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A watershed of hope

How a company is empowering the B’laan in Sarangani

“I have been here since 1970,” begins Dominador Fernandez in the vernacular. “Here” is Sitio Kyumad in the town of Maasim in Sarangani, and Dominador happens to be a chieftain of the B’laan, an indigenous people (IP) of Southern Mindanao. I was with a group of business writers that had been invited by the Alsons Power Group to visit the Maasim Sarangani Watershed Protection Project, a program that aims to alleviate poverty and provide livelihood while simultaneously providing forest cover for the Siguil and Kamanga watersheds in Maasim.

Sitio Kyumad is just a small portion of the 7,500-hectare Maasim Sarangani Watershed Protection Project.

The project is quite ambitious – by far the biggest environmental undertaking in the whole province of Sarangani that has been initiated by a power company – as it aims to reforest 7,500 hectares of land that encompasses several barangays in the municipality of Maasim.  The area, we were told, is larger than the city of Manila and more than three times the size of the city of Makati.

Locals nurture the seedlings that are given for free.

To reach Sitio Kyumad, our group travelled some 50 kilometers from General Santos City, traversing very rough terrain that could get muddy and slippery due to rainfall. At several points, the roads would become so narrow that vehicles coming from opposite directions would stop to let the other pass first. Motorcycles and horses were the usual mode of transportation, our driver informed. 

“The project began in 2009, but it took three years of dialogues and discussion with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the local government and the company to explain the objectives of the project before we were convinced that their plans would be beneficial to our community. The actual planting of trees started only in late 2012,” explained Chief Dominador in his accented Tagalog.

Visitors check out the various tree species growing in Sitio Kyumad.

“This used to be full of cogon grass, but now we have a lot of fruit-bearing trees, along with mais, guyabano, langka, kamoteng kahoy,” he continues, proudly displaying the feast of peanuts, corn, cassava, and fresh coconut juice that had been laid out for our group to enjoy. Looking around, it is hard to imagine that the lush, forested area had once been flat and brown due to the highly damaging slash-and-burn kaingin method that was widespread in the uplands of Maasim, resulting in forest denudation.

Chief Dominador admits that what also helped convince them was the promise that they would have the seedlings for free because they “did not have the money to buy the seedlings,” and that the profits from the harvest would redound to the community. Financing and farming implements, he said, were also provided by the Alsons Power Group through its subsidiary, the Sarangani Energy Corporation, whose 210-MW power plant construction site is located within the watershed area.

To date, over 1,114,900 seedlings covering 2,507 hectares have been planted in a span of three years.

The company has committed to plant 3.75 million seedlings of various tree species and commercial crops such as such as tuai (locally called nabul), lauan, molave, guyabano, langka, and coffee  – and so far, they have planted over 1,114,900 seedlings covering 2,507 hectares in a span of three years, quite ahead of the target timelines for the 15-year project. According to the company, they have allocated $2 million for the 7,500-hectare watershed project – a testament to the commitment of the Alsons Power Group’s Sarangani Energy Corporation to protect and nurture the environment, as well as improve the quality of life in the host and neighboring communities of the coal plant.

Members of the community who stand to benefit from the watershed project.

“At first, only a few wanted to participate in the watershed project, but we reasoned out with them. What was there to lose, since it was all cogon grass and we had no sustainable livelihood? I explained the plan and the vision, and cautioned them against the danger of politics. I told them we will provide the labor, but the seedlings will be provided and the company will help with farming tools. They will help us look for a ready market that will buy the produce,” the B’laan elder said.

B’laan chief Dominador Fernandez (rightmost) with members of the B’laan tribe and Mer Olvida (6th from left) who supervises the Maasim watershed project.

To date, more than 450 resident families have organized under the Maasim Highland Farmers’ Association, and it is interesting to note that the participating families not only belong to the B’laan tribe but also the T’boli, as well as rebel returnees from such groups as the Moro National Liberation Front, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the New People’s Army. One underlying reason why the project shows such promise is the fact that it is a partnership wherein both the public and private sectors are committed in uplifting the economic status of the residents, particularly the indigenous peoples, in the watershed area. (In fact, the DENR has seen fit to include the project under the government’s National Greening Program whose objective is to alleviate poverty as well as achieve biodiversity and food security through reforestation activities.)

B’laan member Faning Tayau prepares the agricultural products for visitors to enjoy.

Aside from financing, the beneficiary families are given seminars and trainings on agriculture and farming methods, with exposure trips also arranged to give them more detailed knowledge on how to cultivate and nurture the seedlings. Currently, there are more than 120 local residents working as laborers in the various planting sites covered by the watershed project. Prior to the implementation of the project, the average income of the locals was around P1,000 a month, but now, the figures reach as much as P6,000 – P8,000 a month. Not surprisingly, more residents are joining the project, seeing the livelihood opportunities that Chief Dominador and the others are enjoying not only from the proceeds from the agricultural products but the chickens and goats that they are raising.

“We now have the opportunity to send our children to school. We don’t need to buy products like coffee because we grow them here and we make our own. The people now have work and livelihood,” the B’laan chieftain concludes, the smile in his eyes conveying both confidence and hope for the future.

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