by VenAp, 08 June 2016
26 March was indeed a Black Saturday for Mt. Apo when a fire started to force its inhabitants at the peak to either flee or die. It then went on for days and nights reducing trees and grasses to ashes.
The fire reached Lake Venado, Kidapawan and the forested areas of Sta. Cruz, Davao del Sur covering a damage of more than 100 hectares of forest.
Over 300 firefighters which includes Indigenous People, mountaineers and volunteers scrambled to stop the fire by excavating fire lanes using bare hands, simple tools and equipment provided by the Philippine Air Force and later by U.S. when they sent two more choppers to airlift drums of water as posted by Philip Dizon. It was only in 12 April, seventeen days later, that the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) declared the fire is under control. A “fire out” was still not possible to declare as they were still overhauling and tracing the track of the affected area to ensure there is no fire under the ground, a news report said.
After the investigation, the cause of the fire remains to be ‘unknown’. Several reports said it was started by some mountaineers who left a live camp fire but to this day, there had been no reports of the culprit/s being apprehended. A certain Mr. Tutin Sapto, a member of Cotabato All-Terrain Bikers Association (CATBA) said in a local media interview that he personally witnessed the start of the unfortunate incident and the perpetrators.
MT. APO CLOSURE
With an aim for the mountain to recover, on March 31, MANP-PAMB En Banc released resolution no. 2016-01 (shown above) stating that:
“Resolution approving the indefinite closure of all Mt. Apo Natural Park Trails for trekking/climbing activities as a result of the Mt. Apo forest fire incident on March 26, 2016”
Thus, all trekking/climbing activities was suspended indefinitely. The resolution applies to all trails leading to Mt. Apo – Kapatagan in Digos City, New Israel in Makilala, Balutakay in Bansalan, Agco in Kidapawan, Bongolanon in Magpet, Baruring in St. Cruz, and Tamayong in Davao City.
All mountaineers scheduled to climb either cancelled or opted for other outdoor activities available in Davao or its nearby provinces. Some expressed dismay but understood and accepted that the closure is for the recovery of the mountain.
Read also: Climbing Mt. Apo the Extreme Way
The ‘Illegal” CLimb
However, on 03 June ForePlay News & Views, a Facebook page, shared photos of hikers who allegedly hiked Mt. Apo last 20 May 2016. According to the post, 11 hikers passed through Sittio Barras, Brgy. Kapatagan in Digos City and was allegedly allowed to climb by Gigi Hilaga who manages the entry point and named Edgar Ian Tesaluna, a Davao-based climb organizer, as the team leader. The information was attributed to Dan Bacus as the source.
One of the photos posted showed climbers standing on one of Mt. Apo’s peak.
“Noong nag-post ako for verification sa mga umakyat, tumawag agad sa akin si Ed Ragaza, head ng DENR na wala silang permit na nai-release kanino man” said Dan Bacus, Chairperson of Mindanao Mountaineering Community.
(When I posted to verify about it, Ed Ragaza, Head of DENR called me and said no permits was issued to anyone)
The post had already been shared many times. On its comment section, some lambasted Tesaluna and called the climb ‘illegal’ and ‘backdoor’ while others were more subdued, commenting that Tesaluna’s photo should have not have been posted on Facebook taking in consideration the bullying, trial by public shaming that is common on social media and the effect on his reputation and family.
In his reply to us, Tesaluna confirmed that he led a team up Mt. Apo on said date. Explaining his side of the story, he said that the climb was pushed through, scheduled a year ahead, after Gigi Hilaga gave the green light saying that not all trails were closed. To support this, he quotes Hilaga;
“Dito sa trail namin sa Kapatagan so far okay siya. Pwede niyo akyatin” supposedly said by Hilaga (the trail via the Kapatagan so far is okay, you can climb), referring to one of the entry point to Mt. Apo, the Kapatagan Trail.
Tesaluna was then instructed to camp at Godi-godi, a camp site along the Kapatagan Trail, “Ganito ang gusto nila, pwede kayong umakyat pero hanggang Godi-godi camp site lang. Then kinabukasan i-day hike lang ninyo ang summit. Mas okay din yan wala kayong karga. Then after that balik kayo sa Godi-godi camp site. Kasi hindi pwede pumunta sa Peak at bawal doon mag-camp” to which according to Tesaluna, they followed to the letter.
(This is what they wanted, it is okay to climb with the condition that we will camp site will be at Godi-godi. Next day, hike to the summit. It is better because everyone has a light pack. Then after that go back to Godi-godi camp site. It is prohibited to go to the peak and camp there)
Tesaluna’s 3-day hike followed this itinerary:
Day 1 (May 19): Camp sa Godi-Godi
Day 2 (May 20): Light pack assault going to summit, then back to Godi-godi, then rest
Day 3 (May 21): Back trail/back to jump-off/entry point
Tesaluna explained that payments of fees and permission to climb are made directly at Barras, “Sa Barras hindi sila nagbibigay nang receipt. Instead logbook lang, yan na ang ginagawa nila noon pa. Then yung logbook mismo ang ipapakita nila sa Digos Tourism para kunin ang pera” (In Barras they don’t issue a receipt, one just needs to sign the logbook. That had been the process since. The logbook will be shown to Digos Tourism (as basis) for the (collection) money).
As a proof, Tesaluna posted a photo of the logbook on his Facebook page while airing his side of the story. He said he paid the necessary fees for each participant which amountd to Php 5,000 each.
The photo shows the names of his participants taken last 01 June when he was notified on that same date that all his scheduled climbs of Mt. Apo starting 01 June are now cancelled.
According to him, they gave him this reason, “Bago lang namin nalaman last June 01, 2016 noong magpadala ng letter ang tourism o DENR na close ang lahat ng trail ng Mt. Apo. Doon pa namin nalaman. Kaya nga tinawagan ka namin para malaman mo na di na pwede akyatin ang Apo” (It is just now that we were informed last June 1, 2016 when the tourism or DENR sent a letter informing us that all trails leading to Mt. Apo are closed. That is why we called you to inform you, climbing Mt. Apo will no longer be allowed).
It can be noted that most of his climbs – local or international, are scheduled a year ahead of the climb proper.
Tesaluna claims that every week a lot of hikers are being allowed to climb Mt. Apo despite the announcement of closure. If this is true, then it seems that some of the entry points were actively operating or there was a miscommunication between the governing agencies and the person in-charge of the entry point. Let us note that cellphone signal and mainstream media or television is limited on most parts of Southern Mindanao. However, the media had widely covered the fire and its aftermath including the closure.
“Kahit lumalabas na pinayagan sila umakyat doon, still illegal pa rin dahil may ordinance na bawal muna akyatin. Mahirap kasi baka magsunuran yung iba kasi katwiran nila pwede naman pala” Bong Magana, the President of a mountaineering non-profit organization CLIMBER said in reaction to the shared post on the official Facebook page of the organization.
(Even if they were allowed to climb, still it was illegal because there was already an ordinance that prohibits climbing. It sets precedence for others to follow)
As the chairperson of MMC, Dan Bacus said that the next step of MFSM and MMC to address the issue is to file a letter of complaint addressed to the DENR, DOT, Office of the Mayor and Office of the President to strengthen the implementation of the closure of Mt. Apo and Mt. Talomo.
Mt. Talomo is another hiking destination in Southern Mindanao and for mountaineers who are looking for a challenging climb, a traverse of Mt. Talomo and Mt. Apo is considered as one of the knee breaking climb the country can offer.
A mountaineer friend who had been to Mt. Apo and other mountains in and outside of the country laments, “It can’t be helped, people need money. The guide and porter fee and other fees hikers pay to our brothers and sisters who live on the surrounds helps them get by and then that source of income was suddenly cut-off, what would you expect?”, adding that ‘backdoor’ climbing is not advisable.
The Fire Effect
The aftermath of the fire that eventually led to the closure of Mt. Apo cut-off one source of income of the community who live on the mountain range. Some of them benefits on the influx of hikers by either selling groceries, souvenirs at entry and exit points or at Lake Venado while the able-bodied men become guides and porters.
Dan Bacus concurs that the closure affected porters and guides the most, “talagang tumagilid po mga porters natin at guide kasi po pinagbawal pero nirespeto nila ito kaya naghanap ng ibang mapagkakakitaan” (our porters and guides were most affected but they respected the closure and are trying to find other sources of income)
“Last week kaming mga officers ng MMC at MFSM nag-attempt kumuha ng permit to climb ng Apo para for evaluation at the same time mamimigay ng mga goodies doon sa mga kapatiran natin na lumads kaso di kami gi allowed, antay na lang daw kami sa schedule nila para doon na kami sasabay. So wala kaming nagawa, kaya ang pamimigay lang ang nagawa namin noong May 29 at doon namin nalaman na may umakyat” Dan Bacus shared.
(last week officers of MFSM and MMC attempted to secure a permit to climb and do an evaluation of and at the same time to give help to our Lumad brothers but we were not permitted. They told us wait for their schedule. We could not do anything, what we were able to accomplish was give the goodies last 29 May that’s when we learned there were several hikers who were allowed to climb)
One of the guide and porter of Mt. Apo shared how the fire had affected them, “Para sa amin ma’am nababawasan ang pagkakakitaan, marami pong mga bookings kaso dahil sa sunog nawala na po, nabawasan ang income po ng mga porters. Balik po sa nakagawiang trabaho tapos naghahanap nang ibang raket saka po ng ibang bundok na pwedeng akyatin” shared Charles Cariaga,
(On our part, we lost a source of income. There were a lot of bookings (climb schedule) but because of the fire it’s gone. The income of porters was reduced. We went back to our usual jobs and other possible source of income, we also looked for other mountains to climb)
Back to the issue of ‘backdoor’ climbing Bacus said, “talagang gusto namin na ipatupad ang mga penalties at sanctions, kung kailangan na i-ban eh i-ban, kung persona non-grata ay gagawin para malaman nila na hindi magaan ang parusa, para po sa ikabubuti ng ating Apo” (the penalties and sanctions should be enforced, ban if need be or declare them persona non-grata for others to be aware that the penalty is not light, for the good of Mt. Apo)
In reaction to Tesaluna’s information that despite the closure, a lot of hikers are being allowed to climb, Bacus said, “Minsan ang kalakaran doon walang permit, may lagayang nangyayari para makalusot” (Sometimes they don’t secure permits, resorting to bribes to be able to climb)
According to an organizer who previously facilitated climbs before the fire, the process of securing permits in Digos is on arrival, referring to the entry point of Kapatagan Trail. However, his last entry last year required him to secure a permit in advance because there was a set limit of hikers on the Sta. Cruz Trail.
According to Dan Bacus, the discussion to resolve the issue was slated 07 June but as per information, Gigi Hilaga whose statement was much needed, was not able to attend.
On that meeting, Tesaluna was able to explain the series of events that transpired and at the end of the meeting the resolution was to wait for the Regional Director to decide, “They will submit a report and recommendation to the Regional Director for his information and appropriate action”.
Whatever decision the governing agencies make, let us hope that the sanction be fair on both parties as it seems that there had been lapses on both sides. Also, the investigation on the cause of the fire should not be shelved and that the culprits (if the claim was true that there were people who left a live camp fire) be apprehended and punished to the extent of the law.
Backdoor climbing is of course not advisable as it entails safety concerns in the event of accidents. The mountains are supposedly free and for everyone but the government agencies tasked in protecting our country’s natural resources have deemed it necessary to collect hefty fees (entrance, exit fees, environmental fee etc.) to support its protection (whatever protection means to DENR).
May we all be vigilant in doing mountaineering because our smallest actions has great impact on a mountains’ ecosystem or to its inhabitants. Like a domino effect, there were a lot of lives affected by the fire.#
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