Palawan is undoubtedly the dream destination of many tourists in the Philippines and abroad, but unbeknownst to them the mountains in this island province weep because although illegal logging has been minimized, it still persists as many in the countryside need to earn to live.
Not less than 20 trees are exploited every day by each illegal logger who resides in Bacungan village, harming not just the environment but also the life of the community.
But fate has changed, they are now working with the Yamang Bukid Farm as caretakers and guardians of the forests.
These illegal loggers may have earned money more than what they’re expected but they also lived every single day in constant fear — fear of not earning to feed their families and of being caught by authorities for their unlawful activities.
Most of them started in illegal logging at very young ages, hiding in the shadows of their wrongdoings because their choices were limited.
Living in an atmosphere of fear
“Wala po akong ibang choice kung hindi ang sumama sa mga nagpuputol ng kahoy at nag-uuling para makatulong sa pamilya. Sobrang hirap po talaga ng buhay at kailangan naming mabuhay. Malaki-laki din kasi ang kita sa pagtrotroso (I had no choice back then but to join the illegal loggers and those that make charcoals to help my family. Life was so hard and we need to survive. We earned a lot by cutting down trees),” Benjie Soriano, who started in illegal logging when he was 12 years old, said.
Cutting down trees was also a family business for some like Ronnel Espino.
Espino said he had to bring his own family in the mountains where there are good enough trees to cut down. They crossed large natural elevations that are dangerous and lived anywhere their weary bodies take them in between sojourns.
He was emotional when recalling how his child died at a very young age because life was harsh and he had no money then.
Espino said that point in their life as a family made him lose hope.
He and Soriano were not the only ones who took to illegal logging in the past to have means to live. Some women got into it as well since they want to help their husbands to have something for their families.
Jonabae Duran used to join his husband in the mountains too, she said. Her task was to guard the area where her husband was cutting down trees against forest wardens of the Bantay Gubat.
Duran said they were almost caught one time, and it was when they started living in an atmosphere of fear every time they go back to the mountains.
“Takot na takot ako noon kasi alam namin na bawal ‘yong ginagawa namin. Muntik pa kami mahuli. Pero wala, eh, kailangan namin ng pera para makakain kami sa araw-araw (I was so afraid because we knew that what we were doing was illegal. But we had no choice but to continue for us to have something to eat daily),” she said.
But Andy Capuyan was not as lucky as the Durans because he was caught and imprisoned for five months for illegal logging and possession of chainsaw.
Capuyan, who was regretful of what he did, said he wasn’t aware that he was already causing harm to the environment and acting against the law.
He said the information about the logging ban was not accessible to him at that time.
Hope springs eternal
In 2017, everything changed with the Yamang Bukid Healthy Products, Inc. (YBHPI) coming to Bacungan village. Rays of hope started to shine amidst the gloomy feeling of the residents in the barangay.
YBHPI, the leading of Turmeric with Gynura procumbens 10-in-1 Instant Herbal Tea in the Philippines, cultivated a piece of land on the ridges of Bacungan to realize a horizon full of vegetation in full bloom.
It established the Yamang Bukid Farm and expand an agro-tourism project that can also benefit the residents in surrounding communities.
The YBHPI engaged the residents and formed an effective team with them to chase the dream of setting up an agriculturally-based operation that will bring in visitors for experiential learning.
The healthy products company, without any judgment, tapped even the residents who got involved in illegal logging and taught them how to till in the farm, eventually hiring them as workers.
In the Yamang Bukid Farm, they are paid enough salaries, given benefits due them, incentives, and free meals.
The farm is just 19 months old, but it continues to extend its arms to more individuals, families, and communities to help them reach their dreams.
There are already numerous success and life-changing stories – and they are humbling. It’s no wonder why the farm was appreciated by many and was declared by the Department of Tourism (DOT) as an Agro-Forestry Tourism Destination in Puerto Princesa City that is worth visiting and spending time with families.
And that’s it. Living with fear has ended for many residents of the barangay. They already turned their backs from illegally cutting trees.
They even realized that they can do noble things in life. Over 150 residents of Bacungan, including Soriano, Espino, Duran, and Capuyan, are now employed in the Yamang Bukid Farm. Most were illegal loggers who were turned into farmers and became the guardians of farms and forests.
Instead of cutting down trees, Soriano now tends the Yamang Bukid Farm’s sunflowers, which is one of the most popular garden spots to visitors and guests.
He realized how planting can add value to everyday life. He also plans to start a family as he already has savings for future endeavors.
Espino, on the other hand, has been awarded as one of the Most Outstanding Employees of the Yamang Bukid Farm.
From farming, he was able to build a house for his family and did all the things that he missed in his life. After so many years, he was able to ask his partner to tie the knot with him.
He also created a modest tomb in memory of the child he lost during hard times.
Duran forwent illegal activities that harmed the environment and is now a mushroom farmer. Other than cultivating mushrooms at the farm, she eagerly shares to tourists what she is doing to raise awareness and appreciation.
And lastly, Capuyan is out of the prison. The YBHPI bailed him out and gave him an opportunity to live a better life.
He is now known as one of the most hardworking farmers.
In a span of a small time, the farmers are already flourishing in their lives. Even the mountains are recovering from uprooted and burnt trees.
These lives were saved from darkness and it is all possible because there is a business doing it with a heart.