BAGUIO -- Environmental activist Michael Bengwayan definitely walks the talk.
The 57-year-old Benguet native is perhaps best known for his involvement with the Save 182 Movement, which filed a petition to stop mall giant SM from earth-balling 182 trees at Luneta Hill, where SM Baguio is located.
His activism even extends outside the Cordillera Administrative Region. His group recently filed a case against the Department of Public Works and Highways for cutting approximately 1,200 full-grown trees along the Manila North Road, affecting the towns of Binalonan and Pozorrubio.
Although the court has dismissed both cases, this did not stop him from pursuing his advocacy. After all, Bengwayan, who is also called Doc Mike, believes that change can start in one's own backyard -- literally.
Thirty years ago, the then 27-year-old Bengwayan bought a five-hectare property in Tublay, Benguet. "It used to be barren, treeless and denuded," he told ABS-CBN News in an interview.
In 1989, he began planting trees and other plants, with a vision to transform the land into The Habitat, a haven for different flora and fauna.
"My purpose was to show to the farmers in the community that a barren land can be made alive again and convince them to stop deforesting the community," he said.
According to Bengwayan, one hectare of The Habitat is devoted to Arabica coffee intercropped with pineapple, while three hectares are planted with pine trees and petroleum nut. The remaining area is filled with indigenous trees of Cordillera.
After three decades of continuous planting, Bengwayan's self-made forest has turned into a paradise, he said, for all sorts of birds, especially quails. Wild civet cats, cloud rats, and moles can also be spotted in the property.
"It has become a haven of bird and small wildlife not to mention bees that forage on the trees, shrubs and wild plants," he added.
The impact of The Habitat
According to Bengwayan, The Habitat can absorb almost four tons of carbon dioxide every year and can provide oxygen for about 1,300 people.
Due to the lack of irrigation systems in the area, Bengwayan also allowed farmers and their families to get their water supply from a small stream located near his forest. For the past 20 years, 39 families have depended on this brook.
Beyond these, Bengwayan's forest also serves as a training ground for "eco warriors" who want to bring positive change to the environment. He regularly holds seminars and training sessions both for young people and adults.
The Habitat is also open to tourists from October to May.
Benguet: Then and now
Bengwayan, who holds two master's degrees (Environmental Resource Management from the University of Leuven in Belguim and Rural Development Studies from the University of the Philippines in Los Baños), as well as a Ph.D. in Environmental Science from the University College Dublin in Ireland, warned that the forest cover of Benguet has gone down to 37% from 52%.
"Many trees and plants are threatened to extinction. In fact, the IUCN Red Handbook lists the Cordillerra Tree fern as the most critically endangered species in the Philippines," he said.
The Cordillerra Tree fern used to be abundant in Benguet but continues to decrease in number as they are being cut to be turned into drift wood for orchids and landscaping decor.
Another problem that threatens Benguet, he said, is the unregulated entry of genetically engineered seeds and pesticides, which put indigenous crops at risk.
"Deforestation, land erosion, intrusion into protected national parks by large-scale farming, and the excessive use of farm chemicals are contributing to the death of forests and important denizens like bees, which are important in pollinating food crops," he said.
"Sadly, these are not being addressed with urgency. If there are any actions to reverse the trend, these are insincere."
Vision for Baguio and Cordillera
But Bengwayan remains hopeful. That is why he loves training the younger generation.
"I envision Baguio and communities living in harmonious relationship with trees and forests. The city of Curritiba in Brazil is a perfect example because they had a mayor, Jaime Lernier, who had the same advocacy," he said.
"I want that at least 50% of the forests of the Cordillera be placed back."
Now that tourists are starting to arrive in Baguio for the Panagbenga 2016 this weekend, Bengwayan encourages them to respect the city.
"All, including visitors, should look at our surroundings as sacred—the air, trees, plants, water etc. These are gifts from God," he said.
"We clean up our mess and lessen garbage generation. We ride in buses and leave our cars behind so as not to contribute to pollution. Then, we leave the trees and plants alone."