The Parable Of The Watershed

This is the original draft of the report that was published on GMA News Online

Dave Azurin’s resume is not a piece of paper. It is a 1,500 hectare-forest with 765,000 trees.

Sixteen years ago, experts described the La Mesa watershed at the heart of Quezon City “totally disturbed.” The watershed was turning brown due to slash-and-burn farming (kaingin), and informal settlers increased through years, turning it into an urban jungle and leaving the natural forest cover to a distant memory.

Azurin tells this story as if he was telling a tragic tale of a child he lost — and the story of its redemption like he saw that child revived in front of his very eyes.

It was 1999 and Azurin was hired to head the reforestation efforts of the 2,000-hectare forest.

CAREFUL STEPS

Reforestation requires careful steps. Because the La Mesa watershed is an extension of the Sierra Madre mountain ranges, Azurin and his team had to scour the mountains for seedlings.

They had to be as faithful to the forest as possible. During the initial phases of the reforestation, the team mistakenly planted 5 kinds of exotic species, meaning trees which were not endemic to the watershed.

Azurin tells this now 16 years later like a young boy who stole candy from the store. His smile turned from proud to apologetic, and his eyes have hints of regret that probably only passed because it was such a long time ago, and they have forgiven him for his mistakes. But he couldn’t seem to forgive himself.

Dave Azurin considers the watershed his greatest success.

Dave Azurin considers the watershed his greatest success.

“Meron kasi kaming nagamit na 5 exotic, pero tinanggal namin, lahat yan indigenous species na,” Azurin said, “Pinipilit natin na ang maitanim natin ay indigenous species, yung mga exotic species, kaya hindi tayo nagtanim kasi sabi ng mga expert hindi daw siya suited sa watershed, una kasi yung karamihan sa exotic, mga shallow rooted species, madaling lumaki, pero pag mataas siya, madali na rin siyang tumumba.”

(We accidentally used 5 exotic species, but we removed it so now all of those are indigenous species. We only plant indigenous species, because exotic species, according to experts, are not suited for a watershed. They are shallow-rooted species, they grow faster but when it’s tall, it can easily be knocked over.)

Still, he is brimming with pride and sheer happiness when he provided a tour of the watershed. In 16 years, they were able to plant 765,000 of 101 endemic species to fill 1,500 hectares. They include the high-valued hardwood trees like Yakal and Guijo, which are, according to Azurin, hard to propagate because if their seasonal fruit-bearing.

Azurin’s love for the trees was evident. He stops his pick-up truck to admire a tree he planted in a particular year, remembering details any other person would have forgotten if he had planted 765,000 of them.  In planting trees as in love, Azurin said the key to success was timing.

They start to plant at the onset of the rainy season, and stops exactly at September 15, even if there will still be downpour the following months.

“Kung mahaba ‘yung panahon ng tag-ulan, mae-establish niya root system niya, may panlaban na siya pagdating ng tag-araw, mas mataas survival rate pag maagang natanim,” Azurin said.

(If the rainy season is long, the root system will be properly established, it can be strong enough to withstand intense heat, its survival rate will be higher when there is longer lead time.)

He keeps the saplings at the nursery for 8 months, before he plants them out onto the field, like a father letting go of his child’s hand for the first time.

Saplings are kept at the nursery for 8 months (Photo by Lian Buan)

Saplings are kept at the nursery for 8 months (Photo by Lian Buan)

But Azurin is not selfish. The trees aren’t just his, he identifies them with names of people or companies that have helped with the reforestation. Anyone can donate an amount of money to the efforts, and in exchange, the trees planted on the piece of land equivalent to their donation will be named after them.

He speaks fondly of the people he has met, overflowing with gratitude for being able to keep planting trees for nearly two decades.

Azurin is a forestry graduate and in La Mesa, he has found home.

“Masayang masaya ako, masayang masaya talaga,” Azurin said, “marami akong pinanggalingan na pinagtrabahuhan, una nanggaling ako sa logging company, galing ako sa DENR, galing ako sa Subic Naval Base tapos nag NGO, pero ito ‘yung nakita kong naging part ako ng isang bagay na naging successful.”

(I am very very happy, I have done a lot of jobs, I have worked for a logging company, for the DENR, I have worked at the Subic Naval Base and then for an NGO, but this is the first job that I was part of that I know is successful.)

Experts say the project has a survival rate of 92.5%, the highest rate among reforestation projects in Southeast Asia.

LUNGS OF THE CITY

To the world outside, the watershed is not nearly romantic as it is necessary. The La Mesa watershed is the lungs of the city. According to renowned urban planner Architect Jun Palafox, 3 million trees are required to clean the air that is polluted by EDSA alone.

“The trees in La Mesa can partially compensate for the lack of open spaces,” Palafox said, “if we don’t have enough trees to clean the air, we have unhealthy cities.”

On average, one tree can absorb up to 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. The trees in La Mesa rid the city of less than 37 million carbon dioxide yearly.

The paradise inside at the heart of Quezon City (Photo by Leo Ecijan)

The paradise inside at the heart of Quezon City (Photo by Leo Ecijan)

The international standard for development, according to Palafox, is that you allot 8 square meters of open space per person. That’s what Central Park is to New Yorkers or Hyde Park to Londoners.

“With over 20 million people during the day, Metro Manila is an urban laboratory of how not to develop a city,” Palafox said.

The reforested area of the watershed was recently open to public use, but on limited terms. Visitors need to call in advance and they have to bring their own bikes, or trek by foot. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the area, except for the rangers’ truck and motorcycles, and everybody have to be guided by a ranger until they’re done.

The alternative of course is the 33-hectare Eco Park, accessible to everyone at all times. The park features bird watching, butterfly sanctuary and other recreation activities.

The entrance fee you pay at Eco Park is what helps maintain the reforestation efforts at the watershed.

One tour inside the watershed, one glimpse into the paradise they have created, and one breath of eucalyptic air are all it takes to help anyone understand just why Azurin dedicated his whole life to building this oasis.

A buttefly at the sanctuary in La Mesa Eco Park (Photo by Lian Buan)

A buttefly at the sanctuary in La Mesa Eco Park (Photo by Lian Buan)

THE WORLD OUTSIDE

Outside the restored forest however, there is an estero, the situation is far from an oasis, and 64-year-old Rogelio Bautista has not had a permanent home for 15 years. He moved to Quezon City from Cavite in 1975 to work for the watershed. Through the years, he and the other men built homes at the forest.

They were hired by the  Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System  or the MWSS, the government agency who owns the land. Azurin belongs to a private company tapped to head the reforestation. Together with the local government of Quezon City, they form the tripartite partnership responsible for the watershed.

In 1999, when the reforestation was underway along with the construction of the Eco Park, MWSS had to evict around 36 families, including Bautista’s.

MWSS gave each of the family P18,000.

Rogelio Bautista and another evictee from the watershed, Ricardo Buenaventura (Photo by Lian Buan)

Rogelio Bautista and another evictee from the watershed, Ricardo Buenaventura (Photo by Lian Buan)

“Dapat naman sana alam naman nila na nag trabaho kami sa loob, kahit papano naman sana tinulungan kami na saang lugar kami dalhin na magandang paglalagyan, wala naman sinabi samin,” Bautista said.

(They could have at least known that we were their workers for many years and that we needed their help, to help us relocate, but they didn’t tell us anything.)

Bautista was living in the watershed for more 25 years. Now he rents a small one-bedroom flat for him and his three children in Sitio Sapamanai, Bgy. Fairview, just outside the Eco Park.

Pancho Torres, 60, lives in neighboring Sitio Ruby. He was from Negros Oriental; he worked and lived for 20 years at the watershed before being evicted.

“Wala kaming magawa kundi tanggapin ang P18,000 kaysa makipagsapilitan ka ang kalaban mo pader, walang mangyayari sa’yo,” Torres said, “napakahirap talaga kasi hindi mo alam saan ka lilipat, mayroong gabi na hindi ka makatulog paano mo itataguyod ang pamilya mo.”

(We had no choice but to take the P18,000 cash. It was either that or fight them, we were pushed to the wall, we couldn’t do anything. It was difficult because we didn’t know where we’d stay, there were many night I couldn’t sleep because I didn’t know how to provide for my family.)

Theirs is a forgotten story. It happened way back in 1999 and their bitter sentiments pale in comparison to the colorful account of reforesting 1,500 hectares of nature reserve.

But Torres said that what happened to them reflects the careless planning of government when it comes to development. They hire workers like them from the provinces without clear strategy for the future.

MWSS Deputy Administrator Atty. Zoilo Andin claims that giving the families cash in 1999 was a legitimate way of resolving issues of informal settlers affected by a government project. It is called the “Balik-Probinsya program” and settlers are either given cash to go back to the province or are offered relocation, but never both.

The efficiency of “Balik-Probinsya” program can be gauged easily from its name. Do they really go back to the province? All 36 families evicted in 1999 live just outside Eco Park to this day.

“May tracking assistance para maihatid mo sa sakayan, para makasigurado kang kahit papano’y nakakauwi yan, tutuloy siyang babalik sa kanyang pinanggalingan,” Andin said, “at the end, kahit nakasakay ‘yan ng barko, kung ‘yan ay babalik naman at magse-settle nanaman illegally, ano na ‘yan.”

(There is a tracking assistance, they are taken to the terminals, so we are sure that they are able to go home, to go back to the province. At the end, even though they rode ships home, if they are to return and settle illegally once again in the Metro, we can’t do anything.)

Palafox agree with the retired men of Bgy. Fairview. According to Palafox, the government needs to review their resttlement programs so they don’t end up congesting the city. Or in the case of La Mesa, doing a good thing for the forest, but ends up looking like bad planning.

“There should be a more comprehensive study on the whole of metro manila because even those affected by Ondoy, until now they don’t have a relocation site,” Architect Palafox said.

WATER WORKS

Parts of Bgy. Fairview where Torres and Bautista live is an urban poor project of the government where resettlers were allowed to buy rights and then build homes.

Palafox urges the government to look at resettlement sites like Bgy. Fairview for an important issue: water.

One of the reasons why the watershed was revived was to protect the La Mesa dam, the reservoir that supplies water to the whole of Metro Manila and other neighboring provinces. If resettlement areas end up contaminating water supply because of improper sewerage, then all the efforts would have been for nothing.

“Maybe instead of allowing septic tanks, there should be a sewerage system and sewerage interceptor before they pollute the water,” Palafox said.

The reforestation project at the watershed is not finished. As of now, there remain more than 200 hectares that need to be reforested. But history will repeat itself, because to be able to do that, they need to resolve resettlement for the hundred families already living there.

Andin said they are looking at all possible options to properly address this issue, and make sure they protect the welfare of the informal settlers.

One thing is for sure, though, they will have to leave.

“Importante kasi na ma-maintain nating malinis at maayos ang watershed ng La Mesa, nakakatulong itong ibaba o i-maintain sa reasonable na presyo ang tubig nating ginagamit sa pang araw-araw.”

(It’s important to maintain the La Mesa Watershed because it helps lower or at least maintain a reasonable price for the water we drink and use everyday.)

Azurin, on the other hand, does not like to get his hands dirty with the conflicts of resettlement. His job is to just grow trees and protect them.

Dave Azurin, head forester at the watershed (Photo by Leo Ecijan)

Dave Azurin, head forester at the watershed (Photo by Leo Ecijan)

In 2016, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Azurin’s company and MWSS will expire. MWSS will bid it out to interested parties, including Azurin’s company, for fair competition.

Azurin loses sleep over the possibility that he may have to leave it all next year. He hopes he can continue but if he can’t, he can only trust that the next people will put in as much dedication, or maybe more.

“Tingin ko rin kayang ireplicate ito sa mga ibang areas na watershed o hindi lang watershed kundi sa ibang forest area at sana magaya nila ito,” Azurin said.

(I think that this can be replicated in other areas or watershed, I hope they can copy this.)

The future holds a lot for the watershed. There may be a change of management, and there will be another rounds of eviction.

For Torres and Bautista, they hope that lessons have been learned and that the remaining informal settlers would not have to go through what they did.

For Azurin, it still remains clear that protecting the trees and the forest is of utmost importance.

For MWSS, a challenge — from Pope Francis’ ‘Laudato Si’:

“Any technical solution which science claims to offer will be powerless to solve the serious problems of our world if humanity loses its compass, if we lose sight of the great motivations which make it possible for us to live in harmony, to make sacrifices and to treat each other well.”

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