First steps to save second Philippine mountain

Posted: 23 February 2006

In January, we published a petition from the people living in the shadow of Mt Mayapay in the Butuan region of the Philippines appealing for action to reforest their mountain before it turned into a fatal mudslide.That was before the collapse last Friday of the Guinsaugon mountain in Southern Leyte, in central Philippines, killing at least 1700 people. Here our correspondent in Butuan, Vincente C. de Jesus, brings the story up to date.

Five days after the petition was launched, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources sought to meet with the Butuan Global Forum of citizen groups, in an effort to see that a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA)over the mountain, which had been languishing in the office of the Secretary for over four months, could be signed.

Mt Mayapay
Mt Mayapay seen from the city.
Mt Mayapay seen from the city.
The Memorandum compels the Parks and Wildlife Bureau to assess the suitability of Mt Mayapay as a protected area, and is one of eight steps which will trigger a declaration by President Gloria Arroya that the mountain is to be a protected area. This would then be followed by the necessary law, regulations and funding to bring it about.

However, the activists are not jumping for joy yet, since such MOA's are rarely more than pieces of paper which are left to lie undisturbed.

Citizens petition

Since most of the people of Butuan City are not connected to the Internet, the Forum is also trying to get as many as possible to sign a similar petition, since in the end it is the people who will do most of the reforestation work, together with various levels of government. It is also the people who must pressure local government to act.

The reality is that there are powerful individuals and officials who own land in the mountains and are eyeing it for mass housing projects, where there is big money to be made. The military also owns a sizeable area at the top of Mt Mayapay and has spurned efforts to reforest the bald summit.

When the local Forum met military officials last year it was they, not the civilians, who opposed declaring the mountain a protected area, for undisclosed 'strategic reasons'.

Erosion
Erosion map of Mayapay region
Erosion map of Mayapay region
Meanwhile, Dr. Ricarte S. Javelosa, an eminent geomorphologist who led the team that studied the geomorphology and archaeology of the Masao-Butuan Plain, has warned that "the question of Mt. Mayapay collapsing through a landslide or avalanche triggered by tectonic activity is not a question of IF but WHEN, especially in its present denuded state."

Action plan

In an interview with him this week Dr Javelosa explained that the region of Butuan, around Mt Mayapan, is "the result of massive landslides of Mt. Mayapay through the ages due to tectonic activities."

Butuan City iself is a "terminal" of soils coming from Mt. Mayapay, through avalanche and erosion, and the Agusan River, through flood depositories, he said.

The mountain had a greater probability of landslide if exposed to the same severe rainfall as Guinsaogon, he added. In other words, if bombarded with such rainfall, Mt. Mayapay's soil would have collapsed even earlier than Guinsaogon.

Javelosa
Dr Javelosa with photo of Mt Mayapay.
Dr Javelosa with photo of Mt Mayapay.
Asked what should be done, Dr Javelosa said the people of Butuan must prepare for the eventuality of a mudslide with urgency, borne of the knowledge thatqt the disaster is a certainty, and made more likely as long as it is deforested. It may occur at anytime within our lifetime, or tomorrow, or many years from now.

Self reliance

He said the City Government, and the people, must come up with a Disaster Prevention Plan that involves among other things, the reforestation of the area, the putting up of telemetric telescopes that can detect/measure sudden earth movements, and rainfall gauges that will serve as guideposts for action, so that people living on the mountain and its foothills are warned to prepare for evacuation.

The City should also add a Geo-Hazard Tax which should be set aside as a trust fund to be used for disaster prevention and preparedness. The City should be self-reliant, be able to stand on its own and "not be a mendicant who has to live on others' charity".

Barangays [communities] at the foothills of Mt. Mayapay should be organised so that evacuation drills are regularly done, rescue teams formed, evacuation centres designated, emergency medical protocols are established.

Dr. Javelosa has volunteered to draw up an immediate Disaster Prevention Plan that Butuanons and concerned persons worldwide can discuss. Perhaps, a city-wide conference on this Plan can be held for July during the celebration of Disaster Prevention Week.

Hopefully the disaster in South Leyte will now prod government and people to act on such a plan and ensure that the mountain is reforested to avoid a similar catastrophe. However, this is one of a series of environmental catastrophes which have befallen the country. After the initial hue and cry for action to protect and conserve our environment, inertia and inaction normally sets in.

Vincente C.de Jesus is a former speech writer for the Philippine Executive Secretary, Rafael Salas, who went on to become Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, and was first Administrator of the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA). Vincente is now a Moderator of the Butuan citizens listserv,

Related link:

To add you name to the Mayapay petition see 'Save our mountain' plea in the Philippines