What happened at Mt. Kanlaon?

Written by: Val Roque, LM

Last October 20, 1999, 40 climbers set out to the Guintubdan jump-off point at Brgy. Ala-as, La Carlota City for an expedition to Mt. Kanlaon. Most of the 40 climbers were from member clubs of the Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines, Inc. (MFPI) who participated in the Mid-year President’s Meeting and Climb at Mt. Mandalagan. They were led by Mr. Fred Jamili of the PMS and MFPI Secretary Regie Pablo.

Armed with a temporary restraining order (TRO) secured by MFPI president Butch Sebastian which, from a legal standpoint, lifted the climbing ban in effect at the Mt. Kanlaon Natural Park, the 40 climbers were all looking forward to climb Visayas’ highest peak and appreciate its hidden natural wonders. These, however, were not the only reasons they have set out for this expedition. Beyond the claims of the Bacolod City Protected Areas Management Board (PAMB-Bacolod) justifying its decision to close Mt. Kanlaon to trekking, the climbers wanted to see for themselves the real ecological state of Mt. Kanlaon in order to ascertain whether the ban was justifiable. Thus, they brought with them video and still cameras to document what they see and hear along the trail.

From the mountaineers’ perspective, the ban tramples upon their constitutional right to travel; more particularly, it violates their right to scale the high summits which is their reason for being. It was feared that there will come a time when all mountains in the country would be set off-limits to trekkers. This would truly spell the end of their breed. Contrary to what others would dismiss as plain selfishness – to just climb Mt. Kanlaon for the pleasure of it – the group made a stand because they wanted to assert their right against a seemingly authoritarian policy which was exclusionary in its consultative process and was without any scientific basis.
Everyone was optimistic that the climb would push through upon leaving Bacolod City. Upon arrival at Brgy. Ala-as however, it was learned that a group from the Ayala Mountaineering Club, Inc. (AMCI) went ahead earlier in the morning and was not allowed to go on with their climb by the Ala-as community. A climbing permit from the DENR was asked from them. They neither had this nor a copy of the TRO which only Mr. Fred Jamili had.

At around 6:30 p.m., Mr. Regie Pablo dialogued with Mr. Edward Rastata from the PAMB. Mr. Rastata presented the PAMB position on the ban. He specifically said that a trekking permit was required and that this should come from DENR Bacolod. Mr. Pablo on the other hand presented him a copy of the TRO. He argued that the TRO should be sufficient for the climbers to be allowed up Mt. Kanlaon. Mr. Rastata, however, explained that while the TRO lifted the climbing ban which was in effect, it was limited only to this particular policy and not to the other prior policies which they have issued. He said that even before the ban took effect, there was an existing policy for trekkers to get a climbing permit before they are allowed to climb. At this point, there were requests from the community leaders for a dialogue with Mr. Pablo. Mr. Pablo and Mr. Rastata ended the meeting by agreeing that the community should be consulted about the issue.

The meeting with the community leaders started at around 7:00 p.m. Mr. Pablo explained to the representatives of the community the group’s intention to climb Mt. Kanlaon by virtue of the TRO. Ms. Ping Estelloso, who acted as the spokesperson for the community explained the community’s position regarding the matter. She said that while they would want trekkers to climb up Mt. Kanlaon because of income opportunities generated for their community, they have passed an ordinance that presently prohibits any climb because of the ban. She explains that her community is obliged to respond to any accident that would happen up the volcano but that they are not ready as of the moment for this particular duty because guidelines for the regulation of human activity as proposed by the PAMB have yet to be drafted. Allowing the group to climb would be tantamount to violating their own ordinance. Mr. Pablo explained however that the TRO had nullified the ban and with it the basis for the community’s ordinance. He also said that the group is fully aware of the risks up Mt. Kanlaon and pointed out that it was normal practice for every climber to sign a waiver that would not hold the host club liable for any accident which may happen in the course of a climb. The group, he said, was willing to sign such a waiver issued by the community. At about 8:30 p.m., the meeting ended without any agreement.

During the dialogue, it was learned that the community has the final say in allowing any group up Kanlaon regardless of the issuance of a trekking permit by the DENR. Despite the community’s seemingly hardline position, Mr. Jan Anglo of the Negros Mountaineering Club was called up to get a permit from DENR Bacolod that evening. He would later arrive 3:00 a.m. the following morning to get the names of all the climbers. Mr. Butch Sebastian, MFPI President, was also informed about the developments at Guintubdan. After the meeting with the community, the group was allowed to camp near the barangay’s basketball court to rest for the night.

The following morning, at about 8:00 a.m., the group from AMCI went back to Bacolod to catch their flight home to Manila later that afternoon. Omar Pichache, a freelance mountaineer who was with the AMCI, explained that this was precisely the reason why the group went ahead to the jump-off point. From what they understood, Mt. Kanlaon was open due to the issuance of the TRO and it was only because of time constraints that they decided to go ahead of the MFPI group.
At about 9:45 a.m., after the Ayala group had left, Mr. Fred Jamili called everyone to sign their names and addresses in the community logbook. Everyone signed up. Ms. Estelloso then took the logbook and informed the group to wait for Mr. Anglo (who early that morning went back to Bacolod to get a DENR permit) and subsequently the community’s decision on whether to allow the group to climb. At about 10:20 a.m., the logbook which the group earlier signed was sent back for filling up with the full name and complete contact information of everyone. Some at this point felt this was ludicrous. Nevertheless, everyone obliged.

Fred Jamily instructing the climbers to prepare for the climb.

After signing the logbook for a second time, Mr. Jamili ordered the group to pack up. He presumed that everything was okay with the community with the signing anew of everyone’s complete personal and contact information. With it, the community can subpoena all members of the group in case they violate their ordinance. This was the risk that the group was taking. When everyone had packed up, a prayer was said for the safety of the group. The group of 40 then started trekking.

On the approach up the Guintubdan trail, many observed that most of the backyard of Brgy. Ala-as are being used for growing flowers and raising game cocks. So many were the beautiful flowers that at least the group was given something to appreciate while waiting down at the barangay proper. So much more, however, were the game cocks that many were prematurely roused earlier during dawn with their simultaneous crowing. While it was understandable that these forms of livelihood benefit the community, some wondered why these activities, which undoubtedly have a high ecological impact on Mt. Kanlaon’s biodiversity and the water quality of downstream communities, were allowed inside the natural park. No sooner would they find their preoccupation on these thoughts change as they trudged up the slopes of Kanlaon.

Ms. Estelloso stoping the climbers along the trail.

At about 15 minutes into the trek, just after everybody had been able to warm up for the cardiac assault, Ms. Estelloso, along with a group of men caught up with the MFPI group via a shorter trail and ordered them to stop. The group did so as told and were subjected to a long and emotional monologue courtesy of Ms. Estelloso. At this point, the group tried to move on; but harsh voices issuing veiled threats from the group of men, with one of them allegedly showing a handgun, froze the group in its tracks. Ms. Estelloso pleaded her men to stay cool and sobbingly appealed to Tatang Fred and the group to respect the community’s sentiment. With emotions rising, the group was left with no choice but to turn back and avoid any violence. Their silence showed an apparent disappointment with the developments as they hiked back down to the barangay proper.

At 11:40 a.m., Mr. Jamili gathered the group and explained what he wants to do. He asked Mr. Pablo to report the incident to the local PNP outpost. He then made a request to the group to support him and make a stand by remaining camped at the barangay until the community allowed them to climb Kanlaon. Most of the members of the group gave their pledge but some decided to leave for Bacolod as soon as the first jeepney arrived.

The tension seemed to have eased up a bit early that afternoon when everyone had been able to eat lunch and enjoyed a game of basketball. By 3:40 p.m. however, the chief of police from La Carlota City arrived. Everyone was called to engage in dialogue with Mr. Rastata and the community leaders.

Local police arrived at the scene to ensure peace and order.

Mr. Jamili thought that the police went there to uphold the TRO and escort the group up Mt. Kanlaon. It turned out that they arrived just to maintain peace and order. In fairness to the police, their statement was a way to present themselves as non-partisan. During the dialogue, the community and Mr. Rastata reiterated their stand that while the TRO nullified the ban, existing policies prior to it such as the requirement of a trekking permit were still effective. The police seems to find this argument sensible.

Since all arguments from each side ended up in deadlock, Mr. Pablo requested the other party to sign a document that would make explicit the refusal of the community and the local DENR to allow the MFPI group to ascend Mt. Kanlaon despite the TRO presented to them. This was to be used as basis for any legal action the MFPI might pursue in line with this development. The community leaders met and talked about the proposal but decided not to sign the document which Mr. Pablo drafted. They claim they do not understand what was stated in the TRO.

Trampling of the TRO that was not honored by the local community and the concerned agency.
Frustrated because of the sheer hopelessness of the situation, the group gathered together and expressed their disgust by trampling the TRO to pieces. Still, as if the current developments were not enough to merit the group’s ire, Mr. Anglo arrived from Bacolod with bad news. He said that he met with Mr. Errol Gatumbato, the park’s superintendent, and requested for a trekking permit. The latter however claims that he has yet to receive a copy of the TRO and that there were no orders from the top for him to issue a trekking permit.

With the latest news, Mr. Jamili gathered the group again and asked whether they would continue to support him in asserting the right to climb by remaining at Brgy. Ala-as. With everyone feeling hopeless and doubtful about the practicality of such a proposal, a decision was unanimously made to leave. Mr. Jamili respected the group’s decision.

While some people went home late that afternoon, the bulk of the group went to explore the nearby waterfalls upon the invitation of Ms. Estelloso the following morning. This was perhaps the group’s only consolation; something which made the bitter experience at Brgy. Ala-as a little bit of a bittersweet one.

The group would later learn upon their arrival at Bacolod that they were not only up against the community at Ala-as and PAMB Bacolod but the whole provincial government of Negros Occidental. From news reports, Governor Coscolluela issued statements that frowned upon the insistence of the MFPI to climb Mt. Kanlaon. It would seem apparent now that the community at Ala-as, PAMB Bacolod, and the La Carlota police were under some pressure to stick by the provincial government’s stand in upholding the ban. No wonder Ms. Estelloso kept repeating: “Kami ang naiipit, kami ang naiipit.”

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