Last night, I dreamed about rain: A story of restoration in Antique

I want to start with an epiphany: last night, I dreamed about rain.

This thought occurred to me a few days ago while walking along the road beside the rice fields in my hometown, Culasi. I noticed the Mountain, and it struck me that we haven’t experienced rainfall for over a month due to El Niño

My daily routine has involved coping with intense heat for weeks. As I paused to look at the loftiness of Mount Madjaas and her forest, a lingering thought crossed my mind: Did it rain last night?

I knew it hadn’t, but I could recall the feeling as though it had.

The impact of El Niño has become increasingly evident recently, with average daytime temperatures soaring to a record-breaking 40 degrees Celsius. This extreme heat has wreaked havoc on the day-to-day lives of people across the Philippines, including in our town.

Classes are being canceled, water has become more and more scarce, and many people are experiencing weather-induced health issues. This situation underscores the critical importance of maintaining healthy landscapes and ecosystems, especially forests and trees, to help us adapt to the inevitable effects of the climate crisis.
For the 23 years of my life, I’ve lived in Culasi, a town in Antique province on the island of Panay in the central Philippines. Since I was 18, I’ve been dedicating my time to  mainstream community-led biodiversity conservation, particularly focusing on the rufous-headed hornbill and its habitat on Mount Madjaas.

Mount Madjaas is the tallest peak of the Central Panay Mountain Range – the island’s longest ridge system, spanning over the four provinces of Panay: Aklan, Capiz, Iloilo, and Antique. The Mountain is renowned for its forest, sea of clouds, and rich diversity of flora and fauna – giving it the status of a Key Biodiversity Area. 

Growing up here, I have witnessed her terrains become home to an increasing number of families, growing by the hundreds each year. Ever-increasing development and land conversion has slowly but surely inched toward the Mountain. 

A lush patch of forest thrives in the Central Panay Mountains Key Biodiversity Area, situated specifically within the landscape of Mount Madjaas. This area represents a vital habitat for numerous plant and animal species. Meg Padpad

The tears of Madjaas: Sacred mountainscapes, shared stories and environmental connection

Madjaas has been revered as one of the most sacred places in the Visayas region since ancient times. Legend has it that it was home to the ancient sacred tree of the Visayan god of Death, Sidapa, who could measure mortal lives.

In local mythology, the god of meteors, Bulalakaw, and the supreme god of the Hiligaynon people, Kanlaon, are believed to have lived on the Mountain before moving elsewhere. Pandaki, the god of second chances, is also said to visit occasionally.

My relationship with Mount  Madjaas dates back to my childhood. Growing up, I heard stories from my grandfather about the folklore and myths of the region. These tales sparked my interest and shaped my understanding of the landscape.

Our home is nestled near the foothills of Mount Madjaas, surrounded by rice paddies and lush green hills. As a child, I cherished the vibrant ecosystem that served as my playground, with its intact forests, fertile farmland and flowing bodies of water – they all added joy to my memory of being a kid in Culasi.

But with the inevitable flow of time came the inevitable drastic change of its landscapes. One vivid memory is of a creek near our backyard that we used to play in during my younger years.

Back then, even during summertime, it was deep and flowing. But in recent years, I’ve observed a significant change as the creek has mostly dried up, primarily due to siltation caused by unwanted quarrying and unregulated development practices.

The Mountain’s microclimate plays a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance. It influences weather patterns, water distribution and biodiversity in Culasi, all of which are essential for our collective survival as locals. The water cycles influenced within these landscapes sustain the ecosystems, watersheds and communities downstream.

The majestic beauty of Mount Madjaas, showcasing its towering presence and the vibrant greenery of its forest. The view, taken from our backyard, offers a glimpse into the serene and untouched natural landscape that graces our everyday lives as locals. Javie Barcinal

With a total of 14 waterfalls, Mount Madjaas feeds the four major rivers in northern Antique: the mighty Dalanas, Tibiao, Bacong and Mali-ao rivers. In the neighboring province of Aklan, it contributes to the Aklan River through the Timbaban and Dumarayray rivers. 

Some of the biggest waterfalls can be seen like white strands on the Mountain’s slopes. The legend of the Mountain says that these waterfalls, or “busay,” as we call them, are the tears of Madjaas, mourning the tragic fate of her children, the three small islands that can be seen from the mountaintop: Mararison, Batbatan, and Maningning.
They were said to have drowned tragically when their boat capsized during their search for their father, Kanlaon. He was cursed and failed to return, leading to this sorrowful event that became part of the mountain’s lore.

One of the many falls or ‘busay’ that can be seen closely during a scenic hike at Mount Madjaas. Meg Padpad

This story of loss and circumstance stretched out in geological time teaches us a profound lesson about our interconnectedness with nature. The tears of Madjaas cascading down its slopes symbolize not just a legend but also a stark reality echoing the impacts of the climate crisis.

As I witness blazing fires dotting her crevices during the dry season, constantly reminded of the urgent need to address the environmental challenges in our locality.

A devastating forest fire captured from the rice paddies at the back of our house on 16 March 2024. Javie Barcinal   

The reverence shown towards nature in pre-colonial times, as reflected in myths like the legend of Mount Madjaas, underscores our ancestors’ deep respect for the environment.

They understood the delicate harmony between humans and nature, practicing care methods in the most sustainable way — emphasizing the need for stewardship rather than exploitation.

Dulungan Youth: Nurturing nature through community-led conservation

A few years ago, when I was 18, I felt compelled to organize fellow youths in our town to address the destruction we were witnessing in our landscapes. Together, we formed the group now known as Dulungan Youth, named after the local name of the endemic and threatened rufous-headed Hornbill

Participants of Dulungan Youth’s Art and Ecology Workshop posing their cyanotype artwork along one of the major rivers of Mount Madjaas – Rio Guintongaban, a tributary of the Bacong River. Javie Barcinal   

The dulungan is regarded as a species of hope and a flagship species for conservation in the province.  The hornbill’s decline is an indicator of the broader health of the area, and its recovery would signify that the forest is on a path to restoration. Knowing the various factors affecting this process of conservation, we knew our goals would be grounded in restoring ecosystems and revitalizing communities. 

The dulungan (rufous-headed hornbill), considered one of the rarest hornbills in the world, with an estimated 1,000 to 2,500 mature individuals left in the wild (BirdLife Data). Javie Barcinal   

Influenced by my privilege of having a mother who works in environmental protection, I was motivated to translate the awareness of encroachment and forest degradation in Antique into collective action. Our organization aims to promote community-led conservation in Antique and provide spaces for young people to address ecological challenges they see and experience.

With the support and opportunity provided by the Restoration Stewards program of the Global Landscapes Forum, we seek to scale the seeds of hope we’ve been planting in Antique.

Through the Dulungan Conservation and Eco-Learning Hub, we aim to co-create a space for community: a communal area for capacity development that will further empower and enhance local engagement in forest protection and restoration.

Through approaches that highlight self-determination, cultural sensitivity, ecological resilience and socioeconomic factors, we emphasize that conservation should be holistic, intersectional and inclusive, especially for those who bear the brunt of the crisis. 

Through these layers of stories – from the personal to the cultural and socio-political – that shaped our ways of restoration, it became clear to us that this work goes beyond reviving degraded land and forests; it’s also about rekindling our connection with the very source of our life. 

As a group, we believe that there are equitable ways forward with land use and human–nature interactions. Constructing these pathways begins with recognizing and understanding the stories our landscapes convey beyond the human language.

Welcome to our journey to restore our sacred relationship with our landscapes. Together, let’s forge a path toward a future filled with hope, justice and ecological harmony.

Article tags

Forest restorationGeneration restorationPhilippinesRestoration StewardYouth

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