The flood waters came in the dead of night. Northern Mindanao and the Visayas are not the usual paths of typhoons. There was an inordinate amount of rainfall. It was PAGASA’s fault. Disaster struck without warning and we’re left grasping for explanations.
The massive flooding in Northern Mindanao was characterized as something completely unexpected. The truth is grim signals have been there all this time; we were just ignoring them or were ignorant of them. Now we have heaping piles of corpses to make us pay attention.
The raging waters of Cagayan River demolished houses near its banks in mere seconds. But factors that contributed to the flash floods have been looming for years. About 80 percent of the river basin is in Bukidnon, with its headwaters coming from Mount Kalatungan. The river flows through the towns of Talakag, Baungon and Libona before emptying into Macajalar Bay in Cagayan De Oro.
The remaining forest cover of Bukidnon is only 25 percent of total land area, far from the ideal 40 percent. On the map above, the green patches are the natural forests. The encircled part is the Kalatungan Mountain Range while above it is the Kitanglad Mountain Range. Surrounding them are grasslands and agricultural areas.
The 1970s and ‘80s was the golden age of logging in Bukidnon, as timber license agreements covered 230,000 hectares or about 28 percent of the province’s total land area. The validity period of these TLAs ran from eight to 22 years. From 1961 to 1992, a total of 540,012 hectares in Bukidnon and neighboring provinces were covered by TLAs. Add to these the areas with illegal logging and we’ve got massive forestlands facing denudation.
A logging moratorium was put in place in 1990 but the destruction of forests did not stop there. Timber poaching was still prevalent long after the moratorium took effect. Lowlanders and soldiers were also able to claim private rights to public forest lands by becoming members of local tribal organizations. This enabled them to obtain property within the claimed ancestral domain. Apparently, a wealthy man from Cagayan De Oro can be a member of a lumad group.
Today, the Cagayan River watershed is still plagued with problems of inappropriate land use and agricultural activities encroaching on forestlands. This has resulted in deforestation, increased soil erosion, siltation of rivers and more severe flooding, the deadliest of which we’ve seen just this weekend.
“In Bukidnon, there are more pineapples than trees,” said Benito Ramos of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council in a TV interview. We can question the quantitative accuracy of this statement but it stresses how the influx of monocropping practices and agribusinesses have also radically changed the natural vegetation in the province. The Del Monte pineapple plantation alone covers at least four towns: Manolo Fortich, Impasug-ong, Sumilao and Libona. Other monocropping products include sugarcane, maize, rubber, bananas and rice. Monocropping doesn’t just result in loss of biodiversity and higher pesticide requirements; it’s also not as effective as forest covers in holding water when heavy rains come.
When Tropical Storm Sendong hit Northern Mindanao, the waters from the mountainous terrain of Bukidnon rushed through the Cagayan River and came down on Cagayan De Oro with deadly force. Many factors that contributed to the flooding have been identified: climate change, deforestation, incompetence in urban planning, complacency of residents, lack of early warning system, topography.
This tragedy may have come as a shock. We may not have seen it coming. Sadly, it still follows the long-standing narrative of natural disasters even going back to the Ormoc tragedy: A string of environmental crimes spanning decades culminates in a day of calamity and death.