Dead End

by Juan L. Mercado

The fires that razed 50 hectares of forests on Mt. Banahaw in Quezon Province late March have flickered out. Mindanao has less than 10  percent of forest cover left. Will a Bangsamoro regime reverse that skid, assuming the 11-step transition roadmap is completed?

And, is reforestation in Central Visayas  “paying off” as the Department of Environment and Natural  Resources claimed in a Cebu Daily News report? Forest cover in the region ticked  a 15-percent surge over the last three years. Siquijor doubled its reforested areas, Cebu’s forests expanded by 28 percent. Forests spread from 155,373 hectares in 2010 to 178,682 hectares last year. Credit people’s organizations, local governments and Executive Order No. 23’s ban, the DENR said. There’s little left to ban though. Maybe the public has grown more “environmentally conscious,” an official mused.

Maybe. But doubt would dissipate if the DENR released what we understand is a completed independent review. Tree planting under the National Greening Program (NGP) has been “relatively high,” it concludes. But the jury is still out on long-term survival. Maintenance under the NGP remains a chink in the armor.

“We’re not talking about rice or corn but trees,” e-mailed forester Patrick Charles Dugan. “Planting is glamorous.” But for saplings to mature into forests it takes years of maintenance. Millions of seedlings shrivel due to neglect, or are lost especially due to the failure to prevent fire.

In Danao, Bohol, last week, a councilor fingered a hill planted under the NGP. But likeMt. Banahaw forests, it was razed. “Typical,” Dugan snapped. That happens repeatedly all over the country. Without sustained community support, replanting is a “waste.” When, ifever, will the public, church groups, environmental nongovernment organizations and press appreciate that reality?

“It’s not impossible to achieve high percentage increases—when the forest area baseline is low as in Central Visayas,” wrote  FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) regional  forester Patrick Durst. “The make-or-break test is if those planted areas survive, then thrive.” This is not a guaranteed outcome, especially given the historical track record.

Long after aid from the Japan Fund for Global Environment and FAO ended, the Danao project on assisted natural reforestation (ANR) is thriving, Dugan said. It banks on local native species and support from the local government and people.

Durst confirmed that assessment. Trees tower up to 10 meters-plus in height in many areas. Growth is not as fast as in forests planted with exotic imported species. Sure. Nonetheless, the bill for regeneration is approximately half the cost of conventional reforestation. It also pays off in terms of biodiversity.

Flying to Tagbilaran this month, Durst said he was struck by the increased tree cover. “My point of reference is my Peace Corps volunteer work in 1978-1980. There is considerably more tree cover than (there was) 35 years ago. And largely in better condition.

This is true in expansion mangroves along much of southern Bohol’s coast.

“This is the first time Cebu has struck me similarly. Still not great, but highly encouraging. Consider that things could have gone in the opposite direction.”

Wait. Isn’t ANR what the DENR is supposed to be doing? ANR, however, “petrified for eight years before emerging anew,” notes a paper by Environmental  Science for Social Change(ESSC), which is based at the Manila Observatory in Ateneo de Manila.

In 2004, the DENR issued Memo Circular No. 6, in furtherance of the state policy to manage and restore “forests approximate their original structure and functions, and conserve the biological diversity.”

Deeds, however, deviated from the words. Denuded areas were instead planted with fast-growing exotic species: from big-leaf mahogany and teak to Moluccan sau or falcata and eucalyptus. Such plantations tend to be biodiversity-poor, the study warned. They become vulnerable to pest attacks, as what happened in Brazil, Indonesia and parts of the Philippines. Worse, they fail to restore

the old, endemic rainforest species that zoologist Lawrence Heaney dubs the “Galapagos times ten” because they are  among the world’s highest in biodiversity.

Environment Secretary Ramon Paje is trying to catch up. The  plan is to plant 1.5 billion trees in about 1.5 million hectares by 2016. That’s when President Aquino steps down. But reforestation unshackled from petrification would be an additional feather in the cap.

The DENR finalized pacts with civil society groups to supply 50 million seedlings of native tree species. If achieved, that would be a surge from 7 percent to a full quarter of indigenous species. After harvesting, the DENR pledged to swap  mature exotic-species stands withindigenous species.

It won’t be a walk in the park. It takes years, to cite a few challenges, to develop nurseries or to test soil conditions. These aspects are rarely stitched into major projects, let alone the pork barrel of Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla and company. “Orders come down to plant trees. Staff on the ground grab whatever seedlings are on hand, and stick them into the ground. Follow-up is the exception.”

There is a general lack of diversity knowledge in the Philippines,” the ESSC adds. “This is true within the staff of the DENR. Many national parks lack staff that know the local trees and could source appropriate seeds.” And all too often, trees are planted on public land and then abandoned. Beyond report writing is a patchy follow-up.

But there can be no return to past forest petrification. That’s a dead end. As Alvin Toffler wrote in “Future Shock”: “Change is the process by which the future invades our lives.”

E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com

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