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Bacolod City, Philippines Monday, January 22, 2018
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Conservation Matters

What's up with the NNNP?

The Northern Negros Natural Park, a protected area under the National Integrated Protected Areas of the Philippines in Negros Occidental, is one of the controversial NIPAS sites in the country.

Although it is known as a Key Biodiversity Area because it has diverse habitats that contain numerous endemic and threatened species, it has never been spared from issues and concerns that are challenging its status as a natural park.

It should be emphasized that, as a natural park, NNNP has numerous limitations in terms of uses, since its main purposes are supposedly devoted for biodiversity conservation and the protection and maintenance of its ecological services and functions, being also a major watershed of Negros Occidental. In the end, it is still the majority of the Negrosanons who would benefit from the ecological services provided by the NNNP.

It is a given fact that before the declaration of the NNNP on August 15, 2005, there were already numerous settlements, agricultural development, land tenure agreements, and even the town site of Salvador Benedicto, to name just a few, in the area. About half of the NNNP's total coverage, estimated at 80.454.50 hectares, is now devoted to other purposes. There were discussions before to exclude these areas from the declaration of the NNNP, but ultimately, its stakeholders, led by the provincial government of Negros Occidental and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, decided to maintain the coverage of the then Northern Negros Forest Reserve on its proclamation under the NIPAS.

It was to my understanding then that issues related to settlement, agriculture, and other developments in the area shall be addressed through adoption of management zoning, which may include awarding of land tenure, sustainable livelihood, and other measures that would balance biodiversity conservation with the presence of communities inside the NNNP. There was also an argument that it may trigger additional forest clearing once certain parts of the former NNFR shall be excluded from the NNNP's proclamation.

Unfortunately, after more than a decade after its declaration, the NNNP is still haunted with more critical issues. Vested personal interests came in with the construction of several private vacation houses and resorts by outsiders in the NNNP without permit from the DENR and the Protected Area Management Board, which is the site-based administrative and policy making body of the site.

The PAMB, in fact, did not approve the recommendation of its Technical Working Group of disallowing this kind of development in the protected area. I was informed that Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr., who co-chairs the NNNP PAMB, has brought this particular issue to former DENR Secretary Ramon Paje, but since then, no actual decision has been finally made. The decision of any PAMB of a protected area is appealable to the DENR Secretary.

If this concern shall not be attended, it creates a precedent that will further encourage additional settlement in the NNNP by those who are supposedly not entitled to be there.

The construction of hydro energy projects and the proposal for geothermal energy development are similarly contentious issues in the NNNP. Both energy projects are not allowed in a protected area declared as a natural park, like the NNNP.

For whatever reasons, however, the hydro energy projects proceeded, but the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the DENR intervened and came out with a memorandum, stating that energy projects are not allowed in natural parks. One idea floated to change the category of the NNNP so that these energy projects can be accommodated.

In addition, there was also a proposal to exclude a portion of the NNNP for reservation of rebel returnees, while it is still being lobbied that the townsite of the Salvador Benedicto shall similarly be sliced out from the protected area. On the other hand, there is also a tourism act covering Barangay Patag in Silay City, which the presidential proclamation of the NNNP could not supersede. Meanwhile, illegal cutting of trees is still happening in the area.

With all these things now, what will happen to NNNP as a protected area? The DENR and the PAMB should face these issues squarely, and, finally, they should decide what is best for the protected area, otherwise, it is also an option to disestablish it if the different uses are no longer compatible with the purposes by which the NNNP has been declared.

Are we not liable of act against intergenerational equity of our natural resources when we just allow any uses in the NNNP, instead of protecting it for the continued ecological services the people are d eriving from it and to keep its biodiversity intact for future generations and us?*

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