ONE of the country’s last lowland forest frontiers, Mt. Siburan in Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro, is a sanctuary for thriving biodiversity. Its base is home of the most unlikely guardians as there lies the Sablayan Prison and Penal Farm (SPPF). The vast land houses more than 3,000 inmates, some from National Bibilid Prison for decongestion purposes.
Out of these inmates, a group was trained by Haribon Foundation to become bird guides. One, who is called Charlie (not his real name), is still active in service. Incarcerated in 2006, he was chosen by the SPPF management to help around the office, doing menial tasks. In 2008, Haribon approached the prison and penal farm for a project that Charlie considers as one that would change his life forever.
Beginning in the early part of 2000, Haribon, through funding from the European Commission (EU) and in partnership with BirdLife International, Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DENR) and the Local Government of Sablayan, Mindoro, provided technical assistance to the Sablayan Forest Management Board composed of local stakeholders including SPPF. Consequently, Haribon initiated a partnership with SPPF because of its strategic location—a key site for biodiversity conservation particularly indigenous birds that thrive in the area. It’s also been identified as one of 117 Important Bird Area or IBA sites in the Philippines.
Among the activities implemented was developing the capacity of a group of inmates exhibiting interest and skill to serve as bird guides in Mt. Siburan within SPPF. Charlie, being one of the trusted detainees, was invited to join the series of bird guide trainings conducted by Haribon. After completion of his trainings, Charlie became part of the Important Bird and Biodiversity Area Monitoring System (IBAMS) team member. This is a group of trained locals who aim to apply state-pressure-response analysis to contribute to the management of the area as well as monitor indicator species and other flora and fauna.
Charlie says, “Laking siudad kasi ako. Dito [in SPPF]lang ako namulat sa kaganda¬han ng gu¬bat. Naging bird guide ako noong 2009 matapos kong ma¬kumpleto lahat ng turo ng Haribon.”
As a bird guide, he confidently states that he knows all the four forest trails, “pati wetland, forest, at grasslands,” like the back of his hand and because he can speak decent English, he’s also tapped to guide foreigners who come to visit the forest to bird watch. To date, he can identify 70 plus bird species that thrive in the mountain. He treks up to an elevation of more than up to three meters of Mt. Siburan to conduct bird watching.
“Bungad pa lang dito [Mt. Siburan] marami nang ibon. May mga Mindoro Tariktik Hornbill [Penelopides mindo¬rensis] at Philippine Coucal [Centropus viridis]—both endemic in the country. May mga panahon kasi, depende sa fruiting season, na madami kang makikitang species ng bird. Halos lahat ng ibon, kapag na¬munga ang Balete [Ficus benjamina] ‘yun ang pinakapa¬boritong pahingaan at tirahan nila.”
“Pag may bisita, ‘di ako nagbibigay ng presyo, donation basis so bahala na kung magkano. Minsan libre, thank you na lang, pero okay lang kasi magaan naman sa loob ko ang gawin ito. Katulad po nang dumating dito ang isang prominent businessman kasama po asawa nya, Php1,000 a day ang bigay n’ya. E tatlong araw sila dito. Walang share ang SPPF. Sa aking personal income lang ito,” he recounts.
Because of his daily exposure in Mt. Siburan’s lush foliage and seeing the birds’ magnificence that depend on this area, Charlie along with other bird watchers, began not only to appreciate the beauty of nature but also were transformed to be its unlikely guardians. Through their stories, they consequently educate on the importance of forests and biodiver¬sity to their companions in the cell as well as their families and friends who visit them and they became more active in tree and crop planting activities in the penal farm.
Although Charlie is the only one remaining bird guide from his batch in SPPF since the rest of the trained group got their pardon earlier, his dedication in protecting the birds’ sanctuary and biodiver¬sity is impressively prominent. He’s extremely protective of the mountain by sharing fresh ideas on how to better guard the area.
Charlie, being a seasoned bird guide, proudly admits that he has established credibility and confidence in his abilities. He expressed, “Marami pong bisita dito na nagbibigay ng calling card, na sa paglaya ko, pwede raw akong magtrabaho sa kanila. Malaki ang naitulong ng Haribon—natuto akong magmahal ng kalikasan, ng conservation ng gubat. Ang naging kaalaman ko ay napapakinabangan ko na. ‘Di pa ko lumalaya, may mga nag-hihintay na oportunidad sa ‘kin na tra¬baho. Kaya lubos akong nagpapa¬salamat sa Haribon.”
Act. Make an Impact. Help Haribon Foundation in continuing its conservation efforts and programs. Call: +63 (2) 421-1209 and/or email: firstname.lastname@example.org to make a donation today!