It is an ordinary day to wake up with the comfort of nature for the Batak community living at Sitio Kalakwasan, Bgy. Tanabag in northern outskirts of Puerto Princesa City. But on Monday, June 6 they considered it momentous as it was the day they all started to work hand-in-hand to breathe new life into the declining number of Almaciga (Agathis philippinensis) tree which produces marketable resin and has since been serving as their source of living.
“Almaciga tree is our lifeblood,” says Tribal Chieftain Dionecio Saavedra in a breathy voice as he and other members of the community trooped to the planting site.
“But as time goes by, we have noticed a decline in the population of Almaciga tree in our area,” he lamented while holding an Almaciga seedling.
Before, the Almaciga trees were said to be abundant at their area but now it is estimated to be more or less 300. Unsustainable resin collection practices, such as deep circumferential tapping and burning to increase resin flow are said to be the culprit causing the drop.
Almaciga resin is one of the two major non-timber products extracted from the forests of Palawan, according to the 2015 State of Environment Report of Palawan Biosphere Reserve published by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).
Data from the Philippine Forest Statistics reveal that its production has been increasing from 50,545 kg in 2005 to 508,610 kg in 2013 – a ten-fold increase in less than 10 years, as cited in the 2015 PCSD report.
According to the Laguna-based Forest Products Research & Development Institute (FPRDI), “Almaciga resin is used in the manufacture of varnishes, lacquer, soap, paint, printing inks, linoleum, shoe polish, floor wax, plastic, water proofing materials, paper sizing and many other products. Locally, it is used as incense in religious ceremonies, as fuel, torches, caulking substances and smudge for mosquitoes.”
Saavedra believes the community should act on this looming problem – the local extinction of Almaciga tree – before it’s too late. “It’s now or never,” he quipped with a determined voice as he roved his gaze at the lush forest where they will about to plant around 5,000 seedlings in the incoming weeks.
This initiative would not be possible without the help of Centre for Sustainability (CS), an eight year old Palawan-based non-government organization continuously working with its project partner, PCSD for the establishment of the Cleopatra’s Needle Forest Reserve. Its project areas are the barangays of New Panggangan, Tagabinet, San Rafael, Concepcion, Tanabag, Binduyan and Langogan.
CS deems the “Saving the Almaciga Tree” Project as a key program to encourage active participation among the indigenous peoples, Batak in the regeneration of their area located in the mountain range of Cleopatra’s Needle, an ecologically-important site in northern Puerto Princesa.
‘FIRST OF ITS KIND’
After 10 months of hard work to maintain the seedlings in nurseries, CS inaugurated its Almaciga Reforestation Program that day with the presence of the members of the Batak tribe, barangay officials of Tanabag and other community leaders from other barangays living near and within the vast expanse of biodiversity-rich Cleopatra’s Needle.
“Interestingly, this reforestation program of its kind is the very first not only in Palawan but in the whole Philippines,” claims Edgar Jose, CS Field Manager.
Jose said the inauguration finally put an end to their doubt as to whether or not it’s possible to propagate an Almaciga in a nursery. “Unlike other tree species, it is difficult to grow an Almaciga,” he shared, adding it was just an experimentation at first, but later turned out to be a success.
The month-long tree planting activities being carried out in Barangay Tanabag and Binduyan is the first phase of CS’s Almaciga Reforestation Program. After which, the second phase will commence by August 2016 in Barangay Concepcion and Langogan.
“In the next phase, we will repeat again the process from organizing the communities, growing the Almaciga cones in nurseries up to the tree planting activity,” says CS Field Manager Jose.
Through the leadership of CS Executive Director, Kyra Hovenaars as supported by CS Project Coordinators Karina Antonio and Jessa Garibay, the group has identified 32,000 hectares of forest within the restricted zones of Cleopatra’s Needle where the Bataks can plant the said key livelihood species.
CS envisions that this program will provide another opportunity for the survival of these indigenous peoples.
Currently, Sitio Kalakwasan shelters more or less 200 members of the Batak tribe — the smallest population among seven tribal groups in the province.
Tribal Chieftain Saavedra says his constituents are elated with the project and they vow to actively support it so that the future generations of Batak tribe will be able to continue the tradition of collecting Almaciga resin.
“It’s an old practice that has been passed down from generation to generation,” shared 34-year old Saavedra. “But how can I hand this down to our future grandchildren if the Almaciga trees are gone? We have to act now,” he added.