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Tapping the Ifugao Muyong Legacy as Forest Model and Springboard for Climate Change Adaptation

by Moises Butic

Long weekends, Christmas holidays, and Lenten season are always golden occasions for me to go home to Ifugao — not only to nurture the muyong that I inherited from my father but also to pursue my advocacy on the growing of Philippine native trees.

For those who are hearing the word for the first time, “muyong” is the Ifugao term for the verdant woodlots maintained, mostly since time immemorial, by families who own hills, swidden farms and rice terraces. Such woodlots do not only serve the needs of their stewards for raw materials (such as wood, rattan, bamboo, and vines for housing and wood-carving and basketry) but also for the myriad good things that forests do for their drinking water, irrigation, wild food sources, erosion control, and environmental health.

Muyong in a typical Ifugao ecosystem landscape

I named my woodlot as John Butic Abul (JBA) Muyong and Biodiversity Center in honor of my late father and made it as nucleus of my collecting and dispersing seeds and wildlings of native trees and plants – as well as a learning center for visitors interested not only on how a muyong looks like but also in growing the native trees it contains.

Some of my fellow Philippine Native Tree Enthusiasts (PNTE) have been patronizing free of charge or at minimal cost my seeds and wildlings collection, as many of them were sourced from many parts of the country. Other patrons include a priest in Gumaca, Quezon; an overseas worker who procures ulayan seeds in quantities for their land restoration project in the Caliraya watershed; a lady plant nursery operator in Passi, Iloilo; native tree plantation growers; and PNTE chapters in Mindanao such as the Nabunturan Native Tree Enthusiasts led by Atty. Carlo Ancla  and Bonee Jaye B. Bagaipo of Davao and Cagayan de Oro.

Keeping my father’s muyong and transforming it into a learning center on forest conservation and tree growing actually started as a leisurely pursuit and therapy of sorts dating back to early 2015 when I was recalled from DENR Region 9 Zamboanga Peninsula to DENR-CAR Baguio City and designated as NGP Regional Coordinator and land tenure focal person. Since then up to the present, it gave me impetus to collect seeds of native trees and raising them into seedlings.

My first favorite was the ilang-ilang tree. Inspired by the experiences of political leaders of Anao, Tarlac and Mangatarem, Pangasinan on ilang-ilang plantation development which I visited and learned from, I started raising this sweet-scented plant which is the main ingredient of high-priced perfume. With a few packets of seeds collected in Tuguegarao, UPLB-SEARCA, Nueva Vizcaya, and Tarlac, I started propagating ilang-ilang in our residential home in San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan and in my muyong at Halangit Point in Kiangan, Ifugao.

I have so far grown a good number of ilang-ilang trees that now serve as seed/seedling sources. Beginning in 2018, I started distributing ilang-ilang seedlings to neighbors in Hucab and Bolog, Kiangan, Ifugao. My dream is to create a critical mass of ilang-ilang growers in my neighborhood and produce adequate quantities of inflorescence or flowers that will warrant  a grant from DOST or DTI for a soft loan or assistance for the procurement of an essential oil-extracting equipment as was done by KOICA, a Korean technical cooperation organization, to the MLGU of Anao, Tarlac, that claims to be the scent capital of the Philippines.

After retiring from the DENR in December 2019, I branched out and started raising thousands of various other native-tree seedlings in three mini-nurseries in the towns of Kiangan, Lamut, and Banaue. This venture had a modest financial support from the Ifugao Cyberspace Watchdog (ICW), a group of Ifugaos in the diaspora who have the heart to care for their “kailyans” (townmates) in their homeland. We dubbed this venture as the Muyong Challenge 2021 and Ifugao Roots Project.

Among our activities was the distribution of propagules to schools and private individuals for their planting needs. The propagules include Arabica coffee (sourced or donated by the award winning Madchikom Coffee Farms and MP Cooperative, an all-women farmer group  in Aguid, Sagada, Mountain Province); Brazilian fire tree (seeds were sourced from colleagues in the INREM Project of Bukidnon); kamagong, buri, and anahaw (from Pangasinan, Nueva Vizcaya, and Dep-Ed Lagawe, Ifugao).

My inap-apu Roderick T. working on the mini nursery in support of the IFUGAO ROOTS project, 2021

Thousands of buri or silag (Corypha elata) seeds with matching “how to” brochures were donated or sold at minimal cost to the MLGU of Alcala, Cagayan led by Mayor Tin-tin Antonio in support of her “Green Wall of Alcala” project that came in the aftermath of the massive flooding of most parts of Isabela and Cagayan provinces a couple of years ago.

Buri seeds

In February to March 2021, two batches of senior high school students from the Riverview Polytechnic and Academic School in Kiangan had a two-week practicum at the JBA mini nursery. They were coached on seeds/propagule collection, potting soil preparation, dibbling seedlings, plant care and maintenance. They also learned about plant nomenclature and installed nametags bearing vital information about each tree or plant aside from the practical experience in operating a shredder that produces cocopeat. They were also taught on the values and virtues of two giant plants: the buri palm and the lanao or giant bamboo.

In the same period, 15 pupils from the Lagawe SPED Center and 23 members of the Ifugao Provincial Police Office visited the JBA muyong and mini nursery and had  lectures on plant names and identification and hands-on nursery activities. They were able to bring home seedlings of tuai (bishop tree), Philippine oak (palayon or ulayan), and Brazilian fire tree, and cuttings of giant bamboo.

Having heard of JBA Muyong cum Biodiversity Center, teachers of the Kiangan National High School, faculty members of the Ifugao State University, two medical doctors, and a provincial governor visited the center and bought tree seedlings for their own tree-planting projects.

On March 26, 2021, in celebration of the International Day of Forests, personnel of PDRRMO of Ifugao visited and conducted nursery work and tree nurturing at JBA biodiversity center. Officials and employees including consultants of the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Sites (GIAHS) and DENR Ifugao also came and saw the features and muyong practice  of the JBA center. The GIAHS center based in the Ifugao State University’s Nayon campus requested seedlings which they planted in the IFSU Hapao campus in Hungduan.

On two occasions  in 2021, Karlston Lapniten and his 6-year-old daughter visited the JBA center and did a round of interviews and photo shoots. An environmental photo-journalist and writer, Lapniten interviewed other Ifugaos and came out with an article Sustainable livelihood offers a lifeline to Philipppines’ dying rice terraces” about the Ifugao rice terraces and the muyong forest management system which was published in Internews Earth Journalism Network.

Taking advantage of my decades-long friendship and association with fellow foresters in the government and private sector, I was able to build linkages with like-minded professionals who take environmentalism to heart. Among them are native-tree advocate Celso Salazar of Pangasinan NTE and writer/editor Charlz Castro who dreams to help transform barren hills of his birthplace Dupax in Nueva Vizcaya into models of hilly-land agroforestry and biodiversity-rich forests. I personally delivered native trees like kamagong, ilang-ilang, Philippine oak (palayon), anahaw, malabulak, and toog to my Kagubat Celso Salazar in April 2022 on the occasion of the 442nd Araw ng Pangasinan/Pistay Dayat held in Lingayen.

In addition to the seedlings of malabulak (the iconic tree of my adopted province Bulacan) which I delivered in Dupax upon the request of Forester Castro in 2021, I again shared assorted tree seedlings (including toog) and thousands of buri seeds to help his Isinay and Ilokano townmates realize the dream of bringing back the bird-rich forests in that part of southern Nueva Vizcaya. Forester Castro’s wish list is described in an inspiring essay “Look With Big Hope Again … At Your Boyhood Playgrounds” published in the May 2022 issue of The Philippine Mahogany, a periodical of the Society of Filipino Foresters in North America.

Taking the cue from his colleagues in DENR Ifugao who frequented the JBA muyong, Forester Joseph Buccahan with his teenage son made a surprise visit and were gifted with some seedlings including the toog species, an endemic tree of Eastern Mindanao and Samar Island. The famous example of this tree is the gigantic Alegria toog in Agusan del Sur which was the subject of a dispute between safety engineers who wanted to cut it down versus  the environmentalists who wanted to preserve it. The said tree is 300 years old, 366 cm (3.66 meters) in diameter, about 97 meters tall, and taxonomically called  Petersianthus quadrialatus, a threatened plant species per IUCN list.

In 2003, upon the prodding of Mr. Pat Dugan, a DENR consultant, I sent a letter to the FAO-RAPA based in Bangkok, Thailand, nominating the muyong forest practice of the Ifugaos as candidate in its search for good forest practices. Two years later, the said UN Food and Agriculture Organization office published the results in a book titled “In Search for Excellence: Exemplary Forest Management Practices in the Asia  Pacific Region.” And true enough, one of the book’s articles on exemplary practices  was on the Ifugao muyong.

By some twist of fate, while working as CENRO of Lamut and Tabuk (2001-2006), I was part of the team that found two antidotes: first is a molluscicide for the destructive golden apple snail or kuhol from the malasantol or bakkuwog  (Sandoricum vidalii) extract; and the second is the vermicide potential of buri extract against the destructive giant earthworms that were wreaking havoc on the Ifugao rice terraces at that time until now. These discoveries were scientifically studied by ERDS-CAR experts, the results of which were published in the Ecosystems Research Digest of ERDB-DENR. 

After working for 20 long years in DENR Manila office and redeployed to work as P/CENRO in 2001 in my home province Ifugao, I was able to learn and understand more about my own culture and tradition. My assignment gave me the opportunity to write papers about my tribe’s unique forest management system. In 2002, along with Forester Robert T. Ngidlo of the Ifugao State University, I authored a paper on the Ifugao muyong and another on the Ifugao way of accelerated natural regeneration (ANR), which were presented at the Traders Hotel in Manila and at Banaue Hotel, respectively.  

Encouraged by such events, I went on to write two more papers: 1) “Water and Agriculture: Muyong and the Ifugao Rice Terraces” presented during the National Environmental Dialogue organized by the Forest Foundation of the Philippines and Tropenbos International and held at the Crowne Plaza Manila Galleria, Quezon City in 2018;  and  2) “Muyong System in the Context of Watershed Management and Governance” to observe Arbor Day 2021 in DENR Ifugao.

After retiring from government service in 2019, I kept my passion as a forester. I’m currently sitting as private sector representative in the Ifugao Watershed Management Council (IWMC)  pursuant to Executive Order 72 Series of 2019 issued by Governor Jerry U. Dalipog, and happy to be actively engaged in the council’s pursuing effective governance and management of the Ifugao watersheds including their biodiversity under the auspices of the 10- year DENR Forestland Management Program (FMP) funded by the JICA.

Working closely with fellow Forester Anselmo Cabrera, a former colleague in the FMB-led Natural Resources Management Program (NRMP) funded by the USAID, and now working as Institutional Development Specialist for the DENR FMP, I contributed a modest number of ideas in the design and development of a performance management  index tailor-fitted for the five sub-watersheds of Ifugao draining into the Magat Dam and hydro-electric facility in Alfonso Lista, Ifugao. The performance index will clearly describe the state of the watershed supported with hard facts and figures together with concrete recommendations or remedial actions to correct negative situations taking place in the watersheds.

The IEC consultants of the FMP developing the brand “Save our Watershed” have regularly invited me in its workshops and focus group discussions to increase awareness leading to a positive recall of the social brand not only among FMP’s partner communities in the Magat river basin but also among other stakeholders.

For the National Environmental Dialogue in 2018, I likewise wrote a paper containing my professional insights and on-the-ground experiences and this was made as a reference by the program hosted by Senator Loren Legarda of the Climate Change Commission in its segment “Farms of the Future: Stories for a Better Normal” broadcasted in June 2021.

Now in the twilight of my life as I’ll turn 65 this November, I yearn to produce a computerized data base which I initially tagged as The Ifugao Muyong Management Information System (IMMIS). It is ironic that 26 years after the Ifugao Muyong was recognized and institutionalized by DENR, the mandated data base system and documentation has yet to become a reality.

I envision this data base to be a great help not only in sustaining and energizing the muyong ecosystems in Ifugao but also in tapping them in realizing the climate-change imperatives of the Philippines. For this initiative, I engaged a former colleague/consultant of the JICA-assisted INREM project wherein I was deputy director to design and develop the said computerized system. The data base will contain the profile of the grower/owner; geographic description and physical profile of the muyong property; biological content (flora and fauna); proofs of claim or ownership; user-friendly forms/templates and DENR policies or guidelines on muyong; and historical account/narratives including pictures. Once completed and launched, the system will harness through training and application the knowledge and skills of the Ifugao muyong growers and practitioners in populating the files/modules using the data which they themselves will have gathered.

To carry out the task, a number of equipment and gadgets have to be acquired such as a desktop computer of high storage capacity and appropriate printer, android phones to be loaded with GPS application, timber inventory tools/equipment. This part of the plan will empower the muyong practitioners and will greatly give them a sense of ownership of the system. The authors and designers of the system foresee a future of: 1) fast and paperless transaction, 2) minimal if not nil face-to-face interaction, 3) and user-friendly and less expensive system that will eliminate too much red tape and corruption.

In 2016, sensing the need for furniture and other items for our house in Bulacan and in the ancestral home of my wife, Forester Nely Meniado-Butic, I had my muyong officially registered with DENR Ifugao. As a result, PENRO Ifugao issued me a Certificate of Muyong Recognition and Muyong Resource Permit authorizing me to harvest and utilize some of the mature trees in my muyong. In June 2022, DENR Ifugao renewed my MRP allowing me to harvest seven more of my tree crops.  The 5.18 cubic meters of wood I harvested gave me a net income of P50,000 plus a bonus of a dozen pieces of lumber to renovate a space in my home.

In support of DENR-CAR’s program of identifying and establishing seed production areas (SPA), in 2016 I volunteered my muyong as an arboretum and seed source for ulayan or Philippine oak and tuai (bishop tree).  On a number of occasions, ERDS-CAR personnel collected ulayan seeds in the muyong and in the process I learned that there are actually two oak species growing in my muyong, namely: Lithocarpus solerianus and Lithocarpus sulitti. According to Foresters Napoleon Taguiling of IFSU and Eric Jayson Aliguyon of DENR Ifugao who were then part of the IFSU-National Museum taxonomy research team, the two oak species in my muyong are part of the seven oak species endemic to Ifugao.

Being trained in silviculture and applying my knowledge and experience in tree growing, I practice “dewildling” in my muyong. Having seen the allelopathic effect of the mahogany trees in the man-made forest of Bilar, Bohol and in other government reforestation projects, and fully aware of the invasive nature of exotics like mahogany, gmelina and anchoan dilaw, my dewildling involves tracing and ferreting out the sprouts or wildlings of mahogany and uproot them to control and limit their dispersion, growth and development. Through this, the favored native or endemic species are free to dominate and consequently result in greater biodiversity in my muyong.

It is ironic that 26 years after the Ifugao Muyong was recognized and institutionalized by DENR, the mandated data base system and documentation has yet to become a reality.


Nurture not Breed

by Rachel Guimbatan-Fadgyas

As I write this, Throwback Thursday of the last week of the Indigenous Peoples Month in the Philippines is about to end. I thought I had to finish this task because I promised myself to recognize some people who worked on this before this special month ends.

Sometime in June 2005, my elder friend Teddy, a politician who had become a citizen then, asked me to draft a detailed outline of an indigenous knowledge (IK) transfer project proposal. It should not be more than 3 pages of a project concept which our friend in UNESCO Bangkok kuya Ric (+), requested for us to write. According to him, this IK education initiative could be of interest among our friends in Japan. I was then in my second year of volunteering in the Save the Ifugao Terraces Movement (SITMo) after my stint in the Provincial Local Government as the local consultant in indigenous knowledge systems (IKS). It was an expertise that I started to gain for world heritage and environmental safeguarding at a time when few were talking about it. To my younger mind, IKS was a fresh and exciting concept that I only began to appreciate after being forced to talk about indigenous terrace engineering of the Philippine Rice Terraces World Heritage Site on account of winning a prize award for translating the construction principles of the indigenous Ifugao house into modern architecture. Two weeks worth of perusing Conklin’s Ethnographic Atlas of Ifugao and farmers’ interviews that I presented in the stakeholders’ workshop earned me that recognition. I proved myself capable in integrating modern civil engineering formulas and indigenous knowledge. Back then I was not confident talking before the farmers who are actually the experts in agriculture and terrace engineering. But I took it upon myself to articulate their knowledge into contemporary engineering terms. And something else interested me further. The international consultant who became my counterpart gave me a copy of an ICSU report which he co-edited on the Declaration on Science adopted by the World Conference on Science (WCS) which was convened in Budapest, Hungary in 1999. The Science Agenda recommended the recognition of traditional knowledge, and government support on cooperation between holders of traditional knowledge and scientists in pursuing sustainable development. Grand ideas started to stretch my mind! In a remote corner of my brain was the place called Budapest, which turned out to be an important city in my life later. But I digress.

So two to three pages of a project concept on IKS transfer required more imagination. I was then pursuing my master in urban and regional planning in the city, which required me to travel back and forth from the province several times a month. I would stay in a small flat with my nieces whose friends also stayed with us and whose relatives occasionally stopped by. In one of those occasions one of my nieces who is in design school herself asked me what makes an Ifugao house design special. I remember thinking that if I showed them any oriental Asian indigenous hut, they would not be able to spot the difference. Incidentally the brother of their friend who came by for a visit at that time was also pursuing agricultural engineering in UP Los Banos. I visualized him to be part of this project (which he did later). Those two realities made me imagine of a program that would breed a young core group of IK experts in architecture, agriculture, engineering, biology, botany, etc. who will become the teachers of the younger generation. First, we let IK holders train them as an elite group, then they become the future teachers. That was the grant proposal that I wrote. Later, when I presented this in SITMo, another mentor of mine, manong James (+) suggested that I change the term “breeding” a younger generation of IK experts to “nurturing” IK experts among the young generation. And Nurturing Indigenous Knowledge Experts (NIKE) among the younger generation was born.

Shortly after, kuya Ric accompanied our friends from the National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan to visit Ifugao in October 2005. Because I was in school, our boss Teddy assigned my colleague Esther to show them around . At around April of 2006, we started the first phase of the project, which I designed as a survey and mapping of indigenous knowledge resources in Ifugao. Teddy introduced to us a young college graduate to join the team who I found to be articulate in online discussions. His name is Armand. There were five of us in that team. Esther volunteered to handle the Ayangan parts of Ifugao. Maribel (+) volunteered to map Banaue. Godfreda volunteered to survey Hingyon and Armand covered Hungduan and Kiangan. I steered the group, collected their outputs and consolidated these in my report. Later in their work, Armand had to take over Godfreda’s work and Stephanie who is Esther’s sister took over her work after realizing that the nature of the work requires less-familiar faces in the community.

Back then, I was acutely aware that this could be the only opportunity given to us to do this survey so I required everyone to include in their reports their personal accounts of their mapping methodology and the methods they used to “extract” information. I required this for documentation purposes and as an insurance that our outputs are real and the products of our decisions at that time. Should there be debates that challenge what we did or if it happens in the future that some would fail to acknowledge how these all started then we show them our diaries. Our narratives by the way are kept in the NCIP repository just in case someone is interested to read about these. In the last parts of our narratives we outlined the lessons we learned. I had the luxury to read all narratives again which I pulled from my e-storage. It brought me back to days of hope and fierce pride. Given permission I will quote what the others shared but for now I can only share what I wrote. In the last paragraph of my personal narrative I wrote the below:

1.  Our words express our culture better. This phase of the project is all about mapping the situation of our cultural resources. While constructing the maps from the facts gathered, replete with geographical coordinates and spatially referenced themes simplified into several layers, I think about the stories in between each layer, relayed orally, which can simply be captured in print with the letters of the alphabet. While image maps can say a thousand facts, nothing beats the letters and words we combine to map our personal views of what we have. They simply express human relationships that make up a culture, that tell our history, that transmit knowledge.   I have learned a lot about my history in the past century from the personal accounts of RF Barton, a foreigner, who I think was way ahead of his time when he wrote for the Tuwali people in an unabashedly biased manner the way internet blogs are written today.  Hence the insistence on the team to write their written reports in their own style and in the first person with the reminder that this is not an academic exercise, nor a romantic journey, but an education venture. We want to explain our culture through our personal experience, map our history through our own eyes, perhaps not seeing all the lessons through the trivial things we mention, but hopefully saying something that maybe heeded not too far in the future. 
2.  Schoolteachers are important knowledge resources. Nobody among the team members have pursued the teaching profession but in one way or the other have been nurtured by educators. Three of the team members are products of schoolteachers.  While I was writing this final report, an impromptu cultural exchange with the Tagbanwa group from Palawan or southern Philippines was held in the office premises attended by schoolchildren, their parents, some local legislators and the municipal mayor. It was arranged at a short notice so that the proper paraphernalia accompanying each performance was either missing or improvised. The Ifugao war dance, Bangibang, now a performing art, was demonstrated by the mayor, some children and one of our volunteers who armed themselves with curtain rods which we imagined as spears. After the program, two of my colleagues began to describe the last real war dance that they saw more than two decades ago. I remember a time when we, about 400 pupils in all were brought out of our classrooms to the street to watch the Bangibang, of what seemed to my six-year old eyes like a train of long flapping red leaves coming from the uphill bend of the road, constantly moving, alternately in eerie silence and in rhythmic cacophony of sticks beating on wood. The lead dancer was a mumbaki, who did not look as formidable to me as the stories they tell about him. From what I just learned recently, it was my first grade schoolteacher who requested the lead dancer to slow down ‘so that the children will see.’  Apparently my colleagues and I were able to see the last of the real thing because a teacher thought about the next generation.”

On this note, I end my first blog entry with much appreciation for the schoolteachers of the old and the younger generation.


Phase 1 Team, 2006