One of the few remaining rainforests in the Philippines can be found in Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park (MKRNP).
This protected area in Bukidnon province in northern Mindanao is home to some of rarest plant and animal wildlife, including the critically endangered Philippine Eagle, the country’s national bird.
Declared as a Protected Area through Republic Act 8978 in 2000, MKRNP was also declared as an Asean Heritage Park (AHP) in 2009, the 28th area set aside for conservation to earn the title.
With a total land area of 47,270 hectares, the MKRNP is shared by eight municipalities in Bukidnon.
‘Cream of the crop’
Being an AHP, MKRNP is considered the cream of the crop among protected areas not only in the Philippines but also in Southeast Asia.
Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) Executive Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim describes MKRNP as “one of the last bastions of the Philippines’s unique biodiversity and natural heritage.”
“It hosts rare and endemic wildlife, including the Philippine Eagle. It is home to 168 bird species, 131 butterflies, and 63 mammals, 17 of which are endemic,” Lim, a former Department of Environment And Natural Resources-Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) director told the BusinessMirror via Messenger on September 22.
Essential to communities
According to Lim, MKRNP is also essential to the lives of the communities. It serves as a watershed that provides water for irrigation, power generation and domestic use for Bukidnon, as well as the province of Misamis Oriental. It is the catchment area of the Cagayan, Tagoloan and Pulangi river system.
“Before the pandemic, the park has vibrant tourism activities with its evergreen and montane forests, grasslands, wetlands and caves, drawing in hikers, campers and bird watchers,” she said.
One can find wealth in indigenous knowledge in Mt. Kitanglad as it is the ancestral domain of the Talaandig, Higaonon and Bukidnon ethnolinguistic groups, Lim added.
The biodiversity expert said being part of the roster of AHPs, Mt. Kitanglad has been receiving various kinds of support from ACB through its AHP Programme.
The AHPs have access to regional assistance for capacity development, equipment, management planning and law enforcement.
The ACB has been supporting Mt. Kitanglad, along with two other AHPs in Region 10—Mt. Malindang Range Natural Park, and Mts. Timpoong Hibok-hibok Natural Monument—through a project that helps develop and improve the parks’ web sites and online booking systems.
“This project is part of the ACB’s bid to boost ecotourism in the AHPs and raise public awareness. And ensure that as we recover from the pandemic, we have this natural richness that we can turn to for healing and resilience,” she said.
The MKRNP provides various ecosystem services that range from water for domestic, agricultural, industrial and commercial use. Water flowing from the MKRNP is also used for power generation.
The benefits of these ecosystem services are being enjoyed by around 100,000 households living around the MKRNP, including those in neighboring towns and cities of Bukidnon like Cagayan de Oro City.
More prominently, the bounty of MKRNP are shared by the major indigenous tribes of the Talaandig, Higaonon and Bukidnon.
According to the DENR, Mount Kitanglad hosts over 600 rare and endemic species.
Besides the Philippine Eagle, the Philippine Tarsier is known to inhabit the AHP.
MKRNP is also home to Rafflesia, the second largest flower in the world.
Like other protected areas, MKRNP is threatened by various destructive human activities. Slash-and-burn farming, unsustainable charcoal production, illegal tree cutting and forest fires are among the serious threats affecting the natural park.
According to the DENR, about 1,100 hectares of Mt. Kitanglad’s forest have been degrading annually based on 2003 to 2010 data.
The degradation is particularly evident in the headwaters of Mt. Kitanglad watersheds that drain into the Cagayan de Oro River basin, which drains into the Macajalar Bay in Cagayan de Oro City in Misamis Oriental.
The intrusion of migrants and timber poachers are some of the biggest or more serious threats that are being observed within the MKRNP
As such, MKRNP Protected Area Superintendent (PASu) Daniel F. Somera said education campaigns in the community and monitoring are being conducted to eradicate illegal activities.
“If the situation warrants, the filing of formal complaints in court is also religiously undertaken against those who are caught doing such [illegal] activities, thereby, sending a strong signal to the public not to indulge in illegal activities,” he said.
To help protect and conserve MKRNP, the government has forged ties with the Kitanglad Guard Volunteers (KGV), the Forest Foundation Philippines and Holcim Philippines Inc.
The partnership aims to plant more than 300 hectares of coffee, abaca and bamboo as a sustainable agroforestry system to protect the AHP.
Somera said that with the limited manpower, the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) has successfully tapped the cooperation of the upland communities to spearhead the community-based park protection in the area.
“The strong partnership of the DENR with our local volunteers, the KGVs, is very essential in executing our protection work,” he pointed out.
More than 400 volunteers from KGV now serve as contractors of the DENR’s National Greening Program.
Somera said KGV started its humble beginnings with only more than a dozen members in 1995.
“The number rose to more than 400 volunteers who proved their worth in the significant decline of man-made disturbances within the park. Their park protection is also being reciprocated as they are given top priority in the provision of livelihood assistance,” Somera said.
Through the National Greening Program, the DENR hopes to develop an area of 50 hectares to plant bamboo for creek/riverbank rehabilitation and buffer zone-line enhancement to make it more visible to the public, while maintaining other NGP sites planted in the previous years.
Besides being the DENR’s partner in greening Mt. Kitanglad Range, the KGV are also helping protect the entire MKRNP.
Emiliano Lumiston, a KGV, said as part of their duty, they are on call, especially when there’s a report of illegal activities in the area.
“We protect the forest. As part of our duties and responsibilities, we also apprehend those involved in illegal activities,” Lumiston, who has been a KGV since 2000, told the BusinessMirror in Filipino.
“Since our number increased, illegal activities have stopped,” he boasted.
As part of the park’s income-generating programs, the MKRNP PAMB, through his office, has continuously facilitated the entry of visitors to the park following the strict Covid-19 protocols, Somera said told the BusinessMirror via e-mail on September 16.
“Given this pandemic, the visitors allowed entry to the park are exclusively the residents in the province of Bukidnon to prevent the possible spread of this dreaded disease,” he said.
With the aim of further promoting the park as a potential ecotourism destination, various eco-tourism amenities and infrastructures have been constructed and maintained to ensure better services to the visiting public, he said.
According to Somera, the dormitory-type building within Cinchona Forest Reserve in Kaatuan, Lantapan, Bukidnon, is among the infrastructures that is more than halfway of completion.
“Among other existing infrastructures [others in progress of construction], these amenities are expected to give additional rapport and recognition of the park that promotes regulated ecotourism activities in tandem with partner local government units,” he said.
Wellspring of living tradition
Given its unique and outstanding features, the PAMB, through the PASu, has also applied for the park’s inscription to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) World Heritage site under the Landscape and Culture category.
However, considering the current public-health crisis, other activities, including the site validation by the Unesco team is still held in abeyance.
According to Somera, MKRNP is not only a biodiversity important area with a unique landscape and processes. It is also a wellspring of living tradition by the IP communities.
“The range has more than a dozen peaks with Mts. Dulangdulang and Kitanglad as the second and fourth highest peaks in the country. Besides its undulating landscape, the range has several precipices, especially in areas where creeks and rivers originate, making it the headwater of three major river systems in Mindanao,” he said.
Images courtesy of Growth Publishing/DENR and Melody