Oct 28, 2023
Photo Credit: Photos by Paulina
(Left) Short tour of the Leyte Sab-a Peatland. (Right) Preparing the bags for the potting of seedlings
I didn't know what a peatland is until 2019 when it was introduced to us by Dr. Jerome Montemayor from the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction. We were informed that our province is home to the Leyte Sab-a Peat Swamp Forest which is the second largest confirmed peatland in the Philippines. Little did we know that this vast tract of waterlogged grassland is a huge carbon storage that plays a major role in climate regulation.
What is a peatland? According to the International Peatland Society, peatlands are terrestrial wetland ecosystems in which waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from fully decomposing. Peatlands are critical for preventing and mitigating the effects of climate change, preserving biodiversity, minimizing flood risk and ensuring safe drinking water.
However, most policy makers, bureaucrats and communities are not aware about the existence and relevance of peatlands. This ignorance about the peatland prevailed in the 1970s. In fact, in the Philippines, a government agency was created during martial law to reclaim swamps, wastelands and drain water-logged areas and develop a food basket by increasing agricultural productivity which will become a model for agricultural estate. Due to the lack of scientific knowledge about the environment, the late President Marcos decreed to dredge, irrigate, inundate, dry or fill up natural water basins and undertake reclamation projects in the Leyte Sab-a Basin. There were massive cutting of trees, harvesting of peatland resources and land conversion which led to the degradation of the peatland. Land conversion was unabated when the peatland was covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. A huge portion of the area was distributed to agrarian reform beneficiaries , many of whom incurred huge losses mainly because the peatland was unsuitable for rice production.
People living in the peatland area suffer during heavy rains and typhoons. There is massive flooding caused by the inability of the degraded portions of the peatland to absorb water. This results to food insecurity, loss of livelihoods. destruction of property and disruption of work and school, thus, aggravating the poverty situation in the villages. In 2017, the flood reached our village in Palo, Leyte which is eleven (11) kilometers from the peatland in Sta. Fe, Leyte.
Our family including Bronson, our dog were internally displaced for a few days when we had to evacuate to the house of my in-laws in Tacloban City. We thought that the massive flood was only due to the heavy rainfall. We would have not suffered this inconvenience if the peatland is healthy and able to perform its ecological function of absorbing and containing water.
The increasing temperature coupled with the draining of peat water during dry season makes the peatland vulnerable to peat fires. According to community sources, peat fires in the Leyte Sab-a Peatland is mostly caused by fishers who slash and burn the grasses for better access and visibility of the fishing grounds. Poor or weak enforcement of environmental laws and unregulated harvesting of peatland resources results in the dwindling of native species of flora and fauna.
Women are users of peatland resources such as water, fuel and food at the family level. The continuing degradation of the peatland make their homes and communities vulnerable to health and disaster risks caused by peatland fires and flood resulting to food and water shortages. This condition makes the reproductive work of women harder, aggravating multiple burden and mental stress.
"Hingyap namon nga waray na magsusunog ha peatland para diri mawara an mga isda ngan mga hayop nga naukoy ha peatland. Hingyap ko guihap hin maupay nga pakabuhi para hit akon pamilya" ( We wish that there will be no fires in the peatland so the fishes and animals living in the peatland will not disappear. I also wish for a good livelihood for my family.). - Inday, 35 years old.
Hence, Project Eden aims to transform the women from passive users to active nurturers of their source of life, the Leyte Sab-a Peatland Forest. We will start by creating peatland awareness among 400 women from five (5) villages so they will appreciate the long term and global importance of the peatland.
We are now seeking resources and assistance to develop the entrepreneurial mindset, knowledge and skills of women so they can produce peatland-friendly products that will provide jobs and income to their families. We are not starting from scratch. We have a core group of peatland women composed of Annarose, Angel, Juvian, Melanie, Lerma and Nelda. With them, we hope to build a peatland wide assembly of women with leaders who can represent nature in decision-making bodies at the village and municipal levels.
We are knocking on doors of governments, funding agencies, academe and private sector to join us in empowering the women as nurturers and protectors of the Leyte Sab-a Peatland. When we protect the peatlands, we save lives and cool the world.