Trees: to cut or not to cut

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    In the name of the development, should the trees be cut?

    “A few hundred years ago, at least 95 percent of the Philippines was covered by rain forest; only a few patches of open woodland and seasonal forest, mostly on Luzon, broke the expanse of moist, verdant land,” noted Dr. Lawrence R. Heaney, an American curator who holds honorary appointments at the Philippine National Museum.

    By the time the Spanish arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, scattered coastal areas had been cleared for agriculture and villages.  Three hundred years later, rainforest still covered about 70 percent of the country.

    But during the Marcos regime, forests were cut wantonly. One critic wrote: “The government under Ferdinand Marcos had close ties to the major logging companies and had allowed the massive deforestation of the forests to stimulate the Philippine economy though exports.”

    Today, the Philippines is almost devoid of its forest cover.  According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 25.7 percent or about 7,665,000 hectares of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares  is forested.  Of this, 11.2 percent (861,000) hectares) is classified as primary forest.

    Between 1990 and 2010, the Philippines lost an average of 54,750 hectares or 0.83 percent per year. 

    “Most of the (Philippines’) once rich forest are gone,” said the  FAO publication, Sustainable Forest Management.  “Forest recovery, through natural and artificial means, never coped with the destruction rate.”

    In February 2011, President Benigno C. Aquino III, signed Executive Order 23, which declared a moratorium on “the cutting and harvesting of timber in all natural and residual forests” throughout the country.

    According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the principal cause of the decimation of the country’s forest cover are logging (both legal and illegal), forest fires, natural calamities (like earthquake), as well as conversion to agricultural lands, human settlements and other land uses brought about by urbanization and increasing population pressure.

    Additional threats to Philippine forests come from mining operations – which also cause pollution – collection of fuelwood (85 percent of meals in developing countries are cooked over wood or charcoal), and kaingin farming (slash-and-burn agriculture). 

    More often than not, deforestation is often equated with calamities like landslides and flash floods. 

    In the past 40 years, the country has been swept by fatal and destructive floods, among them the great Central Luzon inundation of 1972, Ormoc (1991), Bicol (“Reming’’ 2006), Metro Manila (“Ondoy’’ 2009) and Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities just before Christmas last year.

    Philippine Daily Inquirer, in its editorial, deplored: “In just one decade, 2000 to 2010, 27 floods and 17 landslides occurred, affecting about 1.6 million people each year and destroying crops and infrastructure worth tens of million pesos a year.

    In all these floods and landslides, deforestation was a major factor. 

    Bald mountains, depleted forests and barren watersheds caused rainwater to flow down and flood the plains.”

    Deforestation brings too much water – in case of constant rain.  “Rain which falls over a bare slope acts differently,” Gifford Pinchot wrote in A Primer for Forestry.

    “It is not caught by the crowns nor held by the floor, nor is its flow into the streams hindered by the timber.

    The result is that a great deal of water reaches the streams in a short time, which is the reason why floods occur.”

    The removal of forest cover make the Philippines susceptible to various environmental catastrophes. 

    “Most of these were not seen in such intensity and magnitude before our time,” deplored Roy C. Alimoane, the director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center Foundation, Inc.  “The signs cry out for immediate, nationwide attention.”

    Alimoane cites erosion as an example.  Although not considered a serious threat, soil erosion is an unseen scourge that can imperil food production in the country.  

    “Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation – far worse than any outside enemy into a country and conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” warned Harold R. Watson, an American agriculturist who received a Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1985 for peace and international understanding. 

    “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land.”

    Deforestation also threatens the country’s wildlife resources.   Joselito Atienza, former DENR head, said 592 of the 1,137 species of amphibians, birds and mammals found only in the Philippines are considered “threatened or endangered.”

    Some 227 endemic species of plants are “critically endangered.”

    Deforestation has also altered the climatic condition in the country.  Ask Father Jesus Ramon Villarin, a Jesuit scientist, who localized the global climate issue by exploring rainfall patterns in Mindanao in the last 50 years and the impact on crop production and the supply of freshwater resources.

    This was what Father Villarin, who used to work with the Manila Observatory, has found:  Rainfall over the northern coast of Mindanao has generally increased over the decades, with the northeast section receiving most of the increase. 

    But the southern regions are experiencing decreasing rainfall, mostly in the south central parts.

    Ben Malayang III, president of Silliman State University, commented: “That the forest, the foundations of our forests, or whatever forests remain in the country, is not a matter of technical forestry, but rather a symptom, or an indication, or a measure, of the failure of our political and social systems.”

    The signs are now written on the wall! “The Aquino administration has to muster the political will and undertake as soon as possible a massive reforestation program covering all the severely deforested areas in the country,” the Inquirer editorial urged.

    Deforestation is nothing new.  In his book Critias, Plato commented on the deforestation of Attica:

    “What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left… 

    There are some mountains which have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees not very long ago, and the rafters from those felled there to roof the largest buildings are still sound.”

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