ROMEO AQUINO GAZED OUT over a Philippine mountainside that has gone, in his lifetime, from dense forest to denuded grassland. He listed the wild pigs, birds and trees that populated the lush jungle that once covered these rolling foothills, 60 kilometres north of Manila. Now that forest is gone, replaced by shacks with red-tin roofs and cement foundations—illegal structures built in the early 2000s. A bushfire rose from down the ridge, and the pungent smoke of grass, trash and wood wafted towards us.
The ridge marks the southwestern edge of the Sierra Madre mountain range, a thick spine of forests that runs through Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. It is home to some of Asia's most diverse—and most threatened—jungles; scientists have identified more than 70 species of threatened wildlife in the area.
Aquino, 56, is the tribal chieftain of the Dumagat, an indigenous group that has called these mountain forests home from "time immemorial", in the words of the Philippine government. Wearing a baseball cap over his wide, quiet face, he mashed a wad of betel nut in his mouth, momentarily blackening his teeth. "Our elders used to hunt and gather here on this hillside," he said. "This is how the Dumagats made their living," Aquino continued, looking down at the hillside. "But now it is broken."
In 2004, after a decades-long fight, this small community of 240 families in Bulacan Province was granted official recognition and title to the area. The 1,817 hectares in front of our eyes—the hillside below and the valley stretching to the horizon—were, at least legally, Dumagat land. But despite a coordinated effort by government agencies, NGOs and the Dumagats themselves, deforestation has continued.
The struggle of the Dumagats to protect their forest home exemplifies the challenges facing the ongoing global effort to slow the pace of deforestation. According to latest United Nations data, 1.6 billion people depend directly on forests for their livelihoods; many, like the Dumagats, are indigenous groups and poor communities on the margins of society.
Scientists estimate that deforestation—which destroys some 1 million hectares of forest in Southeast Asia each year—also accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse emissions. As a result, the fate of local communities like the Dumagats, fighting to preserve forests, has emerged as a key front in the struggle against climate change. The UN has designated 2011 the 'International Year of the Forests', and representatives from 147 nations, who attended the UN Forum on Forests in New York this February, pledged a "people-centric" approach to forest preservation, with an emphasis on poverty reduction.
"There were many wars, but we always came back," Fidel San Jose, a Dumagat elder, told me as he sat at the edge of the village leading to the forest. Nearby, a few of his grandchildren played with the shell of a tricycle under a tree.
First the Dumagats were displaced by the Spanish, and then the Japanese, said San Jose. Then foreign banks moved in and housing projects sprung up. In 1995, the Philippine government officially adopted a programme called Community-Based Forest Management (CBFM) in order to give local residents a greater role in decisions—but by that time, less than three percent of old-growth forests in the Philippines remained. In the same year, the government hosted the first regional conference on climate change, and the resulting "Manila Declaration" included a specific call for forest protection as a means to slow global warming. In 1997, the Philippine government passed the Indigenous 'Peoples' Rights Act, creating the legal path for groups like the Dumagat to reclaim their ancestral forest land.
Protecting that legal title, however, has not been simple. "Our concern now is that the other residents are not respecting our rights to the land," San Jose said, noting that a seven-year-old plan to build five checkpoints along the border of the Dumagat land has produced only one.
Beside him, Martin Francisco, a Filipino priest who has been working with the Dumagats since 1996, snapped pictures with a long telephoto lens. He carries the camera to document the rampant illegal logging in the area, posting pictures of a scarred landscape on Facebook and submitting them to government agencies. Tall, bald and rail-thin, he sometimes enters the forest wearing a wig to document the work of heavily armed logging syndicates.
Efforts to protect remote forest land have become increasingly dangerous in the Philippines. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has said that 50 government workers, many of them foresters, have been killed since 1990. At least two foresters were killed in 2010 after seizing illegally cut logs. The Manila-based NGO Kalikasan has documented the killing of 37 environmental workers since 2001.
Francisco has been subjected to anonymous threats by phone almost daily, according to his office staff. Later, as we walked through the Dumagat forest, he stopped to take photos of a motorcycle loaded with sacks of charcoal and wood; the Dumagats said they didn't recognise the drivers, who lifted their chins in greeting as they passed by.
A day earlier, in a conference room at a hilltop resort overlooking Manila, I sat in on a meeting of the DENR. Fifteen staff members were reviewing more than 100 proposals for local forest management projects in order to allot 150 million pesos (`153.7 million) from the country's comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.
An argument broke out as the staff weighed the pros and cons of one of the projects. Some staff members grew frustrated when specific questions could not be answered. Suddenly, a seated woman with short hair and a collared blouse broke in.
"From now on we should have someone from the community presenting the project themselves and we should do the evaluation in the field," said Isabelita Austria, the current national head of the Philippines' community-based forestry programme. "Next year," she said, "we will have presentations taking place in the field. But right now, this is the process we have in place. We cannot change that today."
Austria was appointed to head the programme last year; she has worked in community forestry since 1979, much of that time in the Nueva Vizcaya province, which includes the Sierra Madre mountain forests.
During a break in the meeting, I told her about the Dumagats and their struggle with basic protection of the forest, even within some of the government-managed land.
Austria sighed. "People do live inside, even in CBFM land," she acknowledged. But she pointed to government figures that show a slight increase in forest land—to 7.2 million hectares—as evidence that the forestry programme is, at least overall, working. (About five million hectares is under community management.) "The fact that there is a slight increase in forest cover says that it [CBFM] contributed to the improvement of some of the areas, in terms of addressing degradation or improving the quality of the areas where these communities are."
Dumagat elders said they had benefited from a reforestation programme on their land in which the government provided seedlings and ongoing care, but they also described a recent government-run attempt to grow rambutan fruit trees as a failure. After two years, they estimated that 70 percent of the crop had died due to neglect and poor management.
"It's been a mixed result," said Antonio La Viña, who as undersecretary for the DENR in the mid-1990s, was part of the early effort to implement the new forest policy. "What we've learned is it's not enough to just recognise rights—you have to provide economic incentives."
La Viña believes carbon trading—which would allow poor communities to collect funds for protecting carbon-rich forests—could provide one kind of economic incentive. But such programmes require international monitoring, computer models and intensive forest management—capacities that are well beyond the reach of rural communities like the Dumagat, who are still struggling over basic issues like keeping settlers and illegal loggers out of their forests.
Back in Bulacan, I stood with Aquino, the tribal leader, at the single checkpoint on the edge of the Dumagat land. A lone bamboo pole stretched across the road, while two young men sat inside a hut—volunteers keeping an eye on the gate.
To Aquino's left, two wooden posts held up a giant banner. It was a copy of the certificate of ancestral domain, signed by local officials and tribal leaders in 2004.
"It can be dangerous here because we are far from the town," said Aquino. "It's a sacrifice for us. There's no payment, no allowance, no funds and we're here 24 hours." Then he pointed to the certificate behind him. "But this is our checkpoint and we're here to protect our land."