals and tourists. Mt. Makiling’s hot spring water is a magnet for resort-owners to take advantage of the providence of the mountain. From 2014 to 2020 alone, the number of resorts in Los Banos and Calamba has doubled from 508 to 1,026. Currently, the water use practices of these resorts are not regulated by the government.

On the conservation efforts

For the purposes of its administration and conservation, the MMFR is managed by the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). As an academic institution, the university has designated the Makiling Center for Mountain Ecosystems (MCME) to produce research and knowledge in conserving the forest’s natural resources. 

In accordance with standard conservation strategies for mountain forests, the MCME consistently monitors and regulates activities within the MMFR. For instance, requests from researchers for sample collection are thoroughly reviewed by permittees before approval. With this, the work of MCME is not limited to research, but extends to safeguarding the forest reserve. 

MCME’s work is not without its challenges, as conserving forest resources at Mt. Makiling involves addressing the needs of the communities living inside the forest reserve. 

To manage the population of humans living within the MMFR, livelihood activities are organized by MCME for the communities. These initiatives aim to supplement the communities’ existing forms of livelihoods with activities that would not deplete the forest’s resources. In a sense, this is an attempt to rechannel human activities to those that would not damage the forest. 

Most of these programs enable the communities to be a part of the conservation and protection efforts. Two of these initiatives are the formation of Rescue Kidz and Educators for Nature Tourism (ENTs). Rescue Kidz are local residents trained by the MCME to guide tourists hiking beyond Station 11 of Makiling, which requires guided tours. 

On the other hand, ENTs are student volunteers from UPLB who are also interested in being trained by the MCME. ENTs are responsible for heritage interpretation in the Makiling Botanic Garden for visitors, who are usually a variety of students.

NEW COLONY OF ENTS. A training session for a new batch of Educators for Nature Tourism for the Academic Year 2023-2024 was conducted on March 11, 2024.
Photo from MCME Facebook Page

MCME collaborates with local government agencies to conduct their Communication, Education, and Public Awareness (CEPA) campaign, focusing on forest protection. The CEPA project aims to raise awareness among landowners about upcoming resurvey activities in the buffer zone, inform them about the installation of concrete markers, and address misconceptions regarding Proclamation 1257.

The proclamation designates the first 18% slope towards the boundary of the Mt. Makiling Forest Reserve as a buffer zone. Specifically, it aims to clarify that land use in this area outside of but proximate to the forest reserve is restricted to environmentally-friendly activities.

Mt. Makiling Forest Reserve Buffer Zone Map from MCME

Furthermore, a particular conservation initiative of the MCME for the MMFR is their Tree Planting and Nurturing Program (TPN), which has been ongoing since 2014. Forester Valeriana Barredo-Parducho of the MCME highlighted that this isn’t the typical tree-planting endeavor where individuals simply plant trees and move on. Emphasizing the importance of “nurturing” in TPN, the program requires the MCME to oversee the growth of trees planted by participants and replenish those that fail to thrive.

TPN ON THE GROUND. A tree planting and nurturing program conducted with the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology CALABARZON last February 2024.
Photo from MCME Facebook page.

MCME ensures that the tree species selected for planting are indigenous to and are sourced from Mt. Makiling. 

Hindi kami tumatanggap ng any species kahit indigenous o native in the Philippines yan na galing sa labas. Galing lang siya sa aming nursery, kami nagpoprovide and nagpoproduce ng seedlings,”  For. Barredo-Parducho said. 

Usual participants in the TPN program consist of corporate entities that are allowed to conduct site inspections for the planting of seedlings. These companies will receive a Memorandum of Agreement outlining cost estimates for a minimum three-year period of tree planting and nurturing.

Additionally, For. Barredo-Parducho noted that companies interested in investing in the TPN Program assist the MCME in rehabilitating and restoring certain areas of Mt. Makiling.

Magandang conservation effort siya kasi ang pagrerehabilitate and pagrerestore ng area ng Mt. Makiling ay hindi solely naka-assign sa mga staff [of MCME] kasi kung sa amin pa, parang ang dami na namin ginagawa so mabuti at may mga corporate partners na nagsisignify ng interes, so ayon naga-undergo sila ng MOA and then yung pera na inilalabas nila – dati kasi Php 250,000 + lang yun, ngayon dahil siyempre nag mark-up na ang mga bilihin even labor cost, so nasa Php 400,000+ na siya na-double halos,” For. Barredo-Parducho explained.

For. Barredo-Parducho clarified that maintaining a continuous TPN within MMFR does not necessarily indicate forest degradation brought about by human activities in Mt. Makiling.

Rather, it aims to rehabilitate areas of land affected by natural disasters such as typhoons and landslides. Furthermore, it was noted that the collection of monetary funds from TPN is not managed by MCME, but by the UPLB Foundation Inc.

A call for a collective action

“The MMFR is everyone’s concern, not only MCME’s.” 

This is what For. Barredo-Parducho has to say about Mt. Makiling’s stewardship. She notes that while many benefit from its resources, only a few would consider themselves accountable for its care.

RESPONSIBLE HIKERS. Tourists walking on trail during the Make It Makiling! last April 2023. Photo from MCME Website.

A short survey on 21 people was conducted to assess the knowledge and attitudes of the UPLB community regarding the conservation challenges of the MCME. This revealed that the community generally holds positive attitudes on the importance of sustainable coexistence of human settlements with conservation efforts in the MMFR, the collaboration between academic institutions and local government for effective conservation strategies, and the need for adequate funding and support for MCME personnel and resources. 

However, the perceptions on these issues were varied and inconsistent, particularly regarding how the presence of human settlements within the MMFR hinders conservation efforts.

While conservation efforts keep the MCME busy, there are also some challenges faced by the agency. Human activities in particular are one of their huge concerns, it being probable causes of forest degradation when left unchecked.

By definition, being a forest reserve means that MMFR should not contain human settlements. However, driving out communities inside the forest reserve has proven ineffective. MCME now maintains relations with human communities inside the forest reserve, in efforts to encourage the residents to contribute to conservation efforts. 

As an implementer of the rules residents and visitors must adhere to when inside the forest, MCME faces challenges in making sure people follow the rules. Of course, not all those who are confronted by the agency would be happy to adhere to these rules.

One of the human activities which MCME monitors is “pag-uuling” or wood charcoal production. Some residents have done this for livelihood in the past, but MCME reminds them of its harm to the resources of the forest. Furthermore, the measurement of the land that residents occupy are monitored by the MCME, making sure that unnecessary expansions are not made. 

Bigger problems are faced by the agency with land speculators. Unknowingly, the forest reserve loses parcels of land as these are sold to private citizens and businessmen. Without proper markers or fences to assert the boundaries of the forest reserve, incidents like these do happen. Eventually, when these parcels of land are lost, they are not protected from human activities that would harm the resources of the forest. 

The policing of these activities become even more problematic for MCME as they face lack of human and non-human resources. True to many government agencies, lack of manpower hinders agencies from performing their responsibilities properly. 

In the long run, MCME hopes to face these challenges with projects which would help solve some of their immediate problems. Particularly, the agency hopes to one day be able to set physical boundaries that would mark off the territory of the forest reserves. This prevents the MMFR from losing its land that it already has. Such a project would benefit the forest and the agency, preventing land disputes and loss of wildlife from happening. 

One thing that the staff in the MCME advocate for is changing the label of the forest reserve to something more appropriate for its current uses. With the forest reserve catering to more human activities, they believe the label becomes outdated. With this label being changed, the MCME would be better equipped to respond to problems. Legislation would also change to allow for adjustments to be made to regulate existing infrastructures and activities in the forest reserve.