Feature

Before the First Seeds are Planted

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Where does one begin to restore a forest? For Lolo Toto Malvar, you start by planting in the hearts of people.

Photography by
Story by
Joseph Pascual
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Deep in the mountains of Rizal sits the Mount Purro Nature Reserve: A sprawling family-run eco park that offers its visitors a retreat to nature with its lush forests in the daytime and striking blanket of stars at night.

It’s hard to imagine that this growing sanctuary first started from a solitary kubo in the middle of the woods, where the nature reserve’s patriarch Toto Malvar and his wife Baby lived for a time. That kubo is now called Loli’s kitchen, the dining area for guests at the reserve – and, it is now surrounded by a host of facilities that enrich their visitors’ time there.

Kubo at the end of a foot path shrouded by trees
Wooden sign reading "Welcome Mount Purro Nature Reserve Mini Trail Start Here" and "For Young age, 10 minutes. Middle age, 20 minutes. Senior citizens, 30 minutes. Where do you belong".

Toto Malvar, or Lolo Toto as everyone calls him, struck me as the type of character anyone would want to write about—he’s lived many lives and is excited to tell you about all of them. Spritely, witty, and a huge romantic over the things he cares about, I talked to him about how this nature reserve came to be.

Surely, building a sanctuary from scratch was no easy feat, I tell him. He agrees, and he repeats an old Florante at Laura quote from memory: “Pag ibig, kapag ika'y pumasok sa puso ninuman, hahamakin ang lahat matupad ka lamang.”

“Pag ibig, kapag ika'y pumasok sa puso ninuman, hahamakin ang lahat matupad ka lamang.”
Lolo Toto in a roughly-hewn footpath surrounded by trees and greenery

That perfectly encapsulates Lolo Toto’s love story with nature and people. Today, there are around 700,000 trees planted and taken care of in the reserve’s premises. But before getting to plant his first tree, he was first shaped by his lifelong journey to recognize his mission at the Rizal foothills.

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Filipinos know all too well the damage that typhoons can leave behind. The most prominent ones in our collective memory are typhoons Ondoy and Yolanda. But before those two, the devastation of typhoon Lucille in Metro Manila in the 1960s left hundreds dead and thousands homeless. It also pushed a fearful mother to encourage her son that one day, he must do his part to reforest the balding mountains of the Sierra Mountain Range.

A kubo with an illustrated map of the nature reserve stapled on the side
A keeper of the nature reserve sweeping the dock of a manmade pond

“Utos ng nanay ko yun eh. Iba siya, [para sa kanya] yung important things in life ay ang love of nature,” he reminisces. His mother would also teach him to value some things differently than most parents would. He remembers growing up near poorer communities in Malate, Manila, and rather than warn him about potential dangers in that area, his mom would encourage him to visit and play with the kids there. In college, when he needed help choosing between an opportunity to study in Japan or to immerse with farmers in Nueva Ecija, she told him to choose the latter. She believed that trips to another country would come by anytime if you have enough money, “but the opportunity to be with poor farmers? Hindi na babalik yun,” she would tell him.

Lolo Toto was still young then, but all his mother’s words left a mark that would change the trajectory of his life. Her stubborn and down-to-earth nature clearly rubbed off on him, as thirty years later, Lolo Toto would leave his office job to pursue an advocacy to plant trees and restore the Sierra Madre Mountain Range with his family.

Interior of a kubo with a board pinned up listing family rules
Interior of a kubo with two rideable toy cars for children and a framed board of house rules

The Upper Marikina Watershed forms the upper area of the drainage basin of the Marikina River. It’s considered a protected piece of land due to its crucial role in mitigating the destructive effects of heavy rains that fall over Metro Manila. Widespread illegal logging activities in the 1970s and 1980s left the mountain almost barren. And without a well-forested Upper Marikina Watershed, there is no barrier to protect the capital from catastrophic floods. Even lighter rains can bring disaster with the decimation of old growth forests.

When the damage is this extensive, where does one begin to save a whole mountain range? Lolo Toto says to start with the people. Before he planted seedlings, he first spent time with the community of Dumagat tribes people who knew the environment the best. There, he learned about their values and hopes for their community, which are simple: They take only what they need, and they hope to have enough food for their families. Some were involved in environmentally damaging practices such as kaingin before, but it was only borne out of a lack of livelihood opportunities in that part of Rizal which was inaccessible due to the lack of paved roads.

Lolo Totoy's hand with a ring on his finger

During Lolo Toto’s early days in the mountains, he would attempt to bring home large amounts of fruit that they would find, thinking it would be a waste not to take it all. But the Dumagats would insist to only forage what they needed to eat for the day, always keeping in mind that someone who needs it more may pass by.

He was embarrassed at his naivete as he told me this bit of his story. He arrived at the mountain as a singular man with big dreams of bringing the lush forest back. The tribe’s honest way of living humbled him.

“I was so concerned with planting trees, pero dapat pala you have to plant in the hearts of people,” he said. This experience shaped his outlook on his vision. Instead of planting all by himself, he aimed to uplift the lives of the Dumagats first. Then, he sought their help and knowledge to restore the mountain range with a community-based reforestation approach.

Shovel in a mound of dirt and two young plants

Community-based forestry gives local communities the agency to manage their own land. In this case, Lolo Toto with the Dumagat Tribe are in charge of regrowing the forest that takes care of them in return. He also consults them regarding the proper native trees to plant in the area. And on top of that, Lolo Toto also introduced healthcare, livelihood, and rehabilitation projects that the community benefited from.

“It's a process. when you care for nature, huli mong ginagawa yung planting trees,” he says. Today, that mantle is taken up by his children. One of his sons is the barrio doctor, another manages the tourism operations with Lola Baby, Lolo Toto’s wife, and the rest support the family enterprise in their own ways.

A slide constructed with wooden planks, poles and a plastic slide

The Mount Purro Nature Reserve started out as a small bahay kubo. And now, families and friends of all classes have this place to hike in the forest, swim in the river, and bask in the comforts that nature provides. Adjacently, it is a social enterprise that provides non-destructive forms of livelihood to the Dumagats — especially those who were formerly engaged in environmentally damaging practices. Those people are now involved in the reserve's reforestation and tourism initiatives instead.

The nature reserve has expanded and changed so much since Lolo Toto first spent his night in the mountains. They have a selection of cottages, cabins, and casitas for renting to their visitors now; Loli’s kitchen has expanded to accommodate more diners too. Outside, they had just finished building a small man-made lake where tilapia can be fished. A short hike away, a crisscross of sturdy bamboos are being set up as scaffolding for a new meditation area that they are building.

Exterior of two kubos among trees

Lolo Toto can’t really say if his initial vision has been realized. To him, there is no specific end goal — only a continuous effort to take care of the mountain . “Basta gagawin ko ang kaya kong magawa,” he chides. With the work that he does at Mount Purro, he draws the line between a job and a calling. He isn’t exactly seeking success. He only hopes to continue to do his work to sustain the nature reserve. Showing his romantic side once again, he says: “In the end, may rason lahat yan eh, ang importante, nagmahal ka. Mahirap ka man, importanteng nagmahal ka.”

“In the end, may rason lahat yan eh, ang importante, nagmahal ka. Mahirap ka man, importanteng nagmahal ka.”
Backlit interior of a kubo

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