Shriveled Seeds

by Juan L. Mercado

Did hunting of  fruit-eating birds lead to shriveling of tree  seeds?,  asks the journal Science in it’s latest issue. This can damage, beyond  previous 
estimates,  already-stressed  tropical rainforests .

Deforestation in Brazil  resulted in  trees  that  yielded  smaller, frailer   seeds. “The story we are documenting is common in other tropical areas around the world,” explains Spain’s  Prof. Pedro Jordano. ”(That’s) where big mammals and birds are disappearing.”  As in the Philippines?

Jordano and Sao Paulo State University scientists sifted thru more than 9,000 forest seeds. They factored in issues like soil fertility to thinning forest
cover. Seeds were significantly smaller, they found. They were less likely to regenerate.

Kung ano ang binhi, siya an bunga,” a Tagalog proverb says. “What the seed is, so is the fruit.”   In the parable of “The Sower”, many of  the seeds  didn’t sprout . Some were “trampled underfoot.”  “Birds of the sky” devoured others.  Most fell on rocks or thorns, and withered.

Loss of birds triggered today’s shrinking seeds, writes BBC’s science  reporter  Rebecca Morelle. She quotes Jordano: “The main factor was the
disappearance of the large frugivore (fruit-eating) species.  One of our major surprises was how deforestation  influences  evolution of  plant traits —  all  within a few generations.”

Brazilian birds, like the “toucan” and “cotinga”  have been hunted to near extinction. In the Philippines, 89 birds are endangered.  The Philippine eagle is the best known.  Also threatened are the Philippine cockatoo, Cebu flowerpecker (dicaeum quadricolor). Visayan wrinkled hornbill, plus amphibians, including the  panther flying frog. 

The Ticao tarictic hornbill and Sulu Bleeding heart are gone for good.  “If we don’t preserve our endemic feathered treasures, they’ll just be
remembered in stamps”, says ornithologist J.C. Gonzales.  Inexplicably, “songbirds  exposed  to polluted environments sing more,”  says a  feature on exotic birds in cities. “But they also die early.”

Like Philippine rainforests, Brazil’s  Atlantic  timberland  “was once home to a vibrant array of plants and animals.”  But  the launch of  sugar and
coffee plantations, in the early 19th century, altered the forest cover  radically.   Today, just 12 percent  of  Brazil’s  original forest remains.  

Less than a  quarter of  Philippine rain forests are left. In 1595, they  blanketed 27.5 million hectares. But a logging mafia wrecked that “heirloom” .
Log exports topped 11.1 million cubic meters in 1974, then slumped to  841 thousand cubic meters a decade later.  They’ve  still to recover.

Juan Ponce Enrile’s logging firm chain-saws the last  rainforest  in Samar. Will tree stumps crown  his  checkered career?  Enrile see-sawed from a
fake martial law ambush to People Power hero, jack-knifed into coup plots, then emerged as firm chair  of   impeachment process.

Depletion of forests  denudes the mind. A  Negros and Panay survey discovered  that  most of   schoolchildren have no concept of natural forests. When asked to draw, they depicted neat rows of plantation trees. Some “baby-boomers think molave (Philippine mahogany) is a street sign,” a forester explained.

Until the early 80s, the word “biodiversity” rarely cropped up,  even in  scientific  meetings. It  means  the complex web of life forms. These coil 
within a  species or system and can unravel. This is richest along the equator:  in fishing grounds along Western Pacific coasts and  rain forests. 

Tropical  forests, cover  six percent  of the  earth  but contain  more than half  the world’s  plant and animal species.

Biodiversity in a large number of tropical forests, however,  is still  eroding, says a 36-nation study  in Asia, Africa and Latin America.  At the
rate of today’s depletion, there is concern “whether  tropical  forests will  continue to function as ‘arks’ for biodiversity and natural ecosystem

William Laurance of James Cook University (Australia) led the study team. It pinpointed hunting as one of the main threats to biodiversity in
protected areas  “About  85 percent of  these reserves suffered declines in surrounding forest cover in the [past] 20 to 30 years In contrast  only two  per cent  gained surrounding forest.”

UP students launched, in 1910, the first formal reforestation program at Los Banos. In 1917,  President Sergio Osmena opened Cebu’s Camp 7
reforestation project. It still exists in a province  where forest cover is less than two percent. . The  key  project of his  grandson,  outgoing Rep. Tomas Osmena,  is a bare  296-hectare reclaimed plot.  South Road Properties is a semi desert.

Only 30 percent of reforestation projects succeed.   “People hardly recognize benefits from protecting the environment.” Connivance sabotaged the program. When the forests go, so does the topsoil which produces food. Over half (52 percent) of the country is eroded.

In  the  Ateneo University publication: “”Forest Faces: Hopes and Regrets in Philippine Forestry”, Peter Walpole writes: “Regeneration is taking
place as  secondary forests regain their original stature.  Cogon (imperata cylindrical ) fields, that blanket logged-over areas, shelter a new generation of pioneering seedlings. (This) is a phoenix forest  that could restore and regenerate our landscape. There is hope. But it needs a nurturing hand.” 

Climate change, however, unleashed three typhoons, within three years, on Mindanao. In the past, a storm slammed the island once every 17 years or so. 

That  may deny us the time needed  to reverse shrunken tree seeds.

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