MOUNT KITANGLAD, BUKIDNON – A peso coin drenched in chicken blood is the welcome offered to visitors to this mountain, which soars 2,899 meters over the city of Malaybalay, and the towns of Lantapan, Libona, Impasug-ong, and Sumilao.

Bae Inatlawan performs a ritual sacrifice. Photo by Jaemark Tordecilla.

“This will serve as your identification,” says Bae Inatlawan as she hands over the bloody coin, “so that the spirits will allow you to enter.”

An elder of the Daraghuyan tribal community, Bae Inatlawan – also known as Adelina Tarino – had earlier banged a gong and recited a chant to call the spirits. With the help of a couple of other tribal elders, she then slit the throats of three chickens and poured their blood onto a shrub beside the sacrificial table. The visitors’ hands also got a dab of chicken blood each, as did their cell phones and cameras.

All these made up a cleansing ritual that Bae Inatlawan says is necessary for visitors to Mt. Kitanglad. “It is our way of introduction to the spirits of the earth, the spirits of the mountain, and the spirits who came before us,” she says. Members of the Bukidnon tribe, to which the Daraghuyan community belongs, believe that the spirits of their ancestors reside in the mountain. This afternoon’s offering serves to appease the spirits, so that they would grant the visitors safe passage.

The Bukidnon is one of this Northern Mindanao province’s seven tribes, which also include the Matigsalug, Tigwahanon, Umayamnon, Talaandig, Higaonon, and the Manobo. These lumad, indigenous peoples of the region, have for centuries served as Mt. Kitanglad’s gatekeepers and protectors. They decide who is welcome in the mountain, and who is not.

But the guardian role played by the tribes that live in Kitanglad goes beyond performing rituals. Lumad members make up most of the Kitanglad Guard Volunteers (KGV), a group of some 344 men who have been deputized by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to patrol the mountain.

The KGVs, mostly on foot and sometimes on horseback, cover all 47,270 hectares of the Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park, reporting violations and offenses. The park encompasses not only Mt. Kitanglad, the protected area, and the buffer zones, but also Malaybalay City and seven towns.

Spirits, flora, fauna

Kitanglad Guard Volunteers patrol the forests and report violations.
Photo by Jaemark Tordecilla.

The presence of the KGVs is one of the biggest reasons for the successful protection of Mt. Kitanglad, which was named an ASEAN Heritage Park in 2009, a distinction given to “protected areas with unique, diverse, and outstanding value.” It also demonstrates the unique kinship the local people seem to have with their mountain.

Indeed, this is the common thread that binds the people who are tasked to protect Mt. Kitanglad – from the indigenous tribes who believe their ancestors’ spirits live in the mountain, to the farmers who want to preserve the forest for the next generation, to park management staff who see an intact mountain environment as their legacy, to the politicians who now seem to realize that preserving Kitanglad can be their contribution not only to the rest of the country, but also to the rest of the world.

As one of the few remaining rainforests in the Philippines, Mt. Kitanglad is home to diverse flora and fauna, many of which are rare and endemic. Its most famous resident is the country’s national bird, the Philippine eagle, Pithecophaga jefferyi, one of the largest and most endangered birds in the world. The Philippine Eagle Foundation says that the bird requires 7,000 to 13,000 hectares of hunting territory to survive. The Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park has more than that, and the mountain itself has plenty of rats, snakes, and monkeys for the eagle to feast on.

Mt. Kitanglad is also home to Rafflesia schadenbergiana, the second largest flower in the world. Among the endemic species that can be found in the area are the pygmy fruit bat Alionycteris paucidentata and two native mice, Crunomys suncoides and Limonmys bryophilus.

Fewer forest violations

Yet just 20 years ago, all these seemed doomed to be lost forever. According to Mt. Kitanglad’s Protected Area Superintendent Felix Mirasol, protecting the mountain was a big problem before the volunteer guards were organized in 1997.

“A lot of trees were being cut down, a lot of wildlife was being hunted, and a lot of forests were being converted into farms,” he says. At the time, there was an average of 76 cases of forest violations in the park every year. Today, that number is down to two cases annually.

“At first, there were a lot of people who practiced kaingin (slash and burn farming), who cut down trees,” volunteer guard Adelado Bunye, a Datu of the Imbayao tribal community who has been a KGV since the start of the program, also recalls. “Today, the problems have been minimized, we only have to monitor and report. Before, we had to apprehend people and tell them to stop (their illegal practices).”

With KGVs on patrol, authorities are also able to detect violations much earlier. In the past, whole hectares of trees would be cut down before the violation is discovered. These days, cut down a few trees and you are likely to have the KGV on your case. Illegal loggers now have had a difficult time gaining a foothold in the area.

That the volunteer guard program is working – and well – can be traced to its proponents’ deep understanding and respect of tribal structures in the area. The Kitanglad Integrated NGOs (KIN), which organized the first batch of KGVs in 1997, worked closely with the lumad, and found that in each community, there were already members designated as guards, called the alimaong, whose duty was to protect the tribe.

Instead of changing the community structure, park management decided to adopt it, working with KIN to deputize the tribal guards. In addition to their duties as protectors of their community, the guards were also tasked to protect the forest and report any violators.

Initially, participation in the Kitanglad Guard Volunteers was, as its name implied, completely voluntary. Today 70 percent of the park’s annual operating budget goes to allowances, equipment, and free insurance for the KGVs – although volunteer guards are quick to point out that the allowance that they receive is a pittance. A telecommunications company that had set up a transmitter tower on the summit also donated cellular phones to each barangay for the KGV’s use. Too bad the company didn’t take it a step further by throwing in free cellphone load as well.

Kitanglad Day

Each year, park management organizes “Adlaw Ta Kitanglad (Kitanglad Day),” a three-day affair that gathers all the KGVs along with stakeholders of the protected area. At the center of the activities is the KGV congress, which includes orientation for new volunteer guards, as well as lectures by academics and experts from Bukidnon State University, the Department of Agriculture, and the DENR on how to conduct reporting and monitoring of violations. The congress also includes a medical mission for the volunteers and a discussion on how they can avail of their group insurance benefits.

But it’s not all work and no play. For entertainment, the event has a singing contest for indigenous peoples – only lumad songs are allowed in the program – an indigenous sports competition, and, perhaps inevitably, a Miss Kitanglad beauty pageant for tribe members. To close the affair, local government officials hand out awards to recognize the work of the KGV members.

Yet while the allowances and the programs are nice, what motivates the KGVs is neither money nor recognition. Says Bunye: “We love Mt. Kitanglad because it is our homeland, our birthplace, our source. It is where the spirits of our ancestors continue to live.”

The mountain, he says, has been kind to him and his people, which is why he continues to do his job despite the meager pay. “It is our hospital, where we get our medicine,” he says. “It is our market, where we get our food. That’s why we have to protect it.”

That has meant taking on duties other than patrolling the park. After park management, with KIN’s help, identified genuine leaders of the tribal communities, it organized them into the Mt. Kitanglad Council of Elders. Today a representative of the Council of Elders sits in the executive committee of Mt. Kitanglad’s Protected Area Management Board (PAMB), while 14 tribal leaders in addition to the council occupy seats in the board.

Culture-sensitive policies

Bae Inatlawan of the Daraghuyan tribal community seats in the
Protected Area Management Board. Screen grab by Ed Lingao

The involvement of the Council of Elders and the tribal leaders, according to Mirasol, allows the PAMB “to pass culture-sensitive policies, and address conflicts on boundary, resource use, and customary practices.” The council also has the freedom to bring issues involving indigenous peoples to the Board’s attention.

PAMB, for example, endorsed Bae Inatlawan and the Daraghuyan tribal community’s ancestral domain claim for 4,200 hectares inside the national park. Comments Bae Inatlawan: “We were recognized by the PAMB, so now we recognize the PAMB, too.”

Recognition from tribal leaders is essential to park management’s information and education campaigns. This is especially important when a new policy runs contrary to tribal culture and traditions. Bae Inatlawan says that initially, her people did not take kindly to restrictions on their traditional practices that park management wanted to impose. “They were asking me, ‘Why can’t we hunt wild boars anymore? Why can’t we gather wild honey?’” she says.

Being the village elder, she was listened to when she explained the new regulations to her tribe’s members, and why they should follow these. “Now,” she says, “when the wild boars are pregnant, we don’t hunt anymore.”

‘Tribal justice’

In the case of minor park violations, park management even defers to the authority of the elders. “We have empowered tribal leaders for conflict resolution,” says Mirasol, adding that in most cases, members of the tribe already sort out the punishment for violations among themselves, with what Bae Inatlawan calls “tribal justice.”

But Datu Makapukaw (Adolino Saway), chief of the Council of Elders, notes that sometimes, tribe members still end up violating forest protection rules even if they know better. “Sometimes, there is no other way (for them to get food),” he says. “Then you just have to understand (his circumstances), especially when you hear his child crying.”

Such concerns have driven Mt. Kitanglad’s park management to take a proactive role in providing sustainable livelihood for farmers who live in the protected area’s 16,000-hectare buffer zone.

Benjamin Maputi trains farmers around Mt. Kitanglad in
sustainable practices.
Photo by Jaemark Tordecilla.

The Mt. Kitanglad Agri-Ecological Techno-Demo Center (MKAETDC) plays a key role in these efforts. Owned jointly by the family of Benjamin Maputi and the Imbayao Multi-Purpose Cooperative, the center conducts regular seminars for farmers, teaching them about sustainable upland farming, diversified agriculture, agroforestry, goat- and sheep-raising, and abaca production.

Some 200 farmers from Malaybalay and other municipalities in Bukidnon visit the center every month.

For Maputi, who describes himself as a “tenured migrant,” running the center is as much of an advocacy as it is a source of livelihood. He says that he wants the farm to demonstrate the best practices of a farm-family approach. His use of organic fertilizers and natural pest control in the farm, he says, is also meant to spread awareness of ecological issues to farmers in the area.

But the real value of the demonstration farms in the center is showing how these sustainable practices can work for the farmer. These techniques can increase the productivity of a farm by about 50 percent, according to Maputi’s estimates, among other things.

For example, contour farming, which is practiced by the center, prevents topsoil erosion and thus preserves the richness of the soil. This in turn allows farms to maintain their productivity – and therefore takes away the need for people to move from one area to another, as well as yet another reason for making a clearing in the middle of the forest.

Diversifying crops

Planting different crops, meanwhile, would allow a farmer to earn no matter what the season. “Even if you have a small area,” says Mirasol, “if you have diverse crops, every week you’ll still have income.”

Park management conservatively estimates that about 50 to 60 percent of farmers in the buffer zone already use these improved techniques. To encourage others to follow suit, the Office of the Protected Area Supervisor keeps a list of farmers who have adopted these and gives their names to other government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, the DENR, and the Department of Science and Technology. These farmers are then entitled to be part of different assistance programs from these agencies. The help ranges from free seedlings to technical assistance to free seminars and training for the farmers.

“Farmers are usually given quality planting materials for free,” says Mirasol. “We had a program where we gave away free coffee seedlings.” After one or two years, he estimates, farmers who received the seedlings will already be able to harvest coffee beans.

While the biggest chunk of the park’s annual budget goes to the KGV, most of the rest of the budget goes to livelihood projects for people – mostly farmers, and usually indigenous – who live in Mt. Kitanglad’s buffer zone. But with limited funding, park management has had to find creative ways to support these projects.

In 2008 and 2009, Mt. Kitanglad was allocated P10 million in the national budget, but no funds were released by the Department of Budget and Management. The park had zero allocation from the national budget in 2010.

Park management has managed to remain afloat from money from the provincial government and the seven municipalities and one city that are part of the park. Mirasol says that the towns of Lantapan, Sumilao, Libona, Baungon, Talakag, Manolo Fortich, Impasugong, and the city of Malaybalay have all integrated into their land-use plans the activities related to Mt. Kitanglad, ensuring that budgetary allocations will be made for park management operations. In 2008, the combined local contributions for the park reached some P4.55 million.

Income from tourism

Members of the Daraghuyan tribal community work closely with
the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs. Screen grab by Ed Lingao.

Mirasol also says that the park management splits earnings from tourism – hikers and bird-watchers comprise most of the visitors – in the park with the different indigenous groups. It’s not much, only about P30,000 annually, but it allows people to view tourism as a possible source of income. This motivates people to protect the area, too, so that tourism may grow as an industry in Mt. Kitanglad.

The working relationship of park officials with the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs also serves Mt. Kitanglad in good stead. “NGOs want to spend directly on the people’s organizations,” observes Mirasol. “That’s why we empowered these organizations and trained them on accounting systems, so that they can handle the funding.”

He says that outside donors are more willing to fund projects for groups with successful track records. “This is why I encourage them to comply with their commitment to the support organizations,” he says.

Mirasol also tries to push Kitanglad organizations to seek out their own funding for livelihood projects. “My only condition to them,” he says, “is that whatever money they get, they should spend it in Kitanglad.”

Bukidnon Governor Alex Calingasan is candid enough to admit that the protection of Mt. Kitanglad wasn’t exactly their top priority when he and the other Bukidnon mayors organized the first council to discuss the protected area. The National Integrated Protected Areas Systems Act of 1992 had just been passed, and one of the mayors heard that there would be World Bank funds for protected areas to support the new law. The ears of the mayors perked up on the news of possible funding, and decided to convene.

“We heard there was money, and we could get funding so we can help indigenous peoples in our area,” recounts Calingasan, who was Libona mayor at the time. “We were thinking we could give them livelihood using the World Bank funds.”

In the end, however, the mayors would not get their hands on the money, as the World Bank preferred to course the funds through NGOs. Still, their efforts got the ball rolling, and through time, local government executives, national agency officials, and NGOs forged a strong working relationship. And since Mt. Kitanglad was declared a full-pledged protected area with the Mt. Kitanglad Range Protected Area Act of 2000, the mayors have become active PAMB members.

Calingasan himself continued to attend PAMB meetings as Bukidnon vice governor, which he says inspired mayors to continue their commitments to the board. Today when a new mayor is elected, the other local executives make sure to stress the importance of participation in management of the park to the first termer. The governor boasts that Bukidnon’s mayors have a near-perfect attendance in every board meeting – something that does not usually happen in management councils in other protected areas.

Key role for locals

Getting local officials to understand the importance of their roles, he says, is the key to the whole thing. “If the awareness of the mayors about the program disappears, they will no longer support it,” Calingasan explains.

As governor, he is looking for ways to increase funding from the provincial government for park management. He says that increasing funding for the park does not exactly have a tangible economic return for the government – and it doesn’t need to have one. “Local government is not a business, it is not an economic enterprise,” he says.

If Mt. Kitanglad’s PAMB has managed to be effective, though, it’s largely because of Protected Area Superintendent Mirasol, whose office manages the day-to-day activities of the board.

“Humble” is the word Calingasan uses to describe Mirasol, who has learned how to manage the egos of the different members of the PAMB, according to the governor. The Board, after all, is a diverse collection of characters: local government executives, officials from national government agencies, tribal leaders, NGOs, a media organization, and a representative for commercial stakeholders in the park.

Mirasol himself says that the relationship among the Board’s members wasn’t always chummy. Government officials and NGOs didn’t always see eye-to-eye about how to run the affairs of the park. But the disagreements, he says, took a backseat to trying to find solutions. “We agreed that we had one purpose: to preserve Mt. Kitanglad,” he says. They agreed to first discuss matters where they could find common ground, putting the thornier issues to the backburner. Slowly, PAMB members began to develop trust with one another.

These days, members of the Board enjoy good camaraderie. Mirasol also makes it a point to organize informal activities such as field trips and bird-watching sessions so that members can get to know each other better.

Stakeholders & partners

But more than that, the real key for Mirasol is that the members have a real stake in park management. He treats stakeholders as partners, which means that consulting them even on the smallest management decisions. “We are partners, which means we’re not just partners when there are problems,” he says, stressing that his communication line is always open.

This approach makes everyone in the board feel important in park management, and any good news about Mt. Kitanglad makes all of the different groups proud. “Whatever success we have,” says Mirasol, “they’re a part of it.”

It helps that his occupation as protected area superintendent is not just another job for Mirasol. A native of Bukidnon, he took the job in 2000 to be able to move back home from his DENR assignment in Cagayan de Oro City. While others discouraged him from taking the thankless job of managing Mt. Kitanglad with meager resources, he jumped at the opportunity because of the challenge to protect the mountain. “I am part of Mt. Kitanglad,” Mirasol says.

Having worked with his staff for many years, he notes that the institutional memories help them navigate through thorny issues. While they are technically competent, he doubts that they will be as successful if they were to manage another protected area. “If we pull out the staff and put them in another area, we won’t be as effective,” he says.

The bigger reason for that is that, like their boss, all 14 staff members of Mirasol’s office are natives of Bukidnon. “This is where we all studied, where we work, where we settled down,” he notes.

The whole staff feels proud when it comes to protecting Mt. Kitanglad, and looks at it as part of their legacy. “Even if we grow old,” he says, “(if we protect the mountain successfully) people will remember us.”

Governor Calingasan, for his part, believes it’s a legacy that is not limited to Bukidnon. Asked what the government will get by making the protection of Mt. Kitanglad a priority, he replies, “You will be able to help all of humanity, the whole world.”