The heart of a biodiversity haven

In Photo: From Mount Guiting-Guiting, freshwater flows down to a river and the plains of Barangay España, San Fernando town, Romblon. Rodne Galicha, Climate Reality Project/Bayay Sibuyanon Inc.

On Sibuyan Island in Romblon province sits Mount Guiting-Guiting, one of the focal points of Sibuyan’s declaration as a biodiversity haven. It is often referred to as the Galapagos Island because of its rich biodiversity.

But for Sibuyanons, they prefer to call it by its name—Guiting-Guiting, which means “jagged” or “saw-tooth”—apparently because it has rough, protruding sharp points.

Pitcher plant on Mount Guiting-Guiting Wikimedia Commons

The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador are known for a vast number of endemic species. Charles Darwin visited the islands in 1835. His observation of its rich biodiversity inspired his theory of evolution.

Sibuyan, one of the seven islands of Romblon, is in the Southwestern Luzon, or the Mimaropa Region.

Protected area

Mount Guiting-Guiting is at the heart of the Mount Guiting-Guiting Natural Park, a 15,265-hectare  protected area by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 746, which then-President Fidel V. Ramos signed on February 20, 1996.

It is one of several Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) in the Philippines.

The second-largest island in Romblon, Sibuyan has a land area of approximately 45,600 hectares. More than half of the island is covered with forest.

Dense forest

Preliminary reports include that the forest density in Sibuyan is 1,551 trees per hectare, making it the densest forest ever recorded in the Philippines.

According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)-Mimaropa Office, although most of the forested area in Sibuyan consists of lowland forest, the island has a full range of gradient forest in the Philippines consisting of mangrove, lowland, montane, mossy forests, heathland and grassland.

Mount Guiting-Guiting’s highest elevation is over 2,000 meters above sea level (ASL). This is twice that of the nearby Mount Nailog mountain range’s highest peak estimated at 789 ASL.

Metamorphic rocks

According to the DENR-Mimaropa, in the Romblon area basement metamorphic rocks are distributed extensively. Intrusive ultramafic rocks and quartz diorite displace these basement metamorphic rocks in some places.

Much of the Mount Guiting-Guiting’s geology is formed by intrusive Sibuyan ultramafics.

The vegetation associated with ultramafic rocks—often called serpentine or ultra basic rocks—have been described as distinctive from many parts of the world. It is often sparse or stunted and contains species which are rare, or endemic, or both.

“The explanations for this have centered on the chemistry of the soil, since it usually contains potentially toxic concentrations of magnesium and nickel, and are deficient in phosphorous, potassium and calcium,” said the web site that describes the protected area’s unique features.

Rivers

Mount Guiting-Guiting is blessed with freshwater resources, flowing from several rivers that dissect the steep topography of the island.

The rivers draining the largest watersheds are Nailog-Dulangan-Cataja-Patoo and the Pawala rivers in Magdiwang; the Wala-Too-Guinalan-Cambulayan-Lumbang River in Cajidiocan; and Cantingas River in San Fernando.

The headwaters of Cantingas River lie in Cajidiocan but drain across San Fernando, where it serves three water intakes that supply the irrigated farmlands, and the mini-hydroelectric power plant of Romblon Electric Cooperative (Romelco). Its major impact areas cover the vicinities of the town proper of San Fernando and Barangay Taclobo.

The impact area of Olango and Punong rivers are Barangay España, also in San Fernando. In Cajidiocan the impact areas of three major rivers include the barangays of Danao (Agbalit River), Lumbang Weste and Este (Lumbang River) and Marigondon (Marigondon River). The river system affecting the town proper is Cambajao River.

Flora and fauna

Within Mount Guiting-Guiting Natural Park thrive approximately 700 vascular plant species, including 54 species that are endemic to the island.

These include the Sibuyan pitcher plant, bil-is, tibañgan and a wild palm, tree fern, lipstick plant, ant plant and Guiting-guiting begonia. Of the 700 plant species on the island, 180 species can only be found in the Philippines.

Mount Guiting-Guiting’s endemic plant species are found mostly in primary forest with an elevation of 100 meters or higher. An example is Sararanga philippinensis, a palm-like plant that grows gregariously and form distinct clumps of peat swamp forest along riverine/riparian forest at low altitudes.

The Heterospathe sibuyanensis, a flowering plant in the palm family; and Ardisia sibuyanensis, coralberry or marlberry floweriong plant, are also found in the primary forest at medium altitudes. The Nepenthes merrillii, or pitcher plant, is found in the primary forest between 100 meters and higher elevations.

Meanwhile, a total of 130 species of birds have been recorded on Sibuyan, of which 102 are either known or presumed to be breeding residents.

These are cinnamon bittern-lapay, celestial monarch, striated grassbird, rufous-lored kingfisher, pygmy swiftlet and Philippine hawk-eagle.

The island is also home to nine native nonflying terrestrial mammal species, four of which are endemic rodents, namely, greater Sibuyan forest mouse, lesser Sibuyan forest mouse, Sibuyan striped shrew-rat and Sibuyan giant moss mouse.

Out of the nine fruit bat species found on the island, one species—Sibuyan pygmy fruit bat—is endemic to the island. Meanwhile, the island’s waters are visited by large marine mammals like the dugongs, dolphins and whales. The wart snake, which is endemic to Luzon, Mindoro Island and Negros, has been recorded on Sibuyan Island.

There are nine recorded species of lizards and geckoes, two of which are classified as endemic and rare. The Romblon narrow-disked gecko and Quadras’ flying lizard have been sighted during previous biodiversity assessments.

Forest-based livelihood

Besides farming and fishing, Sibuyanons are known for charcoal-making, rattan harvesting for handicraft production and other forest-based livelihood activities. Some are also known to harvest nito, a vine, which is woven into plates for local and export markets.

Many are also into gathering resin from almaciga trees, which is used to start fire for cooking, the DENR-Mimaropa profile added. Resin is also traded as a  raw material in the manufacture of varnish.

A small group of people on the island is also into artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

Tourism

Sibuyan Island is fast-becoming a tourist destination in Luzon because of its beauty. Several waterfalls are among the protected area’s tourist attractions.Being an island paradise like many areas in the Mimaropa region, Sibuyan boasts of beautiful beaches and pristine waters. It also has breathtaking landscapes and views from mountain peaks.

Because of its challenging landscape and high mountain peak, Mount Guiting-Guiting is also a favorite among mountain climbers, as it is comparable to the challenge offered by Mount Halcon on Mindoro Island, the DENR-Mimaropa Region added.

Threatened by road project

However, Mount Guiting-Guiting’s rich biodiversity is seriously threatened like other protected areas in the Philippines.

Unregulated harvesting of forest products, poaching and illegal wildlife trade are threatening the so-called Galapagos Island of the Philippines. Forest clearing for agriculture and mining is considered a serious threat to its endemic plant and animal wildlife.

Lately, however, Mount Guiting-Guiting stakeholders expressed alarm to the latest threat to the island’s rich biodiversity: a P95-million road project that will pass right through its dense forest.

The project is funded under the 2018 General Appropriations Act (GAA).

Rising to the occasion, conservation advocates have launched an online petition appealing to President Duterte to stop the project, expressing concern about the project’s potential environmental impact on the island’s fragile ecosystem.

The project, the petitioners said, is expected to cause the massive destruction of trees and will disturb forest ecosystems along its path.

The petitioners—Bayay Sibuyanon Inc., a local conservation group based on the island; The Climate Reality Project and concerned citizens of Sibuyan—“in behalf of Sibuyan Island’s flora and fauna and the generations to come” called on the DENR, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), Mount Guiting-Guiting Natural Park Protected Area Management Board (PAMB), and the local government units of Sibuyan Island to stop the road project.

Expressing grave concerns on the inclusion of the construction of the Magdiwang-San Fernando National Road Cross Country Road leading to the Magdiwang Port in the 2018 GAA, the petitioners said the implementation of the project would be contrary to the general provisions of the budget law, specifically its Section 26c.

The section says: “The planning and construction of all infrastructure projects to be implemented within the National Integrated Protected Area System [Nipas] are done in a way that eliminates and minimizes the risk of biodiversity loss while the specifications threon are in accordance with those determined by DPWH, in coordination with DENR. Major infrastructure projects may only be taken in said areas if intended to enhance biodiversity.”

“Proponents of this project may argue on the trade and economic benefits of the Cross Country Road; however, it must be considered seriously that it will traverse Mount Guiting-Guiting Natural Park, which is a protected area by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 746, signed by former President Fidel V. Ramos in 1996, pursuant to Republic Act 7586 [Nipas Act],” the petition reads.

The petitioners argued that Mount Guiting-Guiting Natural Park has thick forests, which serve as a carbon sink and protection against landslides and floods.

“Its watersheds provide flowing waters, which is the source of the people’s renewable energy through a mini-hydro power plant. With this, the small island of Sibuyan has been contributing to climate-change mitigation and adaptation and disaster-risk reduction,” the petition said.

In a telephone interview on April 9, Rodne Galicha, country manager of Climate Reality Project Philippines and leader of Bayay Sibuyanon Inc., said that as a resident of Sibuyan Island and as a climate and conservation advocate: “Development projects in ecologically sensitive areas must be carefully consulted and studied. In this case, who will speak on behalf of Mount Guiting-Guiting’s flora and fauna, of the trees and the rivers?”

He added: “This is a call to all local government officials of Sibuyan to be steadfast in their commitment to conserve, protect and rehabilitate our natural park. We, instead, strongly demand to fund and prioritize infrastructure projects which are really needed by the people.”

The petitioners are expected to bring up the matter to the attention of Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu.

Galicha said the proponent of the project, SunWest Construction, has no detailed engineering plan nor has properly conducted coordination with concerned DENR officials of Romblon.

He added that even before the purported bidding last month, several staff houses were already built and backhoes have been mobilized in the area.

“As to the road project, we don’t know how many trees will be cut down, but it will pass through the protected area,” he said.

He estimated, based on the budget, that the road project will be at least a 7-kilometer road that will cause a serious environmental impact.

In separate telephone interviews, DENR officials have expressed concern over the impact of the road project, especially on its implementation within a biodiversity-rich area like Sibuyan Island.

Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim, chief of the DENR-Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB), had called on the DPWH to exercise prudence in implementing any development project in a KBA like the Mount Guiting-Guiting National Park.

“All projects should contribute to the protection and conservation of the area’s rich biodiversity. The DPWH should look into the cautionary principles of the provision of the GAA in implementing any project,” Lim said in a telephone interview on April 10.

Lim, a biodiversity and protected area conservation expert, added the DENR is not against development per se.

However, she said that within a protected area, projects should promote conservation and protection, rather than add threat to the already threatened plant and animal species that are driven to the brink of extinction.

For his part, DENR Undersecretary Jonas R. Leones, the designated spokesman of Cimatu, said once an area is declared protected, proponents of a development project are bound to abide by various environmental laws like Nipas and the Wildlife Act.

“Development is good, but being an environmental advocate and official of the DENR, I will always side with conservation and protection, especially for projects within a protected area,” he said.

Mount Guiting-Guiting and the entire protected area have given pride to Sibuyanons. Their livelihood is dependent on the bounty of its rich terrestrial and coastal ecosystems. To some Sibuyanons, Mount Guiting-Guiting is not only a sacred mountain but the heart, a biodiversity haven, their home called Sibuyan Island.

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