Rain dance won’t prevent another fire

There are two Mount Apos-the dormant volcano and the social volcano. One is a towering peak. The other is a pit of despair for those living on its shadows.

There is the Mount Apo on fire, and there's the combustible social situation in the communities ringing it.

There's a common thread piercing the two: El NiAo.

The prolonged dry spell has left Mindanao bone dry. Theories abound on who lit the fire that's razing the slopes of our highest peak. Whoever or whatever started the blaze, this can't be disputed: drought has made the country's southern region a tinder box.

Water may be scarce, but what Apo does not lack are lovers. It has a fan base, many of whom rushed to fight the conflagration, with little tools, lugging a full pack of guts and grit.

Many lessons can be learned here. One is that it is time to station a detachment of well-equipped, regular forest rangers-cum-firefighters not just in Mount Apo but in all major forest parks.

The Apo national park covers almost 55,000 hectares. But if the buffer zone of 9,000 hectares is factored in, the area to be protected expands to 64,000 hectares.

Reports have it that there are just 16 guards, mostly temporary hires, patrolling this broad expanse of greenery. Halve this into two shifts, and 8 men, in theory, have their boots on the ground at any given time. And they're guarding the crown jewel of biodiversity, home to airborne wonders like the Philippine eagle and endemic flora under the forest canopy.

The problem is that nationally, there are only one ranger of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for every 3,500 hectares of forestland. There are, however, ways to raise an army of mountain sentinels. One is by recruiting what is called "force-multipliers."

For example, government can enrol upland dwellers under the conditional cash transfer, with an added "condition" that in exchange for cash received, they have to plant trees and protect wildlife from being poached. DENR can also enter into stewardship arrangements with lumads, civic groups or cooperatives interested in regreening logged-over areas. There is also the National Regreening Program, a megabuck project of P25 billion to date. Contractors can act as shields against fire and as whistleblowers against poachers.

Climate change has affected even the rain-drenched pinnacle of Apo and our other mountains. The last time Apo burned was probably when it erupted, date unknown.

If you have coffee with Davao old-timers, they will regale you with stories on how showers would pour on downtown Davao like clockwork every late afternoon. This scheduled precipitation is now a thing of the past. So with the belief that the mighty Apo is fire-proof.

The next time a Philippine mountain is ablaze, let's have aerial firefighting assets ready to be scrambled, and on the ground, well-equipped firemen. You can't fight fire with a rain dance.

* * *

Two years ago, I already warned that one way for the coming El NiAo to intensify into the perfect storm is for government to respond with a drought of ideas. I added my voice to those clamoring for an early El NiAo mitigation plan because I believe that it would already be late to look for water after the well has dried.

I have lived through two previous nasty El NiAos-the one from 1982-83 and the 1997-98 edition. In those two episodes, large swaths of Mindanao turned sepia brown. In 1983, the drought was so bad that Jetmatic water pumps in many parts of Mindanao became useless. Fields were littered with the desiccated remains of corn and rice plants.

I am seeing the same tell-tale signs today. The stream where I often take long morning walks has completely dried up and to think it is near a watershed. Children of farmers have come up to me with mobile phone photos of damaged crops and soil cracked from lack of water. With no money to pay for tuition, the images are equivalent to incinerated dreams.

In 1983, the population of the Philippines was 52 million, a little more than half of what it is now. There are twice more mouths to feed today and yet the size of farm lands has remained the same. I can just imagine how many lives the El NiAo of 2016 has disrupted.

Government tallies damages based on hectares destroyed, down to the last centavo of the value of crops lost. Human toll is hardly counted, such as the malnutrition food scarcity inflicts on women and children. We don't measure the severity of drought with humidity, rainfall or moisture. People are the best barometers of a crisis like El NiAo.

I believe that farmers who are protesting are driven by the most compelling ideology-that of the empty stomach. And in helping them, we don't census first their political beliefs for compassion is never predicated on these.

We provide comfort and succour to the needy regardless of the political beliefs they subscribe to. In war, captured enemies are even fed. So why can't we do that to our fellowmen?

Source: The Standard=