Along the President Epidio Quirino Highway going to the nearby Northern Caloocan City, Metro Manila and San Jose del Monte City, Bulacan is a patch of land considered an eyesore by passersby having been unkempt for years inside the vast La Mesa Dam and Reservoir, Watershed Reservation and Nature Reserve.
That patch of land is just a speck or tiny portion of the 2,659 hectare La Mesa watershed reservation located in the northern fringes of Quezon City, Caloocan City and Montalban (now Rodriguez) in Rizal province at the foot of the southern Sierra Madre mountain range west of the Marikina Valley and south of San Jose del Monte City, Bulacan, some 700 hectares of which consists of the La Mesa Dam and Reservoir. More than 2,000 hectares of that big area is verdant forest which is home to many endemic and indigenous species of flora and fauna, many tree species, and a wide variety of wildlife species and birds. Overall, the forest cover serves as the lungs of Metro Manila, providing it water and clean air.
You would love that patch of land and the entire reservation also because of its rich history. Its dam was built as an artificial lake in 1929 as part of Manila’s Ipo-Novaliches-San Juan water system when the Philippines was an American colony as the main source of water for Manila and environs. Historians Dr. Emmanuel Franco Calairo and UP Los Banos professor Rosalinda Morales Franco-Calairo wrote in their book “Ang Kasaysayan ng Novaliches” that the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), forerunner of the National Waterworks and Sewerage Administration (NAWASA) and the MWSS, decided to build a new dam between 1920 and 1926 to replace the old Wawa Dam in the town of Montalban, the first source of water supply for Manila and environs, which has become obsolete due to Manila’s fast growing population. The government then chose La Mesa in the former town of Novaliches as the site of a new dam because of its sloping topography from the neighboring towns of Norzagaray and San Jose del Monte in Bulacan.
Also under the Americans, the Ipo Dam, a concrete water reservoir gravity dam in Norzagaray, Bulacan was built six years later in 1935, partially opened in 1936 and fully opened in 1938 with water diverted to La Mesa Dam via big tunnels which were built connecting Ipo, La Mesa and the San Juan Reservoir.
The San Juan Reservoir was the oldest of the three dams/reservoirs because it was built in 1880 by the Spanish engineers and architects as part of the Carriedo Waterworks system which supplied also water to Manila’s fire hydrants and fountains. Considered as one of the world’s oldest underground water reservoirs and originally known as the El Deposito, the San Juan reservoir first sourced water from the Marikina River thru canals and pipes. During its prime, it could hold up to 15 million gallons of water, adequate for Manila residents at that time. It has been decommissioned, however, as another reservoir has been built a few kilometres away near the San Juan-Quezon City boundary. Restored only recently to its imposing original built, the El Deposito was declared by the National Historical Commission as a historical and cultural gem and transformed into a museum and a tourist attraction in the Pinaglabanan Shrine since 2019 providing a glimpse of what is like to live during the Spanish era.
THE BIRTH OF ANNUAL MILLION TREES CHALLENGE
When Administrator Gen. Reynaldo V. Velasco took the reins in February 2017 at the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), a proposal was presented to him by his adviser Melandrew T. Velasco, veteran publisher, author and communication specialist, for the staging of planting one million trees annually for five years in seven critical watersheds namely La Mesa, Ipo, Angat, Laguna Lake, Umiray, Marikina and Manila Bay that supply potable water to Metro Manila, Cavite, Rizal and Bulacan. Thus, it gave birth to the MWSS’ Annual Million Trees Challenge (AMTC). Wanting fast results knowing fully well that potable water is a vital need of people and the protection of watersheds is critical in the water supply chain, the MWSS chief, a retired Philippine National Police (PNP) general, gave in eventually to the proposal that civic organizations and socially responsible corporations to help jointly undertake the project.
The partners and volunteers, hand in hand, have since planted million trees, most of them now blooming, in important watersheds in Metro Manila, Rizal, Bulacan and Quezon provinces.
In the last five years from 2017 to 2021, the AMTC through the help of its network of stakeholders succeeded in planting 5.2 million trees.
With such a noble environmental project not to go to waste and owing to the good track record of AMTC over the last four years since its inception in 2017, Mel Velasco suggested to MWSS Chairman and Administrator Rey Velasco to set up a Million Trees Foundation to insure the institutionalization and continuation of the noble project.
Thus, the Million Trees Foundation Inc. (MTFI) was born on March 16, 2021, its official date of incorporation
In August 2021, the MWSS Board of Trustees approved the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement officially recognizing the Million Trees Foundation Inc. (MTFI) as its partner non-governmental organization for the continuation and institutionalization of the Annual Million Trees Challenge including the grant of a five-hectare lot inside the La Mesa Watershed to serve as a nursery and eco learning center. The MOA between MWSS and MTFI was officially signed on September 14, 2021 coinciding with the AMTC Recognition and Awards to its partner stakeholders.
THE MILLION TREES NURSERY AND ECO LEARNING CENTER
On September 30, 2021, the Million Trees Foundation Inc. staged the groundbreaking for the conversion of that patch of land into a site for a nursery for planting materials that the agency and the Annual Million Trees need for the critical protection project for watersheds supporting the dams under the care of the agency and other government and private groups such as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, National Power Corp., the Laguna Lake Development Authority, Manila Water, Maynilad, Luzon Clean Water Development Corp., among others.
Among the many legacies of Gen. Rey Velasco’s stewardship as MWSS Administrator and later also as Chairman, is the realization of the vision for a MWSS-operated nursery to be manned by the Million Trees Foundation to be managed by Mel Velasco, the brainchild of the AMTC and who now serves as the foundation’s president and executive director.
While considered still a baby by reckoning with its organization and official registration, the MTFI has grown into an oversized baby, attracting many committed and responsible partners to its cause.
These partners are led by the MWSS and country’s three biggest water groups – Manila Water Company Inc., Maynilad Water Services Inc. and Luzon Clean Water Development Corp. – plus the National Power Corporation, Philippine Water Works Association and the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) which all have water production and protection among their mandates.
On the civics side, the Rotary International, Philippine Jaycees, Kiwanis International, Boy Scouts of the Philippines, UP Mountaineers, ABS-CBN Lingkod Kapamilya Foundation Inc. – Bantay Kalikasan, and the UP Beta Sigma are also partners, aside from local government units hosting watersheds and water dams.
Not to mention the business tycoon with a big, big heart – Ramon S. Ang (RSA) of San Miguel Corporation – who volunteered an initial P5 million seed fund for the initial needs of the MTFI. Among the other initial donors include Maynilad with P1.5 million, Manila Water with P1.5 million, Manila Water Foundation with P1.5 million, Prime Infra with 1.5 million and Bulacan Bulk with P1.5 million.
Santa Clara International took care of the ground preparations of the initial phase of the project development covering more than 100 truckload of soil including the deployment of heavy equipment over the last four months.
AND THE TRANSFORMATION
The Million Trees Foundation Inc. (MTFI) Nursery and Eco Learning Center at the La Mesa Watershed in Quezon City is an essential component of MTFI programs that will ensure the sustainability of the MWSS Annual Million Trees Challenge (AMTC) through the years.
The Nursery and Eco Learning Center is the maiden project in the five-hectare area leased to MTFI by the Philippine government through the MWSS for 15 years.
As the support and production arm of MTFI, it will provide optimum growing conditions to germinated seeds of trees to be planted in reforestation projects. MTFI targets to produce 500,000 initially that will include narra, ylang-ylang and bamboo. It will supply the tree sapling needs of its institutional partners. It will also serve as learning hub for environment protection and venue for seminars and trainings.
The project was undertaken using sustainable materials such as recovered and old yakal lumber and two 40-footer container vans that now house the on-site MTFI satellite office and the Million Trees Souvenir Shop as well as the kiosks.
And slowly, the once eyesore patch of land, is shaping up into an attractive and sustainable plant nursery, eco park, educational, bikers, hikers and tourist haven and meeting place of warriors committed to protecting the environment, especially the rivers, rivulets, waterfalls, lakes, water dams, watersheds and forests.
Another visit to the area, one would now be surprised and impressed with the development in the initial phase of the project – rows and rows of a wide variety of planting materials under green houses; an airconditioned conference and training room and a forest-themed souvenir shop made from unused cargo container vans. The roof tops of the two container vans also double up as a view deck and a bigger training area as well as an exhibit and events place.
From the roof, one can see the busy President Quirino Highway, and appreciate the mango and star apple trees inside the property which are now blooming with fruits.
Another attraction of the place is the Yakal coffee shop, so named after one of the Philippines’ important tree species found in the vast La Mesa Forest and Nature Reserve. The shop specializes in native coffee variety grown in Cavite and Batangas, which the MTFI plans to plant in its five-hectare area, together with other fruit-bearing trees.
According to Mel Velasco, as part of its sustainability and recycling advocacy, the volume of Yakal wood used in the Million Trees Nursery and Eco Learning Center were retrieved from the MWSS stockyard and converted to new use that included the flooring of the foundation’s on site container van office, long tables and benches, fence, billboard, coffee shop and even the kiosks of MTFI institutional partners.
Another come on of Yakal Coffee is that it offers specialty coffee concoctions. These concoctions include Boss Kape laced with VCO, Kape Heneral (barako) and Kape Con Miel (coffee with honey) in honor of former President Fidel V. Ramos, General Reynaldo V. Velasco (Ret), former MWSS Chairman and Administrator and AMTC founder; Melandrew T. Velasco, MTFI President and Executive Director; and, Don Ramon Afogato made of Magnolia Vanilla ice cream and espresso in honor of Mr. Ramon Ang, respectively.
One can sip coffee inside the airconditioned Yakal coffee shop or simply enjoy the cool breeze with your drinks and meals in benches besides the coconut, mango or star apple trees or under the canopy of the Talisay trees in the well-manicured frontage of the shop.
Don’t be surprised when, as the verdant leaves sway and dance with the breeze, birds flutter and perch on the trees and relax with their unique chirps or songs — something that many miss in the urban jungle of the city.
More plans are afoot for other forest and watershed-based attractions in the MTFI five-hectare patch of land. One such plan is setting up a model forest or watershed village where foresters, forest guardians or warriors and planters raise and protect trees together not only for wood and not ending up as the hated “kaingeros” or illegal loggers but fruit-bearing trees and plants to boost health, nutrition and livelihood, with livestock, fish and cash crops.
Other plans include the construction of a Watershed and Center for Climate Change Academy, a watchtower overlooking the La Mesa Dam, an interactive Water Trail, a Million Trees Wall Climbing Challenge and activity centers for children and seniors alike.
With the bayanihan spirit as inspiration and guiding light and environment and watershed protection as main goal and mission, the men and women behind the MTFI’s project are out not just to clear and beautify a once eyesore corner of La Mesa Dam reservation but cement friendship and solidify partnership towards their common goal.
Thus, the patch of land is slowly emerging not just a model plants nursery, reforestation and watershed project but a virtual oasis of love due to the outpouring of support and the dedication of those into the project who strongly believe that for waters to keep flowing, trees must keep growing.