Citizens Saving the Philippines’ Natural Treasures
Mt. Siburan, an Important Biodiversity Area, hosts high level of birds and other life forms including the Mindoro Bleeding Heart.
by Luke M. Imbong
In one of the Philippines' richest regions in natural resources, fish sellers and indigenous peoples take on the challenge of forest protection.
This involvement of regular citizens in safeguarding nature has been the trend in Mt. Siburan for the past decade. Located in Occidental Mindoro, the 5,000 hectare Mt Siburan area contains the island's largest remaining virgin forest that is home to unique species of wildlife threatened with extinction. More importantly, it is a major source of water for the nearby capital of Sablayan as well as providing food for the surrounding communities.
Because of Mt Siburan’s high levels of biodiversity and its value to Mindoro Island, it was declared as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Haribon Foundation as early as 2001. It is now part of the 117 IBAs in the Philippines known for the high level of birds and other life forms they support and their invaluable contribution to the development of nearby communities. These IBAs have been used in recent years by the Philippine government and other organizations to identify priority regions that will benefit the most from conservation efforts.
Nestor Gacillos and Aron Egiya explaining what they do as part of the IBAMS team (left Nestor Gacillos, right Aron Egiya).
One community that is dedicated to the protection of Mt Siburan is Sitio Palbong, where Nestor Gacillos, a fish vendor, is one of the directors for their Community Based Forest Management Association.
"A decade ago, ancient trees stood tall beside each other, but now there are huge distances between them. The calls of wild deer are no longer heard and hornbills not easily seen like before," Gacillos says.
This view is shared by Aron Egiya from the Alangan tribe of the indigenous Mangyans. "Our tribe has not seen a wild boar except for its tracks for over a year."
Other wildlife species within Mt Siburan include the critically endangered Mindoro Bleeding Heart, a ground dwelling bird with a unique red pattern on its chest that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Both Gacillos and Egiya are members of the IBA Monitoring System Team who were trained by Haribon on how to assess the threats being faced by Mt Siburan such as furniture production and land conversion. As local residents, they are able to regularly collect firsthand data on what is happening to the biodiversity residing in the Mt. Siburan ecosystem and use it as a guide for their management plans and policies.
Mangrove Blue Flycatcher at Mt. Siburan. Photo by Marlet Bueno.
When asked why they chose to volunteer for the monitoring team, one common reason between Gacillos and Egiya is how they want to learn more about what is inside Mt Siburan to convince others to stop destroying it.
"As a former leader of my tribe, I was able to attend seminars and trainings, but the best learning can be found inside the forest", shared Egiya.
Gacillos, Egiya, and other members of the IBA team who are direct beneficiaries of Mt Siburan have big goals such as to have a larger role in the planning of the local government.
"We want to present our monitoring results to them so they know what kind of help Mt Siburan needs."
Finally, they have a desire to become deputized Forest Guards to be able to enforce laws themselves to keep poachers and kaingeros from coming in because, according to them, "The current forest guards live in the city, while we live by the forest