Vegetable farms threaten forest reserves


LA TRINIDAD, Benguet — Vegetable gardens in this province known as the Salad Bowl of the north for its temperate vegetable production poses a threat to the watershed and forest reservations of Benguet, an official of the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) said.

Octavio Cuanso, acting Benguet PENRO officer, disclosed that there is a trend of land conversion from forest and watershed reservation to vegetable gardens in the province. He said while land conversion endangers the forest it is hard to stop farmers because it is their source of livelihood.

“You can not just tell farmers to stop because they need to eat and feed their families,” he stressed.

Among the forest reservations in Benguet are the Mount Sto. Tomas Forest Reservation, Mount Pulag National Park, Upper Agno Watershed Reservation, Lower Agno Watershed Reservation, portions of the Mount Data Forest Reservation and portions of the Central Cordillera mountain range that straddles almost all the Cordillera provinces.

Benguet supplies 80% of temperate vegetables to Metro Manila.

Cuanso shared that in the Sto. Tomas reservation, vegetable garden was introduced by indigenous people of Tuba. “It is a threat to the forest reservation and it has to be regulated,” he said.

Sto. Tomas was put on the spotlight recently due to a road project linked to Baguio City Representative Nicasio Aliping that caused the cutting of over 700 trees.

Cuanso said PENRO has still to determine how wide have the gardens encroached into the Sto. Tomas forest. “We still need to conduct a survey on the ground to determine how wide exactly the vegetable gardens are but at the moment the forest stand is still wider than the gardens,” he assured the public.

Cuanso disclosed that Mount Pulag is in greater danger at the moment because the recently discovered garden expansions are too wide and highly mechanized. He said vegetable gardens are also found inside all the other reservations.

Cuanso said the trend of land conversion is brought about by the people’s economic needs. “We need to come up with alternative sources of livelihood so that farmers will not resort to expanding their gardens just to earn more,” he said.

Cuanso said in order to address the needs of the indigenous communities within the reservations and at the same time protect the forest, inter-government coordination is important. He cited for example that they will tap the help of Department of Agriculture (DA) to identify proper farming technology that will help farmers increase their production without really causing damage to the environment. He added that they will also need the help of the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) to revive and develop further indigenous forest protection and preservation methods.

“DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) can not protect the forest on its own. It will need the help and cooperation of various government agencies and stakeholders,” he added.

Cuanso shared that more than developing charges against erring farmers or individuals causing harm to the forest reservations the DENR is focusing on delineation efforts to establish the metes and bounds of the reservations.

He added that they will also conduct a census of actual settlers within the forest reservations. He explained that there is a need to check if there are indigenous peoples already living within the forest areas even before the proclamation of the reservation to identify priority rights. “We will be needing the assistance of the NCIP in identifying the indigenous communities and is establishing if they really have prior rights within the forest and watershed reservations,” he said.

But Cuanso admitted that there are court cases being developed at the moment against some farmers who have encroached particularly within Mt. Pulag. He said they have identified three farmers whose gardens are within the boundary of Bokod and Kabayan towns. He said the documents of the case is already submitted to the legal department of PENRO Benguet for finalization before filing in court.

“While we recognize the needs of our farmers, we have to protect the forest for the benefit of the majority,” he explained.

Cuanso reminded farmers that the forest is their source of irrigation and without it they will not be able to grow anything on their gardens. “We really have to strike a balance between economic need and forest protection. And everybody must cooperate,” he added. #