June 23, 2024

Giving Back to Sierra Madre: Tumauini CBFM’s Ode to the Forests

There is a long stretch of rice fields that you would have to drive past to reach the municipality of Tumauini. You will then have to pass by corridors of both corn and tobacco and landscapes of pasture lands to reach Caligayan, where an established Peoples Organization (PO) resides and manages 6,425 hectares of forest.

Cradled between the river of Tumauini threading the outskirts of the Sierra Madre mountain ranges and a carpet of corn plantation is the house of President Reynaldo Fenix, who has led the renowned PO, Tumauini Upland Farmers Greeners Association (TUFGA), since its reorganization in 2016. The area of interest that TUFGA manages ever since entering a Community-based Forest Management (CBFM) Agreement is certainly not something to be overlooked as it encompasses a large chunk of Tumauini’s forest landscape; and even by spending a day in the Barangay, you wouldn’t be able to decipher the complexity of the healthy ecosystem coexisting with the people.

Even prior to when the PO pitched their project to the ASSERT CBFM Green Business project pitching last 2022, they were already deeply involved with rattan pole production. When they reorganized the TUFGA in 2016, there were only an approximate of 70 members. These less than a hundred forest stewards were nonetheless able to stretch their resources and capacity to supervise their forests where they source out their raw materials.

According to Mr. Fenix, the rattans that the members harvest are strictly controlled and limited within a certain harvesting zone. This is because they were keen on implementing a sustainable way of harvesting wherein, they would be able to gather volumes of rattan that suffice for the present needs while also weighing in with the idea of securing future harvests by the members in the future. To also assure that not only the members of the organization members are supplied with ecosystem services they can utilize in the distant future and to ensure that the remaining parts of the Sierra Madre mountains that are dearth of vegetation be painted green, they plant seedlings of Gmelina (Gmelina arborea) and Narra (Pterocarpus indicus).

One remarkable and organic practice that the forest stewards of Tumauini have employed is their sustained use of bamboo as a means to control soil erosion. They would plant it in creeks, by the flowing waters of Sierra Madre, and ensure that the water flows to the fields and to the households seamlessly. When bamboos are deemed harvestable, they would plant shoots again to replace the materials they would harvest.

In total, the land area within the jurisdiction of the TUFGA and even expanding outside its bounds, there are various monocrop plantations of Ampalaya and Tobacco that supplement the livelihood of the members and of the Barangay Caligayan residents. The PO leader himself says he oversees a coconut (niyog) plantation where the CBFM Regional Summit attendees have frequented in the past years – including a close friend of Mr. Fenix and appointed president of the regional CBFM-PO, Mr. Valentin Descalzo. Descalzo, who is also a long-time president of their own CBFM PO in Nueva Vizcaya, was one of the Regional CBFM-PO assembly who experienced first-hand of replanting niyog. In a separate interview, Mr. Descalzo has recounted his memories during their visit to the thriving community in Tumauini, stating how large the area they cover and how active the members have consistently been.

This is not to say that the TUFGA has never encountered even minor bumps along their journey. During one of their scheduled forestlands rounds last February 2024, they caught red-handed some illegal harvesting of Gmelina and some charcoaling activities that were neither legal nor supervised. With the help of the City Environment & Natural Resources Office (CENRO) of Cabagan, they were able to take action and put a stop on the illegal activities that were conducted by non-members and even outsiders to Barangay Caligayan.

Even so, the members are positive that this wouldn’t be a pivotal point that will discourage the organization. The president himself finds it in himself to welcome more non-members into the organization and encourage them to join. During the peak of their rattan production in 2023 and until the present time in 2024, their previously few members increased drastically to an enormous number of 447 officially registered members. The surge in the number of members was easily one achievement that they could list, among other milestones that the organization has paved for themselves.

The three primary points they credit the increase in members are: (1) the organization was able to find strength in linking with government agencies in the province and the region – they were able to receive PhP 3-million worth of corn seeds and an undisclosed amount of vegetable seeds. This offered nothing but benefit to the members who are primarily corn farmers and vegetable farmers (2) They were also able to secure machinery and equipment such as tractors that would help lift the weight of the laborious processes of farming. (3) And because the occupation of farming is not limited to the members and a huge chunk of the Barangay Caligayan are recorded to be farmers, they were further encouraged by the Provincial government to become members of organizations so they can also become recipients of such benefits that arise from partnerships with the government agencies. For Mr. Fenix, while these are all notable achievements, his proudest moment was that they were able to partner with NTFP-EP and he hopes that this partnership continues.

The partnership with NTFP-EP wherein they received financial aid from the organization and from the ASSERT-CBFM was not viewed by the organization as merely some help in the form of a grant. The grant paved the way for the organization to encourage the members from different demographics to further involve themselves in the rattan pole production process. From cleaning the freshly harvested rattan, to the strenuous process of straightening it, up until the drying process – women, youth, and senior citizen members, alike, have participated greatly. The grant had offered them capacity to provide rightful compensation for their labor.

More active members surely entailed profit for the association. But it wasn’t just profit that they recognize as the most remarkable and most drastic change in the organization. It was more on the organizational dynamic that faced a paradigm shift. The members hailing from different demographics were capacitated further with skills that help mobilize their organization’s enterprise as well as their own – from drying, to cleaning, and to processing the raw materials to create rattan handcrafts. There wasn’t a room for withholding opportunities from those who wanted extra income, because any room available for hands to help were predisposed to being filled up easily. The increase in members and the increase in active members cascaded into overall empowerment but mostly, there was also an influx of enthusiastic youth and women. The rattan pole production and bundling also became an avenue for generating employment that aided the corn farmers during their lull period of almost 3 months wherein they get absolutely nothing from just idling away the time.

In totality, these achievements were supplemented by more empirical testaments of their productivity which are a yield of 11,000 8.2-feet long rattan poles that was harvested just last year before their permit expired and a production of around 4,500 inner poles, 50 bundles of 1,250 rattan splits. The PO was able to improvise their own scaler and splitter to use for their own production. Their permit expiring wasn’t the conclusion of their hard work, instead they translated it into pure determination to further encourage active participation.

In the future, in the hopes that their permit to harvest non-timber products will be renewed according to what will be favorable to their organization’s next steps, they foresee that the incremental growth of their association – not just in numbers of registered members but in their growth holistically as an organically-established organization – will cement their legacy. They hope to plant seedlings of gmelina and shoots of bamboo that will outlive their generation. At the moment, they are embossing seeds of knowledge in the youth that will outlast their present generation and fasten the future that they are envisioning for the Sierra Madre landscape.

The Sierra Madre Mountain ranges had lived on a thousand lives and had stood witness to the number of grassroots movements. It certainly hasn’t come through unscathed, but now with the presence and stewardship of TUFGA, the future of Sierra Madre can be sworn on the blood, sweat, and tears of the community. It is their undertaking to be on the qui vive for whatever adversary that may come the way of the mountain range, just as the Sierra Madre has shielded them from climate-related adversaries that had been flung and will be propelled towards them in the future.