When Datu Rodelio “Waway” Saway was younger, his exhalations hung in the cool morning air of the Philippine rainforest in his village of Songco as he gazed out at Mount Kitanglad, nearly 10,000 feet tall. He attributes the disappearance of his breath fog over the years to global warming.

Waway, 53, is a traditional musician and pioneer of the art of soil painting using 23 hues from the earth where he lives. He is a cultural bearer of the Talaandig tribe, one of seven in the Bukidnon province in Mindanao and one of an estimated 110 Indigenous groups in the country.

The second largest and poorest island in the nation, Mindanao is nevertheless known as the “food basket” of the Philippines, devoting a third of its land to agriculture and producing 40% of the country’s nourishment, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.

Land survey data and satellite image-guided estimates suggest that over two thirds of the primary rainforest cover in Bukidnon is gone and continues to disappear. Over a century of denudation of the mountain landscape for hardwood exports, development and commercial farming has exacerbated fires, floods, landslides and water supply problems that threaten lives and reduce economic security.

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One Talaandig tribe member serenades another on a traditional bamboo flute at a reforestation and agroforestry site in Songco village in Bukidnon Province on Mindanao island. Courtesy: Henry Binahon

Deforestation And Climate Change

Newly elected as a municipal councilman in June, Waway seeks to connect the local government with community-led efforts to restore the upland rainforest ecosystem, maintain the food supply and create economic opportunities for the impoverished Indigenous people. If successful, these local partnerships could provide a template for much-needed solutions on a larger scale.

Deforestation worsens the impact of climate change-related natural disasters across the entire Philippines, a geographically diverse archipelago of over 7,640 islands. Without trees to absorb rain and spread nutrients, soil becomes dust, mountains crumble and the water supply diminishes because, without anything to catch it, precipitation dries up after flooding empty land and overwhelming rivers. The peak dry season in spring then becomes a drought with heightened forest fire risk. The answer, advocates say, is to try to reverse the damage.

“After these floods, they just pray to God. But they’ve been praying for a long time that God will protect them but they did not plant a single tree. God cannot give you a hectare of trees so that you’ll be protected. You should plant those trees, and you’ll be protected,” Waway says.

Philippine President and agriculture secretary Ferdinand Marcos Jr. acknowledged the connection during a press conference on Nov. 1. Tropical storm Paeng had just ripped through the country, killing at least 110 people, displacing nearly a million and wreaking $50 million in agricultural damages, especially to rice crops.

“We have to include tree planting in our flood control,” said Marcos Jr., who celebrated his 65th birthday in September by planting a tree.

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Talaandig tribesman and agroforestry farm owner Henry Binahon, left, poses with Indigenous trainees. Courtesy: Henry Binahon

Commercial Logging And Other Threats

Before colonization by Spain in the 16th century, most of the Philippines was covered by nearly 70 million acres of lush, protective native forests. But commercial logging for hardwood exportation for luxury furniture after the U.S. took possession of the islands in 1898 decimated the trees. By the 1980s, logging concessions during former President Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law reduced the nation’s tree coverage to 7 million acres.

This low level of forestation has persisted as governmental policies have toggled between exploitation and restoration, exhibited in this sweeping timeline by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network initiative.

The son of a Talaandig chieftain, Waway learned the importance of sustainability early on from elders who lived off of the land.

In 1986, Waway’s father, also a musician, replanted bamboo trees to harvest for instruments. A decade later, Waway’s older brother Datu Migketay Victorino Saway, better known as Datu Vic, successfully lobbied for the signing of the Indigenous People’s Rights Act in 1997.

The law enforced the sovereignty of Indigenous tribes over ancestral domains, some of which had been transacted to new settlers, developers and logging enterprises after American administrators imposed a land title system. This system prevailed after the Philippines gained independence in 1946, aggravating territorial conflicts that exist to this day with the native Muslim Bangsamoro population of Mindanao.

Community-led reforestation and agroforestry efforts have created space for collaboration among the region’s groups and the entities that support them.

One example is the not-for-profit Hineleban Foundation, established by John Perrine, a Bukidnon native and former CEO of Unifrutti Tropical Philippines Inc. In 2001, he planted bananas in Songco. He thought that he had done everything right until he received criticism from Datu Vic.

He met with the chieftain only to be confronted by some 200 Talaandig residents who informed him that his operations had killed a revered Balete tree that had served as a sacred altar for the tribe.

“Reforestation will have to include the connectivity of the ecosystem, including the spirituality of the Indigenous people.” – Henry Binahon, Binahon Agroforestry Farm

After more conversations, Perrine removed his banana plantations. In 2006, with his wife Renee, he initiated the foundation to work with Indigenous people on food security, reforestation and disposable income projects. Eventually, he planted a replacement Balete in the original tree’s spot.

Today, 329 families across the province reap the benefits from gardening and farming with Hineleban. A marketable example of these endeavors is the cultivation of arabica coffee.

Local production used to bring in three to four cents per pound for unprocessed beans. Now, 248 Bukidnon farming families get 14 to 23 cents per pound, or $6,500 an acre annually. Another 137 families grow adlai, a native grain trending as a superfood with anti-cancerous properties. Both products are sold in Manila at Healthy Options franchises and the Hineleban Cafe in the trendy Makati neighborhood.

Unifrutti remains Hineleban Foundation’s largest financial supporter. In 2018, Globe Telecom donated $500,000 over a five-year period. Foreign backers such as the Embassy of the Netherlands and the Dutch water utility company VEI also have partnered with the organization. And individuals can gift a seedling tree to the community for under $6.

Over the past 30 years, Henry Binahon, Waway’s fellow tribesman, has become the largest supplier of seeds and seedlings throughout Mindanao and Visayas, the central island group of the Philippines.

“Extinction of the forest will also be extinction of the Indigenous culture,” he warns.

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The Talaandig tribe gathers under the replanted Balete tree of Songco village. Courtesy: Georgia Perrine/2022

Enchanted by planting since childhood, he started his career with the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources, working on watershed and biodiversity management projects.

In 1992, he and his wife began Binahon Agroforestry Farm on 7 acres of land, growing bamboo, mahogany and gmelina trees. The farm grew to 20 acres, plus another 10 for reforestation research plantings. By the highway in Malayabalay, the capital of Bukidnon, Binahon set up a 5-acre nursery for seedlings, many descended from trees planted years before.

With financial and technical support from groups linked to the Asian Development Bank and the World Agroforestry Centre, Binahon is now planting five model farms.

He also is establishing a Lantapan-Manupali watershed subcommittee overseen by local government units and representatives from the Riverbasin Management Office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Manila. If he can duplicate good results in the local watershed, he dreams of scaling up the models with DENR to improve the condition of other upland watersheds.

“It’s ambitious, but who will be ambitious for us and who will work for us? We all have to think in 360 degrees,” Binahon says.

Coming Together

On Sept. 26, 2014, the DENR and Mindanao Development Authority set a Guinness World Record for planting more than 3 million trees at once throughout the region.

For 2023, the Philippine government has earmarked $43 million of its budget for an Enhanced National Greening Program that promises to replant billions of trees across 17.5 million acres of “unproductive land.” However, the program has already drawn concern over limited community engagement and the favoring of exotic rather than native species for replanting.

By contrast, Binahon has planted 100,000 trees and dispersed 1 million seedlings since 2010, some directly to the DENR.

According to Global Forest Watch, Bukidnon was responsible for more than 28,000 acres of increased tree cover from 2000 to 2020 – 6.6% of the increase nationwide. Lantapan, Songco’s municipality, was the top third among five districts contributing to the overall gain.

But there has been a net loss of trees due to tripping for firewood, development and slash-and-burn clearing of massive fields for pineapple, sugar cane or genetically modified corn.

Abandoned sites also become host to cogon grass, which self-ignites in hot, windy weather and causes wildfires. As a buffer, Hineleban Foundation has sponsored the planting of nearly 900,000 Calliandra “powderpuff” trees, usually as the pilot species for new reforestation sites.

Long-term replenishment of a complex ecosystem also requires a multi-story assembly of tall trees, smaller trees, fruit plants, seedlings, creeping and crawling plant varieties, agroforestry crops and root vegetables that propagate easily, Binahon says. And each growth must serve multiple functions such as absorbing and releasing water, providing food and habitats for rare species, hosting honeybees, emitting oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide.

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Three decades of replantings flourish in Songco village on the island of Mindanao. Abaca, a native banana, appears in the foreground. Courtesy: Henry Binahon

One multifunctional crop is rattan palm, a native climbing evergreen that holds land together and bears fruits that bulbul birds eat and later replant through droppings. The tree also yields a profitable cane popular for furniture, baskets and home decorations, serving Binahon’s overarching goal of securing compensation for his people’s hard work.

“I’m really looking at economic empowerment so the people can be involved in decision-making,” Binahon says. “Reforestation will have to include the connectivity of the ecosystem, including the spirituality of the Indigenous people.”

Corporate interests that in the past have borne much of the blame for environmental woes have also begun trying to help.

Nestle Philippines pledged in 2021 to plant 3.5 million bamboo and native trees over three years in Mindanao. Plantations on the island provide beans for the company’s Nescafe line.

Georgia Perrine, general manager of Hineleban Foundation, has noticed the heightened interest of other companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprint or boost their environmental, social, and governance business scores.

Named after a sacred Talaandig-Hingaunen term meaning “Mother Tree of the rainforest that sustains the cycle of all life,” the foundation remains keenest about cherished partnerships with the Indigenous community. In December 2012, the organization mediated a declaration of unity signed by the seven tribes of Bukidnon for collaborative sovereignty over the region. So far, the alliance has planted Indigenous forest trees across 1,092 acres throughout the province.

Meanwhile, Binahon hosts farm stays, tours, and charity concerts at his farm to fund further reforestation research and education.

Bukidnon is on the State Department’s reconsider travel list for “crime, terrorism, civil unrest, and kidnapping.” But pastoral Songco village, which has just over 4,000 inhabitants, appears ensconced from these deadly clashes or the fatal strife befalling land defenders against illegal logging in Palawan and opponents of coal mining in southern Mindanao.

When Waway travels, he beckons, “Come to my village. We are a peaceful community with good people.”

On Oct. 19, he performed at Honolulu’s Waiwai Collective with Talaandig percussionist Marcelino Balugto P Necosia Jr. The musicians were in Hawaii for the first time on tour with the House of Gongs creative movement to amplify traditional Philippine art forms. Back in Bukidnon, five people had just died after being buried in post-rain landslides. In Songco, Talaandig planters had pushed a pickup truck full of seedlings uphill through the mud.

Tribesmen pushing a truck up muddy hill to deliver seedlings

Waway strummed his two-stringed katyapi made of taparak wood and sang while Necosia Jr. drummed and played a bamboo kubing mouth harp. Later, Necosia Jr. imitated frog and bird calls on the kokak, two flat, resonant sticks carved from Bukidnon bamboo.

Addressing the audience, Waway vowed to continue raising awareness about Songco’s rainforest through art as much as municipal leadership.

“We will try to make more beautiful songs, more beautiful paintings because even the president of the world will bow to that. That’s the power of beauty,” he said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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