YOU’VE seen Sierra Madre in pictures and movies, but what does not take center stage is the reality that it supplies millions of people with food, water and shelter. Being the Philippines’ longest mountain range, it requires the establishment of multiple government reservations called Protected Areas to cover as much of its territory as possible.
The largest of these, if not of all the terrestrial Protected Areas in the country, is the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, or NSMNP.
The east side of Luzon’s largest province of Isabela is covered by NSMNP. It also includes a beautiful coastline lined with pristine beaches, mangroves, and coral reefs. What makes this coastline even more unique are the large tracts of undisturbed forest—beginning right at the edge of the beach.
Heading inland from the coast, 16 watersheds can be found. They supply water to at least 1.5 million people, the highest population in Region II. With a growing population, water demand is expected to be even higher in the near future. Making NSMNP even more valuable to the community are its inhabitants of the feathered, furry, and scaly kind. All of them indicators of the health and safety of their home.
According to the DENR-Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) of Isabela, more than 291 species of birds can be found in NSMNP. The national bird, the Philippine Eagle (Pithe-cophaga jefferyi), is among the 83 of these birds that can only be found in the Philippines. Of the mammals found there, 25 of them cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Among the heaviest of the world’s flying mammals, the Golden Crowned Flying Fox (Acerodon jubatus), can be found there roosting along steep slopes and cliff edges. The freshwater Philippine Crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis) is one of sixteen reptile species found in NSMNP that are endemic to the Philippines.
With hectares of land still unstudied and unexplored, the biodiversity richness in NSMNP is expected to go up. These animals help in securing a balanced ecosystem for millions of people, so their protection and the protection of their domain must be secured.
Unfortunately much of NSMNP, although “protected on paper,” is still under threat from local, national, and foreign interests.
Locally, residents slowly encroach on the park from different areas. Timber collection, kaingin (slash and burn farming), and wildlife collection for the exotic pet trade persists. Many can be found sold today in Manila where according to The University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute, two new species of water monitor lizard were found recently by researchers. NSMNP, being home to its own fair share of lizard species, could be one of the sources for these illegal markets.
At the national level, mining companies both foreign and domestic are still allowed to apply for exploration permits. The Mines and Geosciences Bureau approved an exploration permit in May of 2014 for Goodearth Mining and Development Inc. for a 1,968-hectare area in Dinapigue, Isabela: right at the southern tip of NSMNP. Although within the boundaries of current (but not-so-environment-friendly) mining laws, permits to explore near Protected Areas offer no comfort to those concerned with conserving the ecological services NSMNP provides.
The Philippines Biodiversity and Watersheds Improved for Stronger Economy and Ecosystem Resilience) or B+WISER Program, a project of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in partnership with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is working with communities from the nine municipalities in Isabela province within NSMNP: Maconacon, Divilican, Palanan, Dinapigue, San Mariano, Ilagan, Tumauini, Cabagan, and San Pablo. B+WISER, now on its third year, has come up with a forest restoration strategy for NSMNP to help restore forest cover and conserve the protected area’s rich biodiversity. Also, B+WISER alongside partner the Haribon Foundation conducted a series of workshops for teachers and students, who have now become champions of conservation, and call themselves Eco Guardians and Eco Rangers respectively—birthing community-based conservation projects with the support of DENR, the local governments, and other agencies.
The continued support for Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park will ensure that its vast resources are sustained and protected for people to enjoy far into the future. Many challenges confront NSMNP and the communities that work to protect it, and if further is lost all that may be left of NSMNP might only be found in a song or a movie.
Learn more about different Philippine conservation efforts and how you can help by visiting USAID.gov/philippines/energy-and-environment/bwiser and Haribon.org.ph.
Provincial Environment & Natural Resources Office of Isabela province (Isabela PENRO)
Threats to the Sierra Madre (www.conservation.org)
Unique forest coastline (www.birdlife.org)
New species of lizards found . . . on the black market (news.ku.edu)