WHEN you gaze at the Sierra Madre, you are admiring the longest mountain range in the Philippines. Spanning almost 500 kilometers in length and including 10 provinces in three regions in Luzon, it is home and a primary source of life to a large number of wildlife species and human communities. But what you don't see, under its seemingly serene beauty, is nature's power to sustain and protect — and how taking this power for granted can result in terrible consequences.

Sierra Madre's forests provide fresh water to residents of Metro Manila, Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Nueva Ecija, Quirino, Aurora, Quezon, Rizal, Laguna and Bulacan. Sierra Madre also stabilizes the water flow and soil to prevent typhoon-related calamities. Moreover, its terrain provides a buffer to Central Luzon and its densely populated cities, slowing down and often taking the brunt of typhoons. Just like a doting mother, Sierra Madre gives sustenance and protects her children.

Haribon Chief Operating Officer Anna Varona CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Haribon Chief Operating Officer Anna Varona CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

In recent decades, the country experienced a boom in real estate development and the implementation of land reform. Mountains were cleared, slash-and-burn farming prevailed in key biodiversity areas, and mono-agroforestry became popular. Though built on good intentions, these initiatives took a long-term toll on our species' habitats.

Typhoon "Winnie" in 2004 claimed 1,500 lives due to flash floods and landslides, Francisco D. Elle Jr. of Barangay Tanauan Farmers Association (Batafa) sadly recalls. Francisco points out that the lack of sustainable livelihoods destroyed Sierra Madre and the lack of trees caused the death of people he knew.

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This year, our country was threatened by Super Typhoon "Karding," with maximum sustained winds of 185 kilometers per hour (kph) and predicted to reach gusts of up to 230 kph. However, Karding significantly slowed down as it traversed Sierra Madre. Once again, the mountain range's large surface area of slopes and curves weakened the typhoon.

For the past 12 years, our Haribon Foundation foresters, rangers and communities have worked to reclaim habitats totaling an area of 540 km. Haribon Foundation planted 1.6 million trees in these areas, with a successful survival rate of 96.5 percent. Haribon has created partnerships with over 500 communities, leaders and women's organizations. These relationships allow the organization to work towards restoring Sierra Madre.

Nowadays, in Sierra Madre, you'll find former loggers turned forest rangers, empowered women purposeful in their roles in conservation leadership, Indigenous people protecting their ecosystems, and local communities' genuine commitment to preserving their environment. People like women leaders in Southern Sierra Madre like Celia "Tita Aba" Ungriano know that calling for the protection of the "backbone of Luzon" must be done all year long, as it continues to face threats.

While Sierra Madre protects and gives life to humans, humans threaten its well-being. The Kaliwa Dam project looms over the mountains and indigenous people like a dark heavy cloud ready to pour destruction over its serene mountainside. The town of Infanta, created by the deposition of sediment, can be eradicated from the face of the earth.

There is a sustainable way to achieve economic growth while being empathetic stewards of nature. Sierra Madre is a reminder to prioritize building healthy ecosystems around our country, whether in far-flung areas or concrete communities. It's time to listen to environmental advocates when they say we must save our native botanical and animal life by saving our native trees.

It's time to protect our roots and build our canopies.

Anna Varona is the chief operating officer of the Haribon Foundation. She has been a Haribon member since her college years at De La Salle University. Her tree-hugging days led her back to Haribon as the advocate we know today.

In the past decade, Varona became a responsible tourism advocate through the show 'Last Wild Place.' She worked with the United Nations Development Program and World Wildlife Fund as a marine protected area advocate and warrior against plastic pollution. She was the silent force that convinced Okada to responsibly dispose of their 130,000 balloons meant to be dropped at a New Years' party at the Cove.

Varona was one of the first to teach people to sort plastics by type and how to prepare it for upcycling. As the founder of Drop the Plastic and Clean Our Oceans Project, she led the movement that successfully called for multinational firms, such as Nestle and Unilever, to empower consumers to prepare their consumer plastics to become upcycle ready; and diverted more than 21 tons of clean, dry and segregated plastics from the ocean within one year, encouraging the circular economy, where plastics are not treated as garbage, but as a raw material used by plastic manufacturers to use in making chairs, tables, crates and other consumer products.