Mangrove Forest Deforestation in the Philippines

Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

Deforestation - what do we understand by it? Many think deforestation happens only in the uplands as cutting the trees means loss of lives and livelihoods as the raging waters from the higher areas bring floods and landslides.

Unknowingly, deforestation continues unabated, too, in the lowlands – particularly those near the seashores and rivers.  Mangroves, which most people consider as unimportant, are fast disappearing.

Deforestation of mangroves is causing severe problems to the environment.

Deforestation of mangroves is causing severe problems to the environment.

“All over the country, whatever coastal province you visit, you see the same plight – desolate stretches of shoreline completely stripped of mangrove cover and now totally exposed to the pounding of the ocean’s waves,” deplores an environmentalist.

Over the past century, the islands that make up the Philippines have lost nearly three-quarters of their mangrove forests.  Panay Island in the Western Visayas is a classic example.  It used to be home to over 12,400 hectares of lush mangrove forests.  In 1988, only 300 hectares remained.

Although a World Bank report released in 2005 stated that mangrove cover in the country was “now relatively stable” – particularly those around Bohol and Siquijor islands – Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III said that mangroves are still in peril.

“Notwithstanding, our mangroves are disappearing due to unabated deforestation,” informs Dr. Guerrero, former director of the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development.  The current rate of mangrove deforestation ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 hectares per year.

Recent satellite images analyses indicated that Mindanao has the most mangrove areas in the country (29 percent of the country’s total) while Luzon and Mindoro had the least.  Old-growth mangrove forests are mainly found in Mindanao (4,582 hectares) and Palawan (5,317 hectares).

Tourism also brings in money and jobs in mangrove forests.

Tourism also brings in money and jobs in mangrove forests.

Mangroves are communities of trees in the tidal flats in coastal waters, extending inland along rivers where the water is tidal, saline, or brackish.  “There are 25 to 30 species of true mangrove trees and an equal number of associated species,” says Dr. Miguel D. Fortes, a marine science professor and technical consultant to various national and international institutions.

There is, as yet, no consensus on the number of mangrove species occurring in the Philippines.  But in the past, they grew in multitudes in Pasig River, which stretches 25 kilometers from Manila Bay in the west to Laguna de Bay in the east.

Pasig River was once of the most captivating tributaries to watch as it was once touted as “the Venice of the East.”  The river was so beguiling that it captivated the heart of Dr. Jose Rizal.

“The river showed off its bounty around the 1940s when, being relatively unpolluted, it generously flowed for people to wash clothes and take a bath in, for poets to admire, and for fishermen to take home a bountiful catch,” wrote Dr. Macrina Zafaralla in her study, Pasig: The Ecology of a Dying River.

Mangroves act as buffers to big waves while providing essential hideouts to fish, prawn, and more.

Mangroves act as buffers to big waves while providing essential hideouts to fish, prawn, and more.

But today, the river is totally polluted.  At all times, it is “extremely turbid and black,” according to Philippine Environmental Action Network.  During the dry season, “shallow currents expose black decomposing waste.”

The mantra these days: “We can bring the Pasig River back to life.”  Perhaps, aside from cleaning the river from all the waste and sludge, the river can be brought back to its former self by planting mangroves along the river banks.

It happened to New Buswang, the flood-prone barangay of Kalibo, Aklan.  From a vast area of mudflats, it is now a beautiful mangrove forest and a tourist attraction.  The barangay is located at the mouth of the Aklan River and, in the past, the community was directly exposed to the ravages of the sea and severe river flooding during typhoons and heavy rains.

Mangrove Forest Reforestation

The successful mangrove reforestation program done by the local government units, private individuals, and donor agencies earned citations from the Asian Institute of Management and different award-giving bodies.

In The Philippines alone, nearly three quarters of the mangrove forests are gone.

In The Philippines alone, nearly three quarters of the mangrove forests are gone.

“The area is now promoted as an alternative tourism site alongside Boracay Island and Kalibo’s Ati-atihan Festival,” said Jun N. Aguirre, a member of the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists, Inc.

Another benefit of mangroves: they provide protection from storm surges and high winds associated with tropical typhoons.  The Philippines is hit by an average of 20 typhoons a year.  “With the threats of climate change in the Philippines particularly storm surges, tsunamis and strong typhoons,” says Dr. Elmer Mercado, a former official of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, “mangrove is the most appropriate, least expensive climate change adaptation protection for our coastal-based communities.”

Instead of building seawalls, he suggests planting mangroves in areas susceptible to storm surges.  By doing so, the government will save money as it is cheaper than building 100-meter of protected seawalls.

Dr. Mercado cites the case of the seawall being built in Manila Bay.  “The new seawall constructed by the Department of Public Works and Highways is estimated to cost PhP94 million for a 1.5-kilometer stretch,” he says.  “That money in mangrove hectare terms would be more than 752 hectares of mangroves – enough to cover the whole stretch of Manila Bay from Luneta to all the way to Cavite City twice.”

Dr. Mercado is thinking of around 75.2-kilometer stretch of mangroves and a protective barrier of 100-meter of mangroves from the seafront area of Manila Bay – with a 100-meter by 100-meter dimension per hectare.

According to him, it only cost PhP25,000 per hectare to establish a mangrove and anotherPhP25,000 per hectare a year to maintain them for another 4 years.  “That’s a total of only PhP125,000 per hectare in 5 years,” he says.

In the case of the mangroves as seawall in Manila Bay, “there will be minimal need for maintenance plus the added bonus that this will bring back fishes and crustaceans back to Manila Bay which would be a boon to all the marginal fishermen from Manila, Paranque, Las Pinas, Cavite and even Bataan.”

Mangroves are very important to marine life, Dr. Guerrero points out. They serve as sanctuaries and feeding grounds for fish that nibble on detritus (fallen and decaying leaves) trapped in the vegetation, and on the bark and leaves of living trees.

“(Mangroves) are important feeding sites for many commercially important fish species (mullet, tilapia, eel, and especially milkfish), shrimps, prawns, mollusks, crabs, and sea cucumbers,” says a World Bank report.  “Fry that gather in mangrove areas are very important for aquaculture.”

Mangrove forests also serve as protection against soil erosion.  Other important benefits from mangroves include: land builder through soil accretion; coastal pollutants trapper; and wildlife sanctuary.

People depend on seafood for nutrition, hence an even greater need to preserve mangroves, which are the natural habitats of many aqua-creatures.

People depend on seafood for nutrition, hence an even greater need to preserve mangroves, which are the natural habitats of many aqua-creatures.

Despite the economic and ecological benefits they provide, mangroves are on the verge of disappearance.  “Mangrove forests have been converted to aquaculture, salt production, and human settlement,” the World Bank report notes.

“Many of the fishponds in the country in the early 70’s and 80’s when the aquaculture boom started where constructed in mangrove areas because of its high value content for aquaculture and fish production,” Dr. Mercado says.                                                               

The construction of tourism infrastructures like hotels and restaurants has also contributed to the destruction of mangroves.  Equally destructive are the saltpond operations and mining activities.

Pollution has also taken its toll.  The mangrove areas have been used as disposal for solid and liquid domestic wastes, oil, garbage, and pesticides.

The destruction of mangroves is detrimental to those living near the coastal areas.  “Research in some areas of the world, as well as in this country, show that where mangroves have been protected, yields of fish have been high; where they have been destroyed, yields have been low,” reminds Dr. Angel C. Alcala, a recipient of a Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service.

So what must be done?  “To conserve and enhance our mangrove resources, reforestation of denuded areas should be supported and promoted,” suggests Dr. Guerrero, who is presently connected with the National Academy of Science and Technology as an academician.  “Mangrove farming should be encouraged like what is being done in Bohol and other areas.  Sustainable ‘aquasilviculture’ or the growing of high-value species like mudcrabs and the mangrove snapper in mangroves is another strategy.”

Dr. Mercado says there is already a law against the cutting of mangroves. “Implement this law strictly as a climate change mitigation/adaptation measure by local government units,” he suggests.