The trail that meanders like a giant snake on the mountain North-West of Eddet River is full of pesky pebbles. The constant downpour—rather a common feature of the Mount Pulag National Park of Northern Philippines—has made that trail, with an angle of about 60 degrees, a tad more difficult to traverse.
While hiking on the trail during a rainy afternoon, Patricia Torga, a Quezon City-based doctor was as tired as a hiker could be on the first day (of any hike). Her legs were shaking because of the constant uphill hike and she felt the immediate need of taking some sugary element to boost her energy.
Torga unwrapped a chocolate bar and started eating while sitting in a very uncomfortable position in that near-vertical trail. Upon finishing it—no matter how tired she was—she didn’t throw the chocolate wrapper, rather opened her backpack, brought out a trash bag and put it inside.
I was right beside her on the trail, and to my Bangladeshi eyes—which considered ‘littering’ as not that offensive, especially in the hilly terrains—it was an equally surprising and inspiring act to behold. “This is one of our national parks. I feel obligated to protect it,” said Torga when I praised her for what she did.
It was not just Patricia Torga, in fact, almost all of the hikers who were on the Akiki trail en route to the summit of Mount Pulag, the third highest mountain of Philippines and the highest mountain of the island of Luzon, abided by this code as I came to know during that hike.
They strictly tried to practice “leaving no trace” in the mountains.
Jasen Sumalapo, a threat management engineer from Pasay City who was on the trail, told me, “Leaving no garbage behind is not a difficult task if anyone has honest intentions in his/her mind. In Metro Manila, I litter sometimes because there’s someone to clean it up, but I don’t do that here since there’s no one to take care of the litter.”
Because of this increased awareness among the adventure seeking hikers, the 11,500-hectare protected park is still in very good shape even after increasing footfalls throughout the years. The park authority has also been trying to keep it in good shape, albeit with limited manpower. Even the Akiki trail, which is less travelled because of its difficulty, has designated areas for camping and disposing of human waste.
Hiking on this trail was thus a unique experience for me because I have seen people littering even on the trails in well-maintained parks of Canada, not to mention in Nepali or Indian Himalayas, but here the Filipinos take pride in maintaining the code of “no littering” with determination.
Eco-friendly adventure club
In fact, the strict adherence for the conservation of Mount Pulag by the Filipino people became evident to me even before I set my foot on the Akiki trail. First from Shiny Bulotano, the owner of Mother Earth Adventure Club which conducts regular hiking trails to Mount Pulag via its three trails—namely Akiki, Ambangeg and Tawangang trails.
As I forgot to bring my trekking poles from Bangladesh for the trail, I asked her whether I would be able to get some wooden or bamboo sticks on the trail. She replied with a definitive “no” telling me that breaking any branches off trees on the trail for using as a hiking stick is not at all encouraged.
She told me that they are an eco-friendly adventure club and they don’t support hurting the national park in any manner—be it something as small as breaking a simple branch.
Before the hike, Shiny sent emails on several occasions, asking me and others to bring reusable utensils and kitchenware so that nothing would be left behind on the trail. Even at the bus-stand, where she came to see us off, she reiterated about the policy of “leaving no trace behind.”
Elaborate presentation at the DENR office
That policy was later elaborately explained by Daisy Moresto, park attendant at Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) office inside the Mount Pulag national park. Ms Moresto explained to us—the hikers—“what to do” through a 30-minute video documentary which was pretty self-explanatory.
She said that Mount Pulag is considered a sacred site by the different tribes who live there. We were not to leave any trash. Nor should we behave in a boisterous manner and we must be respectful of the customs and culture of the ancestral people who have occupied the place for ages.
“No picking flowers or any vegetation, no shouting, no drugs, no scandalous behavior, and no sex!” she said.
She informed that Camping on Luzon’s highest peak is no longer allowed during weekends. Also, from December last year, park employees have been marking visitors with indelible ink to enable them to track down the trekkers.
By prohibiting camping on certain days, she said, “visitors would have to use the homestay services. By advocating a homestay program, the park authority is helping the local people to look for alternative livelihood, she explained.
However, she said that vegetable gardening around the base of Mt. Pulag and farm intrusions into the forest remains one of the most complicated problems plaguing the park conservation efforts.
“We have to understand that the park has already been damaged a lot over the years because of increased vegetation by the locals and increased presence by the hikers. If we don’t stay cautious and responsible, then the rich biodiversity of the park will be lost.”
Need more efforts though
On the trail, during the hike, I had appreciated the mountain’s high plant diversity (home to 528 plant species, 42 per cent of which are endemic to the area). I was also struck by the variation in flora, from tall pine trees that clad the mountain’s hillsides to wild orchids thriving on its slopes up to the 7, 000-foot level.
After finishing the trail, I went to the DENR office to get my certificate of the completion of Akiki trail. Emelita Albas, Mt. Pulag park administrator was there at the time and I had the chance to speak with her briefly.
Albus said that though the park authority has been able to impregnate the sense of responsibility among the hikers in conserving the biodiversity of the forests, the risk of losing biodiversity due to increased vegetation can’t be controlled here.
She said another problem in Mount Pulag is that many of the intruders who are engaged in vegetation claim to own parts of Mount Pulag. They make use of the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act (IPRAS) in invoking their claim. But by biological reality, the vast majority of the land has never been occupied. The intense growth of trees, plants, ferns and other botanical biodiversity tells us of thousands of years of growth. Meaning, as Albas explained, no one has really been dwelling in the forest.
“So most of the intruders are outsiders,” she said, “And they are making the conservation efforts very difficult.”
Albus said that the Park contains a unique diversity of flora and fauna, many of which are endemic to the mountain. Its wildlife includes threatened mammals such as the Philippine Brown Deer, Northern Luzon Giant Cloud Rat and the Luzon Pygmy Fruit Bat.
“You can also find several orchid species some of which are possibly endemic to Mt. Pulag, and other rare flora such as the pitcher plant.”
According to her, the destruction of the Mount Pulag ecosystem will be detrimental to the communities within and outside the park because of the natural benefits it provides such as the water supply serving downstream for agriculture, inland aquaculture and household consumption and even hydroelectric power in the six dams of Luzon.
“I hope along with the growing influence of responsible tourism, the unplanned vegetation could be checked very soon.”
Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist. He went to the Philippines as an ACFJ fellow