Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
Davao City, 1 September 2013. A couple of years ago, the Philippine Congress released a study that said about 123,000 hectares of the country’s forest cover are lost every year. Unless reforestation is started, the study further stated, there would be no forest left in the country by 2036 – that’s exactly 23 years from now.
President Benigno S. Aquino III, in his state of the nation address (SONA) in 2011, stated that most politicians use one possible solution – that of tree planting – as a photo opportunity. “They plant trees, but they do not ensure that the trees would remain standing after they leave,” he said.
When he was still the head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Michael Defensor admitted that “only 30% of reforestation projects succeeded.” In a Subic meeting of local executives, he told them: “People hardly recognize the economic benefits from protecting the environment. Most sabotaged the program.”
The bluntness seemed to echo an earlier study of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, entitled “Sustainable Forest Management,” which stated, “Most of the (Philippines’) once rich forest are gone. Forest recovery, through natural and artificial means, never coped with the destruction rate.”
When Ferdinand Magellan “rediscovered” the Philippines in 1521, forests blanketed 95% of the country. When the Ormoc City, Leyte tragedy happened – which left 8,000 people dead – timber cover was only 18%.
“Where have all our forests gone?” asked Roy C. Alimoane, the director of Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center. American President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as helpless.”
Why is the country heading towards oblivion? “I have seen fortunes made overnight from the forest and it makes my skin crawl to realize that there are many Filipinos who just don’t care about the future generations’ legacy in the way of forest resources,” said Ferdinand Marcos in 1978.
The said statement, according to veteran journalist Marites Dañguilan-Vitug, is a “doublespeak.” In an article she wrote for “World Paper,” a Boston-based magazine, she explained: “For, in reality, over 20 years (1965-1985) he used his power to grant and revoke licenses of logging concessions to enrich himself, his family and his friends. The forests became his grand political tool.”
Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, the vice-chairman and chief executive officer of World Wildlife Fund-Philippines, agrees. In an article he penned for “Philippine Daily Inquirer,” he surmised that when Marcos came to power “serious deforestation began.” Before Marcos became president, there were only 58 companies issued with timber licenses; it swelled to 412 during his presidency.
“Forests were decimated at an astonishing rate of 300,000 hectares per year,” Tan deplored. Toward the end of the Marcos regime, forest hectarage was down to 7.2 million hectares, “about half of what it was when he came to power.”
“Who had the privilege of cutting trees?” Vitug asked. “The wealthy and well-connected. They lived in the big cities. Some even sold their rights to the forest concessions and lived off the green of the land. Moreover, money for logging supported candidates during election campaigns.”
In the past, forest resources helped fuel the country’s economy. In the 1970s, Philippines was touted the prima donna among world timber exporters. Today, it is considered “a wood-pauper,” to quote the words of multi-awarded journalist Juan Mercado.
Even the forests in the lowlands – mangroves, that is – are not spared from denudation. “Approximately two-thirds of the country’s original mangroves have been lost,” noted Population Reference Bureau’s Kathleen Mogerlgaard.
Aside from logging (whether legal or illegal), other causes of deforestation in the Philippines are forest fires, “kaingin” farming (slash-and-burn agriculture), and mining operations. Volcanic eruptions have also devastated some of the country’s tropical rainforests. Ditto for typhoons, which have devastated considerable hectares of forest areas.
Surging population has compounded the problem. There were only 19 million Filipinos, according to the 1940 census. By 2020, the population will surge to 111.7 million, National Statistical Coordination Board projects.
“Poverty, lack of jobs and wages, and absence of farm lots in the lowlands have forced some people to invade the forest,” commented former Senator Heherson Alvarez, who served as environment secretary during the administration of Corazon Aquino.
Spreading cities have also contributed to decimation of forests. “Asphalt is often the last harvest for many forests,” the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali, a Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient, once said.
The outcome: food crisis, devastation of lands and water resources, biodiversity facing extinction. “The productivity of the country’s agricultural lands and fisheries is declining as these (forest) areas become increasingly degraded and pushed beyond their capacity to produce,” said Mogerlgaard.
The removal of forest cover has bolstered soil erosion in the uplands. “Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation – far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country and conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” reminded Harold Ray Watson, the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for peace and international understanding. “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land.”
As a result, food production is jeopardized. “The loss of nutrient rich soil reduces crop yields and contributes to the expanded use of chemical fertilizers – a practice that can, in turn, pollute water resources,” Alimoane said. “Rivers and streams also carry eroded soil to the coasts, where it interferes with fish nursery areas.”
But that’s not all. “Extensive soil erosion has resulted in the siltation of waterbeds, reservoirs and dams, and in the process shortening their productive life spans,” said Dr. Germelito Bautista, of the Ateneo de Manila University.
The Magat Dam reservoir has been reported to cut its probable life span of 100 years to 25 years. The Ambuklao Dam reservoir has had its life halved from 60 to 32 years as a result of siltation.
Water crisis is looming. “There has been a drop of 30% to 50% in the country’s water resources in the past 20 years or so,” pointed out Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero, former executive director of Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development.
“Rapid forest loss has eliminated habitat for unique and threatened plant and animal species,” Mogerlgaard observed. “At the rate our forests are getting destroyed, many species many no longer be around when we need them,” Alimoane said.
More than 400 plant and animal species found in the country are currently threatened with extinction, including the Philippine eagle and tamaraw, according to the World Conservation Union.
Studies show that a pair of Philippine eagle needs at least 7,000 to 13,000 hectares of forest as a nesting territory. “The Philippine eagle has become critically endangered species because the loss of the forest had made it lose its natural habitat,” said ex-president Fidel V. Ramos, who declared the eagle as the country’s bird icon.
Without forest, floods are expected to happen – not only in Metro Manila (which has no forest cover to speak of) but also in other parts of the country where deforestation continues. The “flooding problems,” said Aquino in his 2011 SONA, “are caused by the incessant and illegal cutting down of trees.”
Filipinos are urged to stop cutting trees now and preserve the remaining forests the country has. “We have laid to waste millions of hectares of forest land, as though heedless of the tragic examples of the countries of Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, where large areas have become barren, if not desertified,” Alvarez said. “If we have not, in fact, reached this state, we are almost at the point of irreversibility.”
Dr. Ernesto Guiang, a forestry consultant, echoed the same concern: “We are now at the eleventh hour. We have to pay attention to the handwriting on the wall with respect to our forests.”