Rate of Deforestation in Philippines Erodes Topsoil, Kills Wildlife

By Henrylito D. Tacio

Manila 20 August 2009. Almost two decades after the Catholic Church leaders warned against an ecological debacle in the country, the disappearance of forests remains. Between 1990 and 2005, the Philippines lost one-third of its forest cover. The current deforestation rate is around 2% per year, a 20 % drop from the rate of the 1990s.

“No one says there is an increase in real forest cover in the Philippines. Maybe there is an increase in the number of trees, but it is not the forest we idealize, romanticize, log or even live in,” says Peter Walpole, executive director of the Ateneo de Manila University's Environmental Science for Social Change. “We have lost most of our forest of hold over the past 50 years and, along with them, many of the ecological services they provide.”

According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the principal cause of the decimation of the country’s forest cover are logging (both legal and illegal), shifting cultivation (locally known as kaingin), forest fires, natural calamities (like earthquake), as well as conversion to agricultural lands, human settlements and other land uses brought about by urbanization and increasing population pressure.

Deforestation is a symptom of a bigger problem,” says Nicolo del Castillo, an architect by profession who teaches at the University of the Philippines. “ I probably sound tacky and outdated,  but I see the problem in the prevailing system of values, that is, the greed, the need to be the biggest, the wealthiest, and sometimes you feel hopeless. I am an optimist, but possibly there will be more tragedies and maybe then more people will wake up.”

The removal of forest cover makes the Philippines susceptible to various environmental catastrophes. “Most of these were not seen in such intensity and magnitude before our time,” deplored Roy C. Alimoane, the current director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center Foundation, Inc. “The signs cry out for immediate, nationwide attention.”

Deforestation has been increasingly blamed for soil erosion. Although not considered a serious threat, it is an unseen scourge. “Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation – far worse than any outside enemy into a country and conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly," warned Harold R. Watson, an American agriculturist who received a Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1985 for peace and international understanding. “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land.”

At least two provinces – Cebu and Batangas – have lost more than 80% of their topsoil to erosion. In Luzon, four major basins --- Bicol, Magat, Pampanga, and Agno – are in critical condition due to acute soil erosion and sedimentation.

The rampant cutting of trees has also significantly reduced the volume of groundwater available for domestic purposes. “If the forest perishes, so will the life of people,” said Diosmedes Demit, one of the farmers who joined the ‘Fast for the Forests’ in 1989. “The trees are our source of life. Without trees, there will be no water. If there is no water, there will be no life.”

Cebu, which has zero forest cover, is 99% dependent on groundwater. As a result, more than half of the towns and cities in Cebu, excluding Metro Cebu, have no access to potable water. In Metro Manila, where there are no forests to speak of, the water tables are being drawn at the rate of six to 12 meters a year causing saline water intrusion along the coastal areas.

Deforestation also brings too much water – in case of constant rain. “Rain which falls over a bare slope acts differently,” Gifford Pinchot wrote in A Primer for Forestry. “It is not caught by the crowns nor held by the floor, nor is its flow into the streams hindered by the timber. The result is that a great deal of water reaches the streams in a short time, which is the reason why floods occur.”

Remember the Ormoc tragedy in Leyte? More than five thousand people were reported to have perished from flash foods, injuring 292 others with 1,264 missing. The reported total cost of damage was P1.044 billion.

Deforestation also threatens the country’s wildlife resources. Two particular species of animals, the tamaraw and the Philippines eagle are almost extinct due to the massive deforestation. More than half the birds, amphibians and mammals endemic to the Philippines are threatened with extinction.

DENR’s Joselito Atienza said that 592 of the 1,137 species of amphibians, birds and mammals found only in the Philippines are considered “threatened or endangered.” Some 227 endemic species of plants are “critically endangered.”

Dr. Lee Talbot, former director of Southeast Asia Project on Wildlife Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, issued this sober thought: “A few decades ago, the wildlife of the Philippines was notable for its abundance; now, it is notable for its variety. If present trend of destruction continues, Philippine wildlife will be notable for its absence.”

Deforestation has also altered the climatic condition in the country. Ask Father Jesus Ramon Villarin, a Jesuit scientist, who localized the global climate issue by exploring rainfall patterns in Mindanao in the last 50 years and the impact on crop production and the supply of freshwater resources.

This was what Father Villarin, who used to work with the Manila Observatory, has found: Rainfall over the northern coast of Mindanao has generally increased over the decades, with the northeast section receiving most of the increase. But the southern regions are experiencing decreasing rainfall, mostly in the south central parts.

Heherson Alvarez, who was formerly head of the environment department, once commented that if deforestation is not soon curbed, time would come that “we will be traveling to Manila and around Central Luzon by bancas (outriggers).”

Ben Malayang III, president of Silliman State University, commented: “That the forest, the foundations of our forests, or whatever forests remain in the country, is not a matter of technical forestry, but rather a symptom, or an indication, or a measure, of the failure of our political and social systems.”

The signs are now written on the wall!