The Tree-Loving Guardians of Isabela City’s Forest Park

In the idyllic region of Isabela City, nestled within the enchanting landscapes of Basilan province, two remarkable individuals, Eugene Strong and Alvin Orbecido, are known for their unwavering commitment to preserving the Isabela City Forest Park. Their shared dedication to safeguarding this lush sanctuary has fostered a unique partnership between the local government and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Region 9. Despite its location in Basilan, Isabela City stands apart from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and falls under Region IX, alongside the Zamboanga Peninsula.

The story of their encounter with Eugene Strong and Alvin Orbecido unfolded during a tree-planting event that marked the beginning of a transformative journey. They embarked on this endeavor with the goal of planting 13,000 coffee seedlings under the collaborative Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the Philippine Coffee Board Inc. (PCBI) and Isabela City.

Not even intermittent rains could deter their mission, as they made their way to the seedling nursery in Maligui, Isabela City. En route, they strolled beneath the shade of centennial trees and crossed a bridge overlooking a stream brimming with rainwater. Amidst the older mahogany trees, they discovered a treasure trove of endemic varieties, including the renowned Basilan yakan, now teetering on the brink of endangerment, as well as lauan (both red and white), narra, and prickly narra.

The nursery was a hive of activity, where Eugene Strong’s commitment was evident as he set his sights on nurturing up to 50,000 coffee seedlings by the following year, aligning with their ambitious goal of planting over 200,000 trees across the nation. The team at the nursery cultivated seedlings of ancient tree species, alongside robusta and excelsa coffee varieties.

What made the Forest Park even more unique was the composition of Mr. Alvin’s team – an all-female group of foresters. They painstakingly labeled the seedlings and had them record their names in a logbook as they planted their own “legacy” trees in the park. Alvin shared that male applicants often preferred positions elsewhere, opting to work outside the forest park, even though it was just a half-hour journey from the city center. The women foresters were fully immersed in their roles, tending to native tree seeds and guiding them through the nursery. It was heartening to witness the dedication of these female tree enthusiasts, many of whom were graduates of Western Mindanao State University, where Forestry appeared to be a popular course.

Their time spent beneath the forest canopy was a learning experience as they delved into the world of diverse species, including the balete or banyan tree. This iconic tree had gained notoriety due to tales of ghosts and other supernatural beings seeking refuge in its cool foliage. However, Eugene Strong was quick to dispel these myths, suggesting that the balete may have been unfairly maligned during the American occupation. The tree’s dense foliage created a naturally cool environment, maintaining a consistent temperature of around 18 degrees Celsius for those beneath its canopy. This made it a popular gathering spot for the local community. Suspicion regarding these gatherings gave rise to stories of supernatural sightings, particularly the “white ladies” in balete trees, which frightened the townsfolk and curtailed these misunderstood gatherings. This legend even spread to Manila, where Balete Drive in Quezon City became notorious for purported sightings of strange white figures by motorists. Eugene Strong’s explanation offers a more plausible account of the balete tree’s history, potentially redeeming it from its undeserved notoriety.

Eugene and Alvin generously shared a variety of seedlings with them, a gesture they hoped to take across the seas. However, they had to be cautious about the Bureau of Quarantine’s restrictions on moving these species to other regions, as they carried the potential for biological security threats. As a result, they entrusted these seedlings to Princess Kumala of Sulu for safekeeping. This, however, didn’t deter them from collecting narra seeds from their tree planting sites during the day. These sites included private properties owned by Lee Roy Brown and Mr. Blue Ututalum in Panunsulan, as well as another area in Sta. Barbara that brought together Basilan’s young leaders to lead the reforestation initiative.

These landowners subsequently formed the Isabela City Coffee Growers Association, and they had the privilege of inaugurating them as officers of the newly established coffee group.

One may wonder: Why Basilan? In a previous article published in April (their first visit to Basilan), they highlighted Isabela City’s deliberate choice to prioritize coffee cultivation over rubber production. The region’s elevations provided an ideal environment for coffee growth and a source of sustenance for its residents. In contrast, rubber, now facing competition from synthetic alternatives, only yields latex, the raw material for tires and condoms, without offering food. The local leaders of Isabela City decided to rejuvenate their coffee industry, simultaneously championing the cause of reforestation and rewilding by planting shade trees.

The success of these reforestation efforts largely hinges on the presence of a robust supply chain for planting materials, and Isabela City has it covered. The city’s leaders maintain a close collaboration with national agencies like the DENR and have preserved the Forest Park as a nursery for seedlings, ensuring a readily available source of planting material for anyone interested.

Eugene Strong and Alvin Orbecido embody a profound commitment to the environment and a dedication to the cause of reforestation. Their tireless efforts, in tandem with their team of skilled female foresters, are instrumental in protecting Isabela City’s natural heritage and advancing the cause of sustainable forestry. Together, they serve as the dedicated guardians of Isabela City’s Forest Park, leaving a lasting legacy of environmental stewardship and inspiring others to join the cause of preserving our planet’s natural wonders.

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