Saturday, February 2, 2008

Gideon's Mt. Tipolog

Gideon. Obo-bagobo. His frame rippling with muscles. I can tell even through his loose T-shirt. He smiles easily and answers all my questions. Nice guy. But short. He only reaches up to my chin. Is his wife smaller, I wonder? Gideon walks up the trail in front of me, his legs like tree trunks. He is walking barefoot. Where are his shoes? Don't his feet hurt? They are really big. Maybe he doesn't own shoes? Nevermind. I look at my own three-day old Merrel shoes that cost me 3,000 pesos. Bought them just for this climb up Mt. Tipolog located in Barangay Tawantawan, Baguio District, Davao City. Gideon's bare feet versus my well-heeled feet. I'm embarrassed. Then again, I reassure myself that he's a man of the mountains and I'm a woman of the paved roads who's just passing through.

We arrive at Gideon's house that is nestled on a plateau a few hundred meters above Panigan river, and directly below the peak of Mt. Tipolog. My buddy, Ian, and I spot a cottage with a roof of climbing ivy and under it a table and benches where we happily spread our camera equipment and stretch our tired legs. A couple of feet away, Gideon's wife is pedaling on a contraption that removes the husks from the coffee beans that she has laid out to dry in front of their house. I remove the plastic containers with our packed lunch of red rice, chicken adobo and fresh pipino and kamatis, and call everyone to eat. A little girl of about three years old shyly approaches and I hand her a plateful of food. It's Gideon's daughter.

Me: Where are your other children? He: I only have one. Me: Why? He: Because I'm already 42. Soon, I won't have enough strength left to farm and raise more kids. Me: I see. I notice Gideon's wife is taller than him.

We finish lunch delighting in the cool breeze that's so hard to find in the concrete desert of downtown Davao City. I offer everyone Cloud 9 chocolates for dessert. Then Gideon tours us around his farm. He grows bananas, coconuts, cacao, coffee, madre de cacao, flamengia, and plants out of which he makes soft brooms.

Me: Why don't you grow bananas only? Why not work in the pineapple plantations like your neighbors? He: Monocropping's very risky. It's better to plant many things because that way, I have something to sell every month. My friends who work in the plantations have huge debts. Me: How come? He: I don't know why exactly. Probably because they borrowed money from the companies because their salary's not enough. Me: So where do you buy your seedlings? He: I grow them myself.

It has stopped drizzling and the clouds have cleared. We decide to climb further to where we can get a good shot of the pineapple plantations below. I grab my cap, my camera and a bottle of mineral water. The video cam's with Ian. When Gideon puts on his boots, I notice there are cracks in them. He motions me to take the lead followed by Ian who, between heavy panting, tells me he misses his computer already. I tease him, "Faster Yan! Don't walk up the mountain! Climb!" The poor dear is sweating like crazy, his face transformed into a waterfall. His T-shirt is so wet, it is drip dropping every step of the way.

We finally reach the top and Ian and I temporarily forget Gideon as we discuss how to take the best shots. There are pineapples as far as our eyes can see. In the surrounding mountains, only the peaks still have forest covers. I count 15 landslides. Gideon blames them on farmers who cut trees and replace them with cash crops whose roots are not big and strong enough to hold the soil together. He says that's his big realization: "We need trees!"

I remove from my pocket a study by Interface Development Interventions (IDIS) and read that logging operations in the area started as early as the 1950s. Among the first two to operate were North Sam and the Alcantara-owned Kalinan Timber Corporation (KTC). The KTC – one of the biggest logging concessionaires in Mindanao – operated in Mt. Tipolog until it was virtually denuded in the 1970s. The mountain's so-called "virgin forest" lasted only up to 1974 due to large-scale logging operations. During this period, there was no reforestation program to speak of – either by the logging companies or by the government.

The second wave of logging operations in the area took place in the 1980s. The new logging operations by the Menggotes and Navarros did not just cut trees but also harvested what was left of the denuded forest – rattan, bamboo, abaca, fruits, etc. The stripped areas left by the logging operators were then taken over by the locals – the Lumads and the Visayan settlers.

I further read on that in 1972, the Bureau of Forestry allowed the local folks to practice kaingin (swidden farming or "slash-and-burn") as long as they would cultivate the area they burned. During this period, the planting and cultivating of new crops, like cacao and banana, began. When the price of coffee shot up to Php 20 per kilo in 1978, people began rushing up the mountain to plant more coffee.

I leaf through the study to the part about the pineapple and banana plantations currently dotting the landscape: In the early 1980s, the Davao Agricultural Ventures Corporation (DAVCO) started to operate its pineapple/banana plantations in Baguio District located some 300 to 1000 meters above sea level. Since 1995, DAVCO has started to expand up to the Tawan-tawan poblacion. In 2000, Dole, a banana-growing company, also began operating in Tawan-tawan.

It is said that the higher the altitude of a place, the sweeter the fruits. With the increasing demand nowadays for sweeter bananas abroad, the back side of Mt. Tipolog has been reportedly constantly eyed by plantations as a possible area for expansion. After all, the area does not only have a high altitude – which can guarantee the sweetness of bananas – but also a fertile soil spewed by the "lost volcano" which was Tipolog years ago.

I look up from the paper and gaze down at the big parcels of land that used to be planted with coffee and banana and that now have been transformed into a pineapple Disneyland. I still remember the day when I, Bayani, Jae and Elma, friends from UP Los BaƱos, almost drowned in the vast sea of pineapples. We were on our way home from water tubing down Sibulan river, visiting the Philippine eagles, and our parents' farm in Maligatong, Tawantawan. Bayani and I wanted to take a short cut through the pineapple fields to give Jae and Elma a close up look at the fruits that have been wreaking havoc on the soil and causing erosion everywhere. To make a long story short, we got hopelessly lost. That's how huge the plantations are.

What I find particularly hard to understand is that these parcels of land owned by poor farmers are rented by the companies for about Php 12,000 to Php 15,000 a hectare every year. That's a measly one thousand pesos a month! How many pineapples and bananas can be planted in one hectare? Certainly much more than one thousand pesos? They must be. Abroad a bunch of bananas costs much, much more than what a Filipino farmer earns growing it.

One of the ongoing controversies in Davao City is that the plantations are located close to the water resources, namely Panigan river that runs through Tawantawan and Carmen, Tamugan river in Tambobong, and Talomo river in Tamayong. What is alarming is that these rivers, identified by the Davao City Water District (DCWD) as future sources of drinking water of Davao City, are located near plantations that spray all sorts of chemicals against pest infestation.

Right now Davao City pumps its drinking water from underground. But because of the growing population, studies by the Asia Geodyne and Japan International Cooperation (JICA) show that in 2013, Davao City will start to experience water shortage. By 2017, the estimated deficit will be 70 million liters per day. The JICA study even predicts that by 2025, a deficit of 45% of the demand will be experienced by Davao City. When that happens, we will have to start using the surface water of Panigan river, Tamugan river, and Talomo river. But tell me, what use will we have of rivers which will undoubtedly be undrinkable soon because of the chemicals from the plantations and soil erosion due to the absence of soil conservation measures. Water contamination has already happened in other places (here and abroad) that are surrounded by plantations, and other such environmentally degrading industries.

To help understand the gravity of our situation, take a look at the Netherlands, that tiny country in Europe which everybody knows, has one of the best drinking water in the world. But why is this possible after decades of pesticide-use in the tulip fields has made the chemicals seep through the soil and into the water? Simple. The Netherlands is rich. Every year, the country spends billions of euros on purifying its water.

We, Davaoenos, take great pride in the fact that our city has the best drinking water in the Philippines and the second best drinking water in Asia. But just think: If our city's drinking water sources get contaminated, where will we get the billions of pesos to purify our water? I guess we will just have to resort to buying expensive bottled water just like they are already doing in some parts of Lanang. Not to mention Panabo City and Tagum City. Or Metro Manila and Cebu City.

It is reassuring to know, however, that every month, community-based water monitoring teams have been organized to check our rivers' water quality. These teams are composed of local barangay officials and residents who take pains to measure the phosphate content, nitrogen content, water temperature, acidity, color, dissolved oxygen, and streamflow discharge. So far, the results show that the water is still drinkable.

This, however, is does not mean much if we take into consideration that the monitoring teams do no check all indicators of potability like coliform count. The results simply mean that the rivers can still pass for Public Water Supply Class I and Class II. That is, the rivers can be tapped for drinking but require disinfection or treatment first.

What I find alarming is that within a one year monitoring project, five kinds of pesticide residues were detected in the sampling station in Panigan River, Carmen. It is not quite clear to me how much more chemicals the monitoring teams should find in the water before somebody will officially declare the water toxic. And what will happen then? Will the city government make an ordinance requiring all plantations to go organic and relocate to areas far, far away from the City's water resources?

The good news is that after more than 17 months since the start of the Stop the Toxic Shower Campaign, Davao City won a court case against the Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA) to ban aerial spraying in plantations in the city. This is undoubtedly an immensely huge step in proactively preventing the contamination of our water resources. The bad news is that the struggle's not yet over. PBGEA has filed for a reconsideration at the Court of Appeals in Cagayan de Oro City. PBGEA claims that stopping aerial spraying will severely hurt their revenues, making it impossible for them to cost-efficiently continue producing bananas.

I beg to disagree. To illustrate what I mean, I would like to use the Oscar winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," as an example. In it, former US president, Al Gore shows scales balancing gold bars on one side, and on the other side, the entire planet. Having to decide between the two is, he says, a false choice for two reasons. "If we don't have a planet…" At this point, Al Gore just looks at the picture of the earth on the scales. Then he continues, "The other reason is that if we do the right thing then we are going to create a lot of wealth and we're going to create a lot of jobs. Because doing
the right thing moves us forward." My point exactly. Why do we have to choose between the economy and the environment when there are so many ways to still profit economically through environmentally friendly ways of crop cultivation?

With expanding markets for bananas, and now China opening up, it is inconceivable that banning aerial spraying will cause the collapse of the multinational plantations. In fact, they could probably easily double all the salaries of all the work force in all the plantations and still profit. The multinational plantations claim that if they do not spray chemicals with their airplanes, they are going to lose a lot of money. In reality, I suspect that the ban will not even make a dent. This has been hard to prove though because the companies do not show their financial statements and open their bookkeeping to public scrutiny. And quite understandably so because of their huge profits that will probably blow us all away.

A case in point is the Floirendo-owned Tagum Development Corporation or Tadeco. It is one of the country's biggest banana exporters with more than 9,000 workers, and is reportedly producing 55 million boxes of bananas each year, and earning as much as Php 80.08 billion annually! (source: Bulatlat, 2006)

Beside me, Gideon is still pensively looking at the vast green carpet of pineapples and bananas that is spread out around Mt. Tipolog like some sort of garden of Eden. The sweetest fruits getting the best water in the whole country. But until when will the water last? As long as our water resources remain uncontaminated. As soon as we ban aerial spraying for good.


Keith said...

Thank you for a wonderful, inspirational share. I am living in California right now. Reading your blog is wonderful for me. I plan to read again from MayaFlaminda' Pen

Maya said...

thanks keith! appreciate it! ill check out your blog too. :P