Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon J. P. Paje on Monday inks an agreement with Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Mujiv S. Hataman for the reforestation of some 2,500 hectares of denuded and open forestland in the region under the National Greening Program.

At the same time, Paje committed some PhP49.6 million in financial assistance to enable the ARMM government to carry out a massive tree planting program within its five provinces, to include Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-tawi.

“This collaboration sets a critical milestone in ecological governance for the region and bodes well for addressing the social and economic challenges which the region undoubtedly faces,” Paje remarked during the signing ceremonies.

He also said that the NGP collaboration between ARMM and the DENR was in compliance with President Aquino’s instruction to assist in the management of the region’s natural wealth, particularly its forest-based resources which he “considered as its foremost natural asset as yet.”

“The fuel that powers ARMM’s economic engine is resource-based and we in the national government will assist our brothers and sisters in ARMM in the resource management of the region,” Paje noted, adding that he plans to send his key senior officials there “for us to gain a front seat view of how resource management is undertaken there and how we can contribute in improving it.”

For his part, ARMM Gov. Hataman said the MOA signing marks his first collaborative undertaking with the national government.

“Typhoon Sendong struck exactly two days after I assumed office,” Hataman said, noting that NGP is now a major tool he can use in addressing illegal logging in ARMM since the program offers alternative livelihood to forest-based communities that are usually enticed to engage in illegal logging activities due to lack of livelihood opportunities in the uplands.

Hataman said priority will be given to upstream areas inside ARMM where the NGP activities will be implemented with guidance from the DENR-national government.

“Pipilitin naming maipatupad ang lahat ng expectations ni President Aquino for ARMM,” Hataman stressed, noting that he already received “verbal commitments” from rebel groups involved in the peace negotiation to help in stopping illegal logging in ARMM and in the NGP implementation.

Under the agreement, ARMM will implement the NGP according to the guidelines set by the DENR central office. It shall also allow DENR personnel that will be designated to monitor and evaluate ARMM's implementation, including its financial management and utilization.

Aside from financial assistance, the DENR shall also provide ARMM with technical assistance and ensure the timely provision of funds based on the approved work and financial program of ARMM.