By EPI FABONAN III
Yay Ortega, 41, is the typical outdoor junkie.
As a certified mountaineer, she has climbed the Philippines’ tallest peaks, as well as mountains abroad. When she’s not climbing, she tends to her mountaineering equipment shop in Cartimar, Pasay City, and is also fond of biking, jogging and other fitness activities.
She also serves as incumbent president of the Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines Inc. (MFPI), the largest umbrella organization of mountaineering groups in the country. Officially incorporated in 1979, it is composed of over 60 member-organizations representing 15,000 mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts from all over the country.
The federation, Ortega shares, is slated to hold its Mountaineering Congress this year in Sagada, Mountain Province.
But aside from being passionate about mountaineering and life in the outdoors in general, she is even more passionate about environmental conservation – a necessary offshoot of responsible mountaineering that the federation espouses.
Part of this is the protection of mountain ecosystems, thus MFPI actively leads efforts to combat forest degradation and conserve a vital natural resource: water.
“I cannot live without water; I’d rather live without electricity, and I don’t like the idea of paying a lot for it,” Ortega says.
One couldn’t agree more. Water – being a basic human need – is perhaps more important than electricity and is as important as food, shelter, clothing and air.
It’s a fact we realize even more in the aftermath of a strong typhoon that has managed to topple power lines and disrupt our water supply, throwing our convenient routines into disarray.
Preserving the watershed
Every day, we open our faucets to accomplish a variety of activities and tasks.
We only twist the faucet open; little do we know where the water comes from and the danger the precious resource faces.
Ninety-seven percent of Metro Manila’s water supply comes from the Angat-Ipo-La Mesa water system. Every day, a total of 4,000 million liters of fresh water flow through this system and is filtered in treatment plants in La Mesa and Balara to serve 15 million residents of this ever-expanding megacity and its suburbs.
We owe the fresh, clean water this system provides to its watersheds – acres of untouched forest cover that serve as the system’s natural barrier against human activities that threaten to pollute it.
One particular watershed within this system is the 6,600-hectare Ipo Watershed located in Norzagaray, Bulacan, which has thinned in recent years due to various human activities in the area.
MFPI is one of several civil society organizations involved in the protection and reforestation of this important watershed.
“Our biggest challenge right now is the continued presence of small-scale illegal loggers. Unlike large-scale loggers whose operations are easy to detect, small-scale loggers are harder to monitor and catch. They could cut and haul one or two trees in a day, but if they do it on a daily basis, they’re just as destructive as large-scale operations,” Ortega explains.
She estimates that about 30 percent of the watershed has been cut down in recent years by informal settlers from the lowlands scouring the area for livelihood. The settlers cut down trees to make way for farming and use the timber to build their houses or to make charcoal or furniture.
The Dumagats, the indigenous people living in these foothills of the Sierra Madre, have reported seeing lowlanders with weapons operating in the watershed.
Ortega describes possible scenarios if these activities in the watershed continue unabated.
“If our watersheds become contaminated by human activities, water prices in Metro Manila could go up. To fill the demand, governments or private companies will have to build more dams and reservoirs in the future, which is bad, because it will forever change the natural landscape of the place where these dams will be built.”
To address the issue of deforestation throughout the Philippines, including the Angat-Ipo-La Mesa watershed, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources launched the National Greening Program, a reforestation initiative that aims to plant 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 million hectares of land from 2011 to 2016. Since 2011, almost P11 billion has been released to fund this initiative, the NGP website states.
Under the program, the DENR and other related agencies coordinate with local government units, civil society organizations and private companies to plant endemic and non-endemic trees in deforested areas in the country. Locals living in these deforested areas are paid to plant and nurture these trees to maturity, providing them an alternative livelihood.
Despite the initiative, the Ipo Watershed continues to thin out. Recent forest fires – one in March and another in April this year – destroyed some 250 hectares of reforested land. Authorities and civil society organizations suspect that locals may be burning reforested land to allow the continuous release of reforestation funds from which they get their livelihood.
Ortega is alarmed that the very people involved in the reforestation of the watershed may be involved in its destruction.
This is why MFPI is determined to continue replanting the forest and calls on the government to do more to protect the area from destructive human activities.
“When you’re a nature and outdoor lover, conservation becomes innate, out of your need to continuously enjoy your playground. If you want to be able to do it again and be able to take a nice picture of the surroundings with your friends, you wouldn’t want to see garbage there. You want the experience to be the same each time,” Ortega says.
The Ipo Watershed needs your help. On July 26, Ortega and MFPI will return to replant a deforested part of the watershed with the help of The Philippine STAR.
To learn more about how you can volunteer for MFPI’s reforestation activities, contact Yay Ortega at (0908) 8940691 or visit their Facebook page.
This post was originally published in the front page July 18, 2014 issue of The Philippines STAR as part of its "28 Stories of Giving" anniversary special.