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Back Opinion OP-ED Juan L. Mercado Least Studied Ecosystem Is More Promising
03 Aug 2012

Least Studied Ecosystem Is More Promising

This new book’s bland title can fool you. “Beach Forest Species and Mangrove Associates in the Philippines” is not  a mere compilation of “mine-eyes-glaze-over”  descriptions of 97 species.  This study provides insights beyond  devastated mangroves to uplands scalped of tree cover. It sketches a paradox:  One of the least studied ecosystems is more promising.

”Coastal  forests are not familiar to the average Filipino due to their early loss,” note co-authors Jurgenne Primavera and  Resurreccion Sadaba  “They’ve long gone unreported in the yearly Philippine  Forestry Statistics”.

But the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and sea level rise from global warming  changed all that.  These highlight the neglected but increasingly needed “bioshield” role of “beach forest-mangrove belts”.

Typhoon Frank in 2008, Ondong-Peping in 2009 and Pedring, Quiel-Ramon in 2011 exposed the lack of  protective greenbelts. Beach  forests thrive under full sunlight, inadequate water and poor nutrient conditions. They’re useful also for rehabilitation.

Time Magazine listed Primavera as one of the world’s top 100 environmental  scientists. Sadaba is a full time professor at  University of the Philippines-Visayas. Both collaborated in the 2004. “Handbook of Mangroves in the Philippines.”

Beach forests are a “veritable botica or pharmacy, grocery and hardware store all rolled into one.” They provide fruits, tubers, even dental floss. A favorite to flavor  fish kiniliaw is tabon-tabon fruit.. “Food and water are naturally packaged for transport in cocos nucifera, they note. Tagologs know it  as “niyog”. That’s  “lubi”in Bisayan  or “lahing” in Tausug.

Many  cities, towns and  barangay  sport  “beach jungle names. Molave (vitex parviflora) is known as “tugas.” Eight towns from Aklan, Leyte to Zamboanga del Norte bear that name. .”Pitogo” is   “cycas endentata. Three  Pitogo towns are in Bohol, Iloilo and Zamboanga del Sur.

Fulltime workloads for Primavera and Sadaba  almost  derailed  what is the first hard look at “supratidal plants”.--- species that flourish “above the high tide line beyond mangrove’s natural limits.”

“We started field sampling in 2007” from Aklan, Eastern Samar to Masbate, Primavera and Sabada recall. “We excluded most exotics, plus  a few species no longer found in the highly degraded Panay coastline…We included the traditionally important palm M.Sagu found in Agusan swamps” and some from landward basin mangroves.

Both scientists slogged on, although local residents chopped down some samples “out of need or ignorance”. Termites wrecked some specimens and data sheets kept in extended storage.

In an Oton, Iloilo  miniforest, only 40 out of 60  natives species  planted survived the  harsh El Nino  of 2010. The hardy survivors were mostly beach  flora. “Of particular interest  are seeds collected from a tree of M. Pinnata in 2007. By 2011, this tree , bore flowers, fruits and wilding  for the next year.

“This is a remarkable performance,” the book notes.  “The nitrogen fixing M. pinnata and other pioneer beach trees” could play an expanded role in the National Greening Program.  This 2012-2016 project  seeks t o  plant  1.5 billion trees over  a denuded 1.5 million hectares,  in the teeth of  persistent illegal logging.

“Coco nucifera” is among the most taken-for granted beach flora. The coconut palm towers in 68 of 79 provinces. They sprawl over 27 percent of agricultural land.. Food, wine, roofing and, in these timber-short days, wood comes from this tree.. When you factor in their families, you find  that livelihoods  10 million Filipinos pivot around this tree. It is  a  fixture in color-drenched Fernando Amorsolo paintings.                                    x

“Scientists call it  “the tree of 999 uses”. In his 2012 State of the Nation Address, President Aquino presented what could be the 1,000th use. In 2009, the Philippines exported 483,862 liters of coconut water, P-Noy said...That bolted to “a staggering 16.7 million liters exported in 2011.”

Countries  are eager to buy more, recognizing it’s health benefits, “long enjoyed by Filipino and coastal South Pacific communities. But can “a decrepit industry of aging trees and slumping yields meet that demand?.

Look at the track record.  The Marcos dictatorship clamped on Presidential Decree 276 in 1973. This  directed that “coco levies” were owned by cronies "in their private capacities.” Taxes, in effect, were individual loot. Robber coconut barons gutted the industry.       

In  the book’s “cautionary tale” box, we’ve set off our comments in  brackets.   “Ownership and control of  funds  “shifted over 40 years under four presidents,”  the box   notes.  It swung  "from presidential associates (coco levy cronies ) during martial law to government by sequestration” (after People Power.)

“Then, it favored farmers” (thru Davide Supreme Court decisions), “back to presidential associates with negotiated settlements.” ( the Corona Court. allowed Eduardo Cojuangco to  pocket 16.2 million San Miguel Corporation shares from levies). “How did P150 billion from half a million farmers end up in the pockets of so few?.”

Primavera and Sadaba hope that  beach flora will “get the attention they rightfully deserve.” Their benefits as coastal greenbelts, medicine to  biotechnology applications will come only if government rehabilitates a plundered  industry  and  private industry is spurred to tap  potential.

This country had a treasure trove of 400 medicinal plants, marveled then University of San Carlos botanist Franz Seidenschwarz. “One was  commercially exploited,” he added. “Marijuana.” 

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