Mountaineers value the Philippine forests because without it, climbing mountains would not be as exhilarating, as fulfilling and as spiritually uplifting. At worst, it could even be life-threatening because of flash floods or landslides caused by forest denudation. On the other hand, others see mountains and forests as resources that should be used for society's benefit. Over time, the reputation of Philippine wood has been known to be the "best that can be found in the universe" and as one American Senator noted in January 1900; "The wood of the Philippines can supply the world for a century to come..." From the Spanish colonization to the present, the struggle for balance, between protecting our environment and ensuring equitable development for all, continues.
In the Philippine context, most Filipinos are dependent on natural resource systems for their subsistence, with two thirds of the population living in the rural areas and depending on agriculture, fisheries and forestry. The country's problems with soil erosion and siltation, pollution, severely declining fish catch are indicative that the country is straining its natural carrying capacity. As a former DENR head described it; "the country is like a patient on a treadmill furiously running faster and faster, each stride becoming more difficult but not getting anywhere." What can we, as a community of mountaineers and environmentalists, do about this?
Twenty-five years is considered a generation. The Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines Inc. (MFPI) turned 28 years old this year and is now entering its second generation. With the MFPI congress fast approaching, it may be a good time to reflect on where MFPI is and where it should proceed. As the MFPI grows and attracts more members, is it now time to consider leveraging this federation's or even the mountaineering community's network, resources, and skills to become even better stewards of our country's natural resources and biodiversity? We think now is a good time.
Afterall, MFPI member clubs are all over the country, are growing, and have extensive contacts and communications with one another. Mountaineers have gained national prominence because of the Everest climbers, rock climbing prowess, and exciting adventure travels. At the same time, we have cultivated relationships with host communities, local officials, the media, schools, and the private sector. Mountaineers are also among the most environmentally aware Filipinos and are active in many conservation initiatives.
Now may be the time to initiate something as a federation that has a long-lasting impact on the country's environment through conservation, education, advocacy, and support to local communities. What best combines all four in an activity that is cost-effective and high-impact?
In 1912, visiting British Ambassador James Bryce noted that the national park is the "best idea America had." Like the US, we have an extensive national park and integrated protected areas system (IPAS). However, lack of resources, manpower, tri-media education, informational, and advocacy materials for visitors and supporters are serious constraints. How can the mountaineering community help?
With the thought of giving back to host communities and the mountains we've climbed over the past 28 years, we propose that each mountaineering club adopt a mountain, national park, or protected area within its locality or which it commits to take care of. By adopt, we propose that each club:
- Consult with the host community and LGU on the possibility of "adopting" the mountain, national park, or protected area। If an agreement is reached, publicly proclaim that it will initiate cooperative activities to assist in this endeavor over the next five years;
- One activity is helping set up a visitors center for the mountain, national park, or protected area [host community/LGU provide the land, building, caretakers, while the mountaineering club provides initial photos, film, material, books, exhibit material, training, and other resources related to a visitor center];
- Another activity is helping the local community/LGU set up site-appropriate hiking, guiding, conservation, and waste management, research and documentation, fee collection regulations [if there is no PAMB present] to promote the sport, conservation, education, advocacy, and livelihood activities;
- If none exists, each "adopting" club commits to set up a website on "their" national park/IPAS that includes relevant mountaineering, conservation, and related information। We can then set up a portal for these various websites; and,
- Develop other sustainable programs in conjunction with host communities and LGUs।
In the coming years, mountaineering will become even more popular. There will be more hikers, more tourists, more visitors. This presents both opportunities and threats. Let us help prepare our mountains and host communities. A visitors' center fulfills many functions. Aside from being a needed information center, it can also host conservation, research, and educational activities. It can be a rest stop, a search and rescue and/or disaster mitigation communications and coordination hub, a source of livelihood and employment for locals (native products), and an exhibit area for local culture. A visitor center will facilitate more interaction between locals and visitors, while promoting the outdoors and conservation. It can also become a source of community pride and solidarity.
Mountaineering, travel, conservation, education, and advocacy can all go together. Now is the time to give back to our mountains and host communities, not as individuals or individual clubs, but as a federation. As the successful Gawad Kalinga model of community development shows, massive, simultaneous, concerted, and sustained action nationwide is the way to go when initiating something that is transformational.
Montani Semper Liberi- mountaineers are always free. With freedom comes responsibility. We are confident that as mountaineers, we can become even better stewards of the environment.