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BAROBBOB WATERSHED

VIRGILIO A. TIONGSON 

In general, decentralization in the province of Nueva Vizcaya had a rough sailing during the early years.In particular, devolution in the forestry sector was a bit worst.In 1992, DENR tried to devolve some of their responsibilities and functions to municipalities but there were no takers.So, they persuaded the province to accept some community-based projects accompanied by a division of ISF personnel.

In contrast therefore, to the excitement of the exponents of RA 7160 when it was passed in 1991, decentralization was largely a non-event in Nueva Vizcaya.

DENR’s pledge in 1992, which was stipulated in a MOA of Devolution, to turn over communal forests, small watersheds and municipal parks failed to materialize.Also the LGU technical capacitation by DENR was not carried out.

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[1Draft of paper to be presented to the watershed conference on “Linking the Philippines Watershed:Conference-workshop on Local Experiences and Collective Actions in Watershed Management” on October 26-28, 1999, Cebu Midtown Hotel, Cebu City.

[2Provincial Administrator, Province of Nueva Vizcaya

In the ensuing years, the province has become the catchment of all sorts of forestry related complaints but its capacity to respond is exasperatingly limited.The Provincial Governor had become the shock absorber of peoples’ grievances over concerns which are actually within the domain of DENR.Because devolution remained stalemated and devolved authority was ambiguous, the already degraded state of the environment was further aggravated.

A raging conflict between upland occupants in a small watershed called Barobbob and the irrigators’ association downstream, set the stage for LGU crystalization, assertion and advancement of devolved and decentralized management of functions.The Barobbob case is a chronicle of the struggles and small victories waged and earned through local government initiatives in watershed management.

Barobbob is a 429 ha. watershed which hosts the Provincial Waterworks serving the potable water requirements of 2,000 households in two municipalities.The spillover from the waterworks dam supplies irrigation water to 400 hectares of farmlands in six barangays.

DENR through the years failed to prevent the entry of more than 100 families which because of poverty of opportunities in the nearby locality where they come from, used the critical resource for “subsistence by degradation”.In no time, the once economic and ecological jewel has become an open access area of cogon and brush land as DENR watched in seeming helplessness.

Even with the incarceration of some occupants, the depletion of the resource continued.DENR’s punitive response and strict policy enforcement created only distrust and hostility and for a time in the recent past Barobbob became a sanctuary for insurgents.This was the climate when the LGU mediated the dispute between occupants and farmers.

The offer of the LGU to place the occupants in one settlement area near the watershed with basic facilities and amenities was rudely rebuffed.This humbling experience prompted the LGU to rethink its approach and review its methods.

At this juncture, the provincial government learned to unlearn its tactics in winning community cooperation.Through skillful and delicate handling of subsequent dialogues, the community aspirations and hierarchy of needs finally surfaced.It turned out that their true and primordial desire was to obtain tenure in whatever form over their present occupation which explained their refusal to resettle even if the conditions offered appeared to be attractive.With freer exchange of information it dawned upon the LGU that the food security objectives of the occupants are not necessarily incompatible with or separate from the ecological security objectives of the state.This insight has profoundly altered governments’ traditional concept that watersheds should be “people free”.In light of prevailing realities, the LGU realized that the system properties of watersheds are better understood in terms not only of the biophysical context but the social context.

With this shift in perspective, the LGU proposed to DENR to devolve the watershed under its management and control.Although it was the impression of the LGU that the DENR was only too glad to be rid of one of its main embarrassments, the ravaged area being located within the capital town and is located very close to the National Highway, DENR found the terms of the turnover not tenable.For one, during the past 20 years, the local DENR insisted on its policy interpretation, that a Presidential Proclamation in 1969 has placed the province under a “critical watershed” status, thus, no human occupancy, much less a tenure be granted to the occupants.The LGU on the other hand countered that another interpretation of the same proclamation would have simply declared the province as a “forest reserve” for a huge hydro-electric plant located in the nearby province.

To break the stand off, the Provincial Governor asserted its “Area Manager” role and invoked Section 16 and Section 3 (1) of the Code, which provide respectively the rights of society to a balanced ecology and the maintenance and management by the LGU of ecological balance.

Grudgingly but eventually, the DENR gave up its resistance and signed its concurrence to a Land Management Agreement (LMA) entered into between the provincial government and the individual members of the watershed association which was then formed and registered, giving them 25 years tenure renewable for another25 years.Part of the agreement was the adoption and implementation of the Strategic Watershed Management Plan which preceded the LMA in a series of participatory planning workshops and organizational skills building exercises.

Barely a year after issuance of tenure, Barobbob as the first LGU managed watershed won the “GALING POOK AWARD” in July 16, 1999 under the category of Watershed Management.

When the Governor of the province was asked by the Galing Pook panel to cite one significant accomplishment of the project, the Governor without hesitation mentioned the dramatic reduction of forest fires in the watershed which used to be frequent.When pursued further to elaborate, the Governor explained that with the dimunition of fires, there is now an evident regeneration of natural forest.But generally, natural regeneration was also noticeable provincewide which may also be attributed to a popular annual search for the cleanest and greenest municipalities, barangay, public and private buildings and places.This aggressive year-long program has raised the level of public awareness and concern for forest protection and renewal, triggering tree planting from among small landholders, NGOs and POs and even former kaingeros because of the unique harvesting rights latched to the tree program which the LGU initiated as incentive to tree planters.

The watershed is now evolving into a self-managed entity through its association, while the LGU nurtures the organization through empowering measures.The irrigators have expressed support to the watershed program.It has become the object of cross visits from other LGUs and international funding agencies.The simple but downright answers of the “land managers” whenever they are interviewed by visitors is consistent.Whereas, before, they hide in the forest for fear of DENR forestguards; today, they work openly without fear but with pride in pursuing their livelihood and in putting back the trees.They believe their future and the restoration of the ecological balance are interdependent.One of the notable comments comes from a young person whose spontaneous remark may represent a new paradigm in the watershed.He said that before, whenever they walk through the watershed they hack the shrubs with their bolos, as a habit, but now they no longer do so for they might hurt saplings.As a matter of fact whenever they see one, they would clear the weeds around it so that the young tree may grow.

This is the evolving story of Barobbob Watershed, which represents a major breakthrough in devolution and a new model in forest management.Barobbob under current developments is also inspiring other municipal LGUs to already accept and for the DENR to transfer the management of communal forests, small watersheds and municipal parks which DENR has not yet done although they are mandated to do so since 1992.Eight years after the passage of the Local Government Code, Nueva Vizcaya may yet succeed in demonstrating to the country that LGUs are after all capable and should be trusted in protecting, managing and developing forest resources.