12 Apr 2017

Former drug users turn conservationists to save the Philippine Eagle

Former drug users, indigenous people and conservationists form an unlikely team for the noblest of causes: restore the forest where the Haring Ibon lives. And it’s a success.

 Philippine Eagle, known by locals as Haring Bon © Nigel Voaden
Philippine Eagle, known by locals as Haring Bon © Nigel Voaden
By Albert Balbutin & Luca Bonaccorsi

Drug addicts, members of the Dumagat ethnic group, and local conservationists. It is rather eclectic, this bunch of people crossing the River Dupinga. The locals know the river all too well, and fear it. It brings water and fish, life really, if the weather is good. But with copious rains it quickly turns into a merciless killer with flash-floods and mudslides.

We are in Luzon, the largest and most intensely populated island of the Philippine archipelago (roughly half the land area of the UK but with the same population).The Dumagat, one of the Philippines’ Indigenous Peoples who call the forest their home, were once hunter-gatherers and nomadic. With the forest offering less and less they live now impoverished, often thanks to small jobs with lowland dwellers.

The drug users belong to the group that has accepted to change their way of life. Here, in the midst of the highly controversial war on drugs” that has seen an escalation in illegal killings and death squads, they call them “surrenderees”.

 Forest restoration workers on their way to the planting site. Gabaldon, Luzon © Sam Manalastas

The conservationists are members of the Haribon Foundation (BirdLife in the Philippines) and worship this place since it’s one of the last habitats of the majestic Philippine Eagle Pithecophaga jefferyi (Critically Endangered).

It’s in the name of the charismatic “King of the Birds”, Haring Ibon, and its forest, and thanks to the intervention of the local government of Gabaldon, that these three very different groups of people have come together.

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Their mission? Get the “drug surrenderees” to plant high-value fruit trees not too far away from where Philippine Eagle sightings have taken place as part of their community service.

And in order to plant mango, rambutan, guyabano, langka, and coffee, as well as native trees such as narra and duhat, the forest knowledge held by the Dumagat, and the conservationists, is much needed. “Forest restoration is what Gabaldon needs. It is an investment that could save the future generations of the municipality”, says Sam Manalastas, Community Organizer for Haribon.

For months now Manalastas has been working with Dumagat members and other sectors in the town of Gabaldon to come up with a Critical Habitat Management Plan. The plan involves five years of conservation actions to help protect the Haring Ibon of Mt. Mingan, which lives not too far from the fast-growing municipalities in the lowland areas of Gabaldon and San Luis in the Aurora province.

Drug addicts, members of the Dumagat ethnic group, and local conservationists are the unlikely group of heroes saving the Philippine Eagle © Sam Manalastas

“By planting trees,” adds Manalastas, “they are helping not only the biodiversity of Mt. Mingan, but also their municipality in becoming resilient against climate change.

”As the present administration’s war on drugs continues in many areas of the country, the public remains divided on what to expect. With killings still taking place, some groups support the call to arms against drugs and the crimes associated with it, while others declare it an assault to human rights and the judicial process.

The trek to the planting site is not the easiest one: a river to cross, rough terrain, steep hills. Puffing and panting up a grassy hill, the former addict is probably having second thoughts about his “healthy rehab”, but then he smiles at the view and pushes on. By the end of the day, their foreheads wet with honest work, mission is completed. For the local government the initiative sends a strong message: the area is safe.

For the Dumagat a good pay, the recognition of their forest wisdom and a step towards inclusion. For drug users a chance to change life (and get home safe). For conservationists a small contribution to the health of Mt. Mingan, home to the King of the Birds. The most obvious of win-wins. Conservation has done it again.