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Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Once upon a trail-ride dreary

Last month I hit the road (mountain trail or halsema highway) to visit my highland hometown. I was hoping to get refreshed and to find good lazy rest for a couple of weeks.
But soon as my bus got to the outskirts i knew it was not the green grass of home that awaited. Already i was dreading what i would find if the burning or burned hills of Benguet in the southern part of the cordillera ranges was any indication.

I kept shaking my head every time i looked around and saw smoke. Smoke and brushfires were everywhere. Even the highway was enveloped in the thick choking aerial invasion and often darkened the daylight like in an eclipse. Damaged and destroyed forests and mountains have smeared the mountain range stretching the length of the bus trip from urban center to rural town.

Many of the towns and villages were surrounded by fields not of green, but by ugly dark brown areas from the recent fires. Still other villages are threatened by fires that keep burning for days and even weeks.

I have noted the parched and dry mountains and waterways previously.
musing and whingeing
The extent of drought is more apparent as we approached the ricefields of the towns of Mountain Province. The number of dry fields is a lot more than i have seen before. And these were not just dried and thirsty – they were cracked and dusty. Seeing this dryness jolted my brain to remember what my eyes saw earlier that day passing through the vegetable terraces – those too were parched and sere – and only a few were planted.

The irrigation dikes and canals that snake around the hillsides are also mostly dry and laying wasted. The few ditches that carry water do so in precious trickles.

Towards dusk we descended down from the peaks. As the bus slowly wound its way down along the tight bends, we approached a town on a river. Across the river was a fire with its flame rings on the bottom of its scythe-shaped firefront. (It was the grim reaper's hook as far as the withered trees were concerned). From its scorched wake this fire looks to have descended down from the mountains where obviously it started days ago. It is now threatening some houses adjoining the ricefields. As the bus continued on, the passengers were all showing signs of concern yet somehow we all knew that the fire will be put out IF it reached the houses.

The homeward stretch of the journey was thus in glum silence as we pondered why - or why not? These towns have produced many people in high office in the provincial, regional and in the national level of government. Where are they? Why are they silent? Busy campaigning? Perhaps. So what are they saying about these fires?

As with any disease – and burning is arson is a crime is a sin is a disease – prevention is better than cure. Maybe the pine trees don’t vote.

In conflict, a scorched earth policy has been banned under the 1977 Geneva Conventions.
Why then is this practise allowed to persist, and perenially in a 'peaceful' Philippines? This is a country that suffers from drought and lack of water during its dry season.
Article 54 of Protocol 1 (1977 Geneva Conventions) states:
It is prohibited to ...destroy ... or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works ...for any ... motive.
And this is exactly what malefactors who light brushfires do. These arsonists should be tracked down and burned at the stake!

Ever wondered why the mountains of your childhood still look the same many years on? Because forests and mountains take not years but decades to regenerate. A short two- or three-year respite from fires is not sufficient. The young pines and undergrowth may survive 2 or 3 years but die in their 4th or 5th when the fires visit their homes once again. Only the mature ones (20 years or more) manage to survive, and they’re the only ones you see every time you visit the land of your ancestors.

There's a song (tum balalaika) from my childhood:
Maiden, maiden, tell me true. What can cry and shed no tears?
Not just a heart, silly lad.

A mountain too can cry, when it sheds no tears. And just like you and me - it can be heart-broken.

I’ll be posting some photos...