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Sunday, 16 September 2012

Images of Besao

Photos taken in Besao, Mountain Province, Philippines May 2012.
Accessed through Sagada or Tadian, my mother's hometown of Besao used to be a part of the municipality of Bangnen. Bangnen is now in Bauko, and Besao has grown to 14 main barangays. Characterised by steep to very steep mountain slopes, Besao has altitudes ranging from 400 meters to over 2300 meters on Mt Kaming-mingel. Most of the mountains are over 1000 meters above the sea. Pine and mossy forests, croplands and grasslands dominate the landscape.
Like most of the Cordillera, Besao is classified as ‘forest reserve’. A whopping 85% of its land area is supposedly forest lands, timberlands or unclassified forest. In the land that’s kate-kategna’d you-ease, they say “go tell that to the marines”.
Indeed the rugged Cordillera ranges consist primarily of old growth pine forests. The natural vegetation blankets the home of the free, the mountain land of the brave Igorots. The pundag (grasslands) and batangan (wooded plantation forests) are merely part of the improvements that intersperse with the payeo (ricefields) and the ili (village). These form the domain of these hardy mountain peoples. What their anitos put together, no solon can put asunder.
There are also the ‘untouched’ natural features of ancestral domain: the watersheds, pagpag (mossy forests and jungles), high mountains, hunting grounds, sacred places burial grounds and others. To the untrained eye these wilds would indeed appear to be in their uninhabited natural state. That is so due to intelligent planning and even wiser stewardship by the indigenous communities. It is a ‘brave’ or ill-advised politician or bureaucrat or whoever dares to suggest that these are ‘forest or timber reserves’, by the book or by cook, by hook or by crook. Colonisers have attempted in vain to invade these impervious mountain fastnesses and to conquer the impetuous Ibilig. Through the might of imperial armies, the cross, or sweet words legislated, these have all been tried and tested, and defeated. You’d think they’d learn. But again the uninitiated, the ignorant, the greedy exploiter will keep on coming back.
In the interest of harmony, government must put uncertainty to rest, and head off potential future conflicts over land. Those responsible for issuing paper titles now have the impetus to pay overdue recognition of native title rights.
There are however tenurial and territorial issues, destructive distractions that may be the undoing of the united front against wholesale dispossession. There’s no spoils to divide when we are conquered by infighting and disunity.
When we divide and conquer ourselves, it's the eve of distraction. We'll have been duped to destruction. Besao is under siege with multiple territorial claims being staked within its ancestral domains. A huge chunk of its western area, more than one-third of Besao, is located within the political boundaries of Quirino in Ilocos Sur. Similarly, in the north the municipality of Tubo in Abra, is laying claim to the watershed and mossy forest that has been traditionally a part of Besao. Sagada is claiming portions of some sitios in the eastern part, while Tadian is claiming the communal forest in the southwestern part of Besao. It does not help that municipal boundaries are drawn along arbitrary lines, but municipal and provincial boundaries should not and do not matter. Demang may be in Sadanga, or Guina-ang in Kalinga, even Abatan in Bauko, Buguias, Bohol or Ninsabatanta, the people there know their ancestral entitlements and the extent of their domain. Many politicians have little concept of ancestral domain and regularly redraw boundaries to chase votes, even to inscribe their profile on a map. In recent times, the boundaries of the Cordillera, her provinces and towns have been delineated willy-nilly. It is now too messy to knot out, especially when ancestral domain claims are involved. So forget political boundaries and protect and defend your ancestral homeland. Mainit extends well into Abra and parts of Kalinga and Sadanga, but this fact is not seen as an issue – at least I should hope not. And they know their side of Kaming-minger.
The two vital resources of water and timber go hand-in-hand, and when these start to get scarce, there may be some problems. The conflict with Sagada is mainly due to watershed rights while the conflict with Tadian is because of the rich timber resources of the pine forests. Water and timber are the two conflict fronts which could bring unrest and discord to neighboring communities. To preserve our watersheds and timberlands, perhaps we should go back to basics.
Our forebears have worked out the correct ecological balance between hearth and forest, and between fields and the rest, the no-go zones that are for the weeds and sticks and the shrubs and the cogon and the woodlands vinelands jungles etc. The pagpag, the pine forests and other vegetation are the source of water. Pines do not cause springs and natural water outlets to dry up. It is a bit silly to say that pine trees near rice fields block out the sun and drop pine needles and should therefore be cut down. Please educate those who may not know. The fields should not encroach further into the forests. There is only a finite amount of acreage that may share in a water source. The same holds for pundag or grasslands. There is similarly only so much that can be sustained for cattle grazing. Again it’s frivolous to say that pine needles hinder the growth of grass and therefore should be burned off or the pine trees felled. It is bad enough burning off whole mountains every year for grass to grow. Fires are good for regeneration, but at the feasible interval of some number of years that sustains the local ecology. The effects of annual burning in parts of Tinglayan, Sadanga and Bontoc, are there for all to lay eye on, wonder and talk. Pu-u or forest fires are the bane of the mountains. Backburning or controlled burning should be considered, and implemented sensibly, because frequent burning will end up destroying the topsoil.
The blanket ban on the transportation of lumber may need to be looked at to take into consideration the rights of batangan owners to their trees. The logging of timber for family use should be regulated through permits and monitored by approved plans. However rampant logging in communal forests should be contained, and the wanton, ill-disciplined and illegal logging should be stopped altogether.

The lack of water means decreased agricultural production, and rice crop production in Besao has been decreasing. Sometimes fields are abandoned during prolonged dry seasons. In periods of drought, rice paddies, pasture areas, small creeks and springs dry up. A danger to watersheds is the unregulated use of toxic chemicals in farming. Minimise if not cease this practice. It may result in good harvest for the one season, but in the years ahead will ultimately render the fields infertile. Adding chemical fertilizers causes acidification and mineral depletion of the soil, and will result in wasteland. Replenish the topsoil the best way we know, use lubok and tunek. Similarly with pests such as snails, worms or even birds and vermin. Stick with traditional methods or non-chemical use. Sometimes we have to take the bad with the good, the lean with the beautiful er bountiful. Harvests are never always good.

Chemicals also lay watercourses to waste. The rivers and streams are the lifeblood of communities from the mountains to the sea. Do not poison them. Chemical pollution results in oxygen depletion causing fish to die. Nitogen fertilizers are water soluble and stay in groundwater for decades. So there is great risk of contaminating the mountain spring fed waterholes, source of potable water. Toxic chemicals get absorbed into plants and enter the food chain through our rice, camote, corn, fruits and vegetables. Due to the widespread use of chemicals along the mountain trail, my father stopped buying vegetables there since decades ago.
A sustainable forest and watershed will keep providing its bounty, for as long as we do our part. It is not about us anymore as about the future generations. If we wreck the wild environment, will they have wildlife to see let alone hunt? Heck, if we wreck, will they even have a home?
Past the mountaintop off Lake Danum, the road starts descending into Besao.
I have kin away in Kin-iway, the first village one comes to. Thanks for the welcome.

On the morning I woke up in Kin-iway in central Besao, the waning moon greeted me before the warming sun arose.
Besao is like most towns of the Philippines, there are tricycles there, and sari-sari stores.
Except everything in Besao is sloping.
The town hall sits on rare flat ground.

(Photos below taken on the four-kilometer section of road from Kin-iway to Banguitan.)
But usually the ground is inclined, indeed inclined to either rise or fall.

 Even the lanes on a two-lane road are on different planes. 
That's the Banguitan road, ascending on the right.

The level living fields of Besao rice terraces.
Cordillera rice terraces are the only natural attraction in the world. 
They’re handcrafted, by Igorot hands, naturally.


Water flowing or falling down a gully is nature’s work too.

 It’s also quite natural to build houses right on top of each other, on the overlook.



The mountains, source of life. My great-grandfather, originally from Bangnen, crossed that green mountain to Kaagitan and settled in Besao. Kaagitan is now called Banguitan (Bangnen + Kaaguitan).

These images that I first saw as a child, imprinted and in print so fine, are etched in my mind.


My mind's tricking me, but I think I was here recently.
In Besao, all roads lead to home.



The Earth provides enough to satisfy everyone's need but not everyone's greedGandhi.

Knowledge comes but wisdom lingers. Tennyson.