FOREST AND WATERSHED MANAGEMENT OF THE INDIGENOUS PEOPLE OF BAKUN, BENGUET, PHILIPPINES


(Introductory Note: The following is an excerpt from the Bakun Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan, 2004, which I edited. The narrative is in the first person, with the people speaking.)

For the indigenous person, there is no distinction between a forest and a watershed. All forests function as watersheds, and one’s use of the forest did not substantially alter the environment, or irrevocably damage it. The indigenous people of Bakun have maintained and managed the forests within the domain since time immemorial.

1. Belief Systems Associated With Forests

Forests are inhabited by spirits called “pinad–ing and tumongaw” which are both good and benevolent unless provoked or displeased. These spirits guard the forest, and wanton destruction of their forest home, or disturbance of their peace, results to various negative happenings to those responsible. Generally unseen, and therefore indescribable, these spirits may take on various forms when they do manifest themselves. There are certain persons in the villages who might be able to see and speak with these spirits, or to divine their messages and also to provide solutions to complications arising from their displeasement.

The Kankanaey-Bago identify quality trees in the forests, and valued as seed trees. Frequently, these trees are the homes of spirits. Some of them have springs or “ubbog” near their bases, springs that are valued for drinking by the forest-going villager. These are pines, ferns, narra, alumit, tewe and other valued species.

The springs or ubbog also have their spirits guarding them, and the indigenous person takes care not to dirty or pollute (though there were few pollutants in traditional society) the water. Since water is associated with life itself, it was considered grave abuse if springs are destroyed or dirtied.

Caves and some rocks are also considered homes of spirits (pinad – ing and tumongaw).
Generally, areas in the forests or otherwise which are considered homes of spirits are places where the people feel some sort of energy or power. The phenomenon is not unique to the Bakun indigenous people, as all indigenous people do believe that certain areas, plants or even animals are spirits themselves or the homes of spirits.

The Kankanaey-Bago valued the forests and the trees in the forest, and before felling trees in pristine forests, rituals such as “payag” are performed. This ritual ascertains whether the spirits of the forest and the tree itself allows the cutting, and a positive result of the payag is necessary before the tree is cut.

Uncalled for noise and pollutants being introduced within forests is prohibited because that would be displeasing the spirits and would result to death or calamity in the nearby villages.

2. Management Systems

While the indigenous person generally does not think of managing a thing that is ultimately beiger and more powerful than he is, such as the forest or nature itself, the indigenous people of Bakun “manage” the forests within their domain by ensuring the continuity and usefulness of the forests and resources in the forests.

a. Communal Ownership of the Forests

Many of the forests in our ancestral domain are communally owned and managed. That is, no single person or group, family or clan claims exclusive right to their use. Even so, every person has certain responsibilities to the forest, for it belongs to the entire community, or conversely, the community depends on the forests, either as a watershed, or the source of various resources that are used by the people.

Government, through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), has recognized some of these communal forests. The DENR delineated the perimeters of these forests, and prescribed allowed uses. As was the case before government or the DENR, the management is by the whole user community. Recently, as the barangay government has taken a more accepted role in our indigenous communities, they have taken the lead in the management of the communal forests that the DENR recognizes. Now, in these recognized communal forests, residents are only allowed to harvest trees and other forest products after they get permits from the barangay government, conformed to by the Philippine National Police (PNP) Station Officer, and the issuance of a permit by the DENR.

The communal forests that remain “unrecognized” are still being managed by the community, though, guarding against indiscriminate cutting of trees and other possible destructive acts.

b. The Muyong and its Uses

The “muyong” is a tree farming system by either a clan or a family. Certain areas of the domain are considered to be under the care of a clan or family, and they plant and maintain certain tree species in the muyong. The clan or family may harvest trees in the muyong. They are also expected to maintain it by replanting and to guard against forest fires.

The family or clan that manages the muyong understands that the muyong is not for their benefit alone, but rather it is part of a larger environment and thus contributes to the total well-being of the community and ecology in general.

Muyongs have been declared by owners for taxation purposes. The declaration is mainly to protect their rights to the tree farms, and there is some comfort to the owners who have declared their land, believing that government recognizes their ownership when they pay their taxes.

i. Watershed

The muyong is a tree farm, and having trees, it is part of the watershed system of the domain that retains rainwater and provides a continued supply to the river system in the domain, as well as to ultimately provide for domestic water.

ii. Fuel Source

The family or clan that owns the muyong is allowed to gather fuel from the muyong in several ways. The harvesting process is beneficial to the owners as well as to the forest itself. However, many households using low propane gas (LPG) as fuel, so that harvesting from the muyongs, and the beneficial effect of such harvesting, is minimized.

“Tadaw” is the practice whereby only the branches of the trees are gathered. It is the lower and bigger branches that are gathered, taking care not to take the entire canopy out, which might result to the death of the tree. It improves tree growth, similar to pruning. By taking out the lower branches, the tree is also encouraged to grow upwards, and the knots formed by branches on the wood are minimized, thereby making the timber straighter. With the removal of the bigger branches, the knots they form on the wood are minimized, so that if the tree were to be used for timber, it would be of better quality. Longer boards with fewer knots may be cut.

Deceased and deformed trees are weaned out and used as fuel. Deformed trees are those that do not grow in the desired way, which is upwards. These are weaned out and used as fuel for they interfere with the growth of nearby trees. Deceased trees, or those trees infested by certain pests, are taken out, for they are the source of pathogens or pests that might affect the other trees.

Trees that are uprooted or fall down due to weather or land movement are allowed to be harvested. If the tree is good for timber, boards may be cut from it. Otherwise, it is used as fuel. The Kankanaey-Bago however believes that trees struck by lightning should be left to rot and contribute to the fertility of the soil.

iii. Source of Timber and Other Building Materials

The muyong is also a source of timber, and the tree farms are actually maintained so that community members will not have to go to the pristine forests to get timber. Even the undergrowth in the muyongs has been useful in the construction of traditional houses. These include vines, grasses and shrubs, bamboos (several varieties), sticks (mostly hard stems of grasses) and rattan.

Rattan is not used solely for building, but also used in making many different baskets as well as used in tying things together.

Bamboo also has many uses, as basket weaving material, fencing, trellises and more.

iv. Medicine

The muyongs may also have some varieties of flora that are used by the Bakun people as medicine, or palliatives to some ailments.

v. Nutrition

We can also find in the muyongs various trees whose fruits are edible. There is also undergrowth, or even trees, whose parts are used by the people as food. The maintenance of the muyong therefore also contributes to the nutritional needs of the people. Mushrooms may also be harvested when in season.

vi. Grazing Areas

Cattle are also allowed to graze in the muyongs. Other livestock or poultry may also find things they can eat in the muyongs, specially if the muyong is close to residential areas.

vii. Animal and Bird Sanctuary

The muyong also adds to the natural forests a place where animals might take refuge in, or as part of their habitat.

c. Bebe-an

Bebe-an is the name given to community-owned and managed pine forests. Community members use it as a source of timber and fuel. They are found mostly on steep mountain slopes, and thereby the maintenance of the forest in these areas contributes to erosion control. Lately, with tax declarations being required by government, the community maintains the traditional use of the bebe-an by not allowing these areas to be declared. These are community owned and managed and not declared by any single resident from taxation.

d. Watershed or Tong-og

Areas that host springs or ubbog are specifically protected by the community to sustain community water sources, both for domestic use and farm irrigation.

e. Swidden Farming

As an upland technology, swidden farming (nem-a) does not require inorganic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Diversity is an overriding principle in swidden farms. Crops of various varieties are therefore raised at the same time in the same swidden.

A swidden farm can last for an average of four (4) years depending on the thickness of accumulated humus. During the dry season, upland folk start clearing a chosen space. They cut trees and shrubs and leave these to dry. Depending on the intended farm size, a farming couple takes at least a week or longer to clear an area. Farmers clear sticks, twigs and leaves within the perimeter of the clearing to avoid wild fires when farmers burn the clearing.

Burning is done about one week after the clearing activity or when the trimmed vegetation is seen to easily catch fire. Burning is done mostly at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon when the wind is not strong and is moving towards a single direction. Male members of a village (pulok) usually join hands in this activity to prevent the spread of wild fire. Wild fire is considered a crime when negligence is the cause.

Farmers then clear the area of remaining unburned tree trunks. They either put aside these trunks along the farm’s perimeter or burn these for their ash. Farmers plant special crops such as squash or melon where there is thick collection of ash. No digging is done after burning. To plant seeds, farmers merely prick the ground with pointed rods and drop the seeds in small holes. To control weeds, farmers group in a certain area some crops with common characteristics such as rice, camote, grains and legumes. Climbing plants and bananas are usually planted in gullies. Fruit bearing trees are also planted along the perimeter of the farm both as wind breaks and shade trees of crawling plants. Farmers plant all their seeds, cuttings and tubers shortly before the rainy season starts or when it has just begun.

Bakun farmers maintain their swiddens for an average of four years. During the same period, farmers terrace gullies with stones and continue to plant fruit trees around the farm. When the fertility of central area has been depleted such that crops are not robust enough to guarantee good harvest, the farm is abandoned for an average of four to six years. In the meantime, farmers clear another area using the same process. The farmer again leaves this area and goes back to clear his old abandoned farm which is by now thick with vegetation again. As practiced by Bakun farmers, swidden farming follows a cycle of clearing and restoration. This farming practice provides the household a steady supply of fresh vegetables, root crops, grain legumes, fruits and even herbal medicine. The fruit trees and stone terraces are permanent fixtures, which show that a clan or family owns a patch of land. Ownership thus comes after working the land.

f. Bine – as

These are the areas left to lie fallow, part of the nem-a cycle (see above). It also applies to rice fields left to lie fallow.

g. Hunting Ground or Paganupan.

This a wider area of forest, usually pristine (nabunet), and it is managed by one or more communities and inhabited by wild game such as animals, fowls, lizards, snakes, bats and many more. Hunting is limited to the use of spears, air rifles and the controlled or restricted use of shotguns and long caliber 22 guns. The indigenous practice of catching wild game such as egsel (trap), ebeng (trap), bito (concealed hole), and ba – is or whip is preferred.

h. Practices of Catching Game.

Tagdey – this is a bird trap using a fine string or strong animal hair, set up on a contraption of sticks and another tensely bent stick such that upon alighting on the contraption, the bird’s weight releases the bent stick to spring and tightens the string around the bird’s feet. It is baited with an inset to attract the birds.

Ikik – this is a seasonal practice of catching migratory birds (usually done in September and October). It is done at night, where the birds are attracted to light made by fire. It is preferred that the night is foggy and there is no moon.

Silag – also done at night, it is the practice of catching birds, frogs, fish or eel with the use of lighted torch out of saleng (pine pitch).

3. Selective Harvesting of Forest Products

The wise use of forest resources is very much a part of the culture and spiritual belief of the Kankanaey and Bago folk. They consider indiscriminate cutting of trees a sin, which can displease the spirits. Angered spirit, they believe, may even make a person ill or cause his death if he fails to follow certain rules or rituals of harvesting forest products.

Such belief system has influenced the Kankanaey and Bago on how to properly use their forest resources. They have thus mastered the use of each tree species. Certain trees are for building homes, some for rituals and medicine, and some for food. Gathering of forest products depends on the particular needs of a person.

Kankanaey and Bago folk observe some rituals before cutting trees for building houses. Once one chooses a tree, he prays before the tree, and if he sees no bad omen, he proceeds with cutting it down.

Once the first tree is felled, he removes some branches and goes home to do more rituals. If there are no bad omens, he goes back the following day to cut down more trees. But he fells only what he needs.

In case a bad omen is observed (usually in the position of the liver or bile of the animal butchered in the ritual and offered to the gods and spirits), or if the cutter has a bad dream, he foregoes with the cutting and most often just uses the tree for firewood.

Minor products may not involve elaborate rituals. But Kankanaey and Bago folk must be selective in harvesting any other forest product. The reason is that they believe that Kabunian (supreme god) controls all resources and humans can enjoy nature’s bounty only if they obey the rules that their ancestors have orally handed down.

4. Other Protection Mechanisms of Forests and Watersheds

Regular cleaning of fire lanes. The Kankanaey-Bago clear areas of the forest, specially fire-prone areas, so that fires, whether spontaneous, accidental or caused by negligence, will be controlled.

Lapulap or Kabite – this involves the control of erosion by constructing walls in steep slopes using stones or rocks (kabite) or soil sod (lapulap). It is done mostly in gullies and other steep erosion-prone areas.

Sade – This is the indigenous term for a practice that involves the planting of deep-rooting crops along and across slopes to control erosion.

Kulog – this is the term for the deep canals made to divert runoff water from erosion-prone areas, and thus control erosion.

Firebreak plants – The Bakun people also purposely plant maguey, which is fire resistant, to act as firebreak. It may also be used to control erosion. .

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