Back in the 1970s, Osamu Nakagaki, a volunteer of the Japan Overseas Volunteer Cooperation (JOVC), an affiliate of Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), was sent to the Philippines to help in a project that teaches Filipinos how to raise crops like tomatoes but upon seeing the balding mountains in La Union, he decided to take on a bigger project: reforestation.
“I learned that people were practicing ‘kaingin’ (slash-and-burn). They burned the trees to plant crops, but they were destroying the forests in the process. I came up with the idea of a forest conservation project and told (then) Governor (Juvenal) Guerrero about it, and he was receptive,” said Nakagaki, now 71 years old.
By observing the locals, Nakagaki realized that they tend to preserve fruit trees but readily cut down forest ones for timber; thus, he decided he would plant mango trees, instead. Mango seedlings can be expensive but he found a way to enjoy the fruit while also having enough to start building his forest.
In April and May when the fruits were in season, Nakagaki bought ripe mangoes and ate as many as he could. By December, these were ready for replanting.
It was in 1972 that Nakagaki began planting the mangoes, together with other volunteers. They chose Cataclan, a mountainous part that was only accessible by a trail they had to walk for 2 hours.
Nakagaki planted as many trees as he could until he left the country in 1974. What he didn’t know is that the locals and the other Japanese volunteers were inspired by his actions. Even after he was gone, they continued planting and caring for the trees.
So, he was quite shocked to find a forest when he went back in 2002. He was overwhelmed to learn that the place was chosen as a botanical garden by the city, opened to the public back in 1998.
The place was also renamed as Sitio Hapon, in honor of the Japanese people who helped bring the mountain forest back to life.