By Anna Valmero
NORZAGARAY, BULACAN – For environmental advocate Fredd Ochavo, the Ipo Dam watershed is a symbol of hope that the Philippines can be green again despite years of rampant illegal logging and wildlife poaching.
Last weekend, a group of birders joined Ochavo on a trip to Ipo Dam and to see the rare grey-headed fish-eagle (Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus), slender-billed crow (Corvus enca) and tarictic hornbills (Penelopides manilla), among others.
“Nung nakita ko yung 50 tarictic hornbills, nabuhayan ako ng loob. Unang beses na nakakita ako ng ganun karaming hornbill sa tagal ng punta ko dito. Nasabi ko sa sarili ko may pag-asa pa ang Pilipinas. (When I saw 50 tarictic hornbills, I was encouraged. It was my first time to see so many birds. I said to myself that there is still hope for the Philippines),”says Ochavo, a member of the UP Mountaineers (UPM) and Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP).
Kuya Fredd, as he is aptly called by the kids in a small village here, visits the Ipo Dam watershed monthly and invites fellow mountaineers and birdwatchers to see the avian wildlife in the area. His other purpose there is to teach the kids and locals about the importance of environment conservation and reforestation.
Over a decade ago, informal settlers came to Ipo Dam and lived at the ancestral domains of the Dumagats by planting crops inside the watershed. These settlers cleared the fields by kaingin (slash-and-burn).
Others were catching local wildlife such as the green-feathered Philippine hanging parrot or colasisi (Loriculus philippensis) and sell them for P60 or barter the animals for two kilos of NFA rice.
Since then, patches of forest cover have been reduced to barren land or plantation of crops such as mango, banana and vegetables that do not grow naturally at the habitat, Ochavo says as he points to a huge area recently cleared by kaingin.
“Kaingin is an unsustainable practice as settlers need to clear huge tracks of land. It only allows one sustainable harvest and because this erodes the topsoil, informal settlers often use chemical fertilizers, which could pollute the water and harm the wildlife in the watershed,” says Ochavo.
He also notes the houses sprouting along the riverbanks pose danger to the river because the lack of sewerage system only mean that human waste go directly to the river.
Ipo Dam, which is located some seven kilometers downstream from Angat Dam, is managed by the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS).
Together with the Forest Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, MWSS issued a report in 2004 stating that 70 percent of the forests of Ipo Dam watershed is already denuded.
This report was cited by the UPM in its independent report on Ipo Dam watershed, concluding that reforestation efforts would be worthless without forest protection.
Ochavo’s group taught 40 children and adults about the consequences of destroying the forests and poaching of wildlife.
One of the settlers, Joey Dela Cruz, 38, who came from Pampanga, says the lack of jobs in the area forced him and other residents of the sitio to engage in kaingin and poach wildlife. In fact, there were nine colasisi birds under his mango tree that will be sold to interested buyers visiting the area.
“Hangga’t wala akong trabaho para suportahan yung pamilya ko, manghuhuli ako ng ibon. (As long as I do not have a job to support my family, I will have to catch birds),” says Dela Cruz, who also guards the trees planted by UPM in the area.
A 17-year-old participant in the lecture, who was carrying a bolo, molded a chainsaw instead of animals during one of the activities, which Ochavo interprets as the youth’s way of telling that he is fond of cutting trees and might be using one already.
This is where Ochavo sees his role as a catalyst of change: by starting with education to get the community involved about the fight for a greener Philippines.
When asked if he plans to report poachers in the area, Ochavo says authorities such as MWSS have to step up to make the settlers know that it is illegal to cut trees in a forest reserve such as Ipo Dam or to poach wildlife.
Converting people like Dela Cruz from not poaching will take a long time, says Ochavo. Presently, he visits the site monthly and pays Dela Cruz P150 for taking care of the trees planted by UPM.
“Education is the first step to make people understand environmental issues and how our actions have consequences in our future. I just hope more people will do their part, including the authorities, because we don’t need another Ondoy to remind us how badly we need to help save our forests here,” he says.
(Additional photos of the grey-headed fish eagle by Alain Pascua of the WBCP)
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