Lifeless forests?

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Bark and leaves of the Swietenia macrophylla. jayeshpatil912/Flickr/CC2.0

Until I interacted with some biodiversity experts in a workshop meeting last weekend, I didn’t know that we have largely been doing reforestation wrong in the Philippines. We’ve had a long history of efforts to rehabilitate and reforest denuded forest lands, after having wantonly decimated much of it over the past century.

In 1900, the Philippines had 21 million hectares of lush old-growth forests, covering more than two-thirds of the country’s total land area.

By the 1960s, they covered only about half. Deforestation rates reached up to 300,000 hectares a year in the Marcos era, and we lost seven million hectares of forest in the period 1965-1986, leaving less than a quarter (23 per cent) of our total land area covered with forests.

It took only 20 years then to lose what took seven decades to use up before that.

Now, forest cover stands at about seven million hectares, after vast areas had been logged over by large concessionaires, or cleared and tilled by farmers pushed to seek their fortunes in the uplands. At one point, we denuded forests five times faster than we regenerated them.

The government embarked on small-scale rehabilitation efforts during the American colonial period, starting with the establishment in 1910 of our first forestry school in Los Banos, Laguna (now the University of the Philippines Los Banos College of Forestry and Natural Resources).

After the war, modest reforestation efforts were pursued, and became more multisectoral. Foreign funding flowed in by the 1970s, at which time government had established the forerunners of what is now the Forest Management Bureau in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

The 1990s saw the adoption of community-based forest management as our main forest management strategy, which finally helped arrest the slide in forest cover, and we actually saw it increase by the early 2000s.

The latest in the series of reforestation efforts has been the National Greening Program (NGP), which sought to plant 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 million hectares in six years (from 2011 to 2016).

That was all well-meaning, aiming to reforest thousands of hectares of our denuded forests – except that the NGP ended up planting the wrong trees, and in the view of many, could have done more harm than good.

The reason: mahogany – more particularly, Bolivian mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla).

For some reason, the DENR used this alien species for massive planting, perhaps thinking it was the same as, or could be an improvement over, “Philippine mahogany”.

The term had been used to refer to various dipterocarps including, lauan and apitong, which are native species.

But the bulk of trees planted were of the alien kind, which grew and spread rather rapidly, while suppressing much of other vegetation and animal life around due to its peculiar physical and chemical properties.

It is an example of what are known as alien invasive species, which put in great peril the existing biodiversity of native species.

In the foothills of Mount Makiling in Laguna, these trees have slowly taken over the native forest after their introduction years ago.

In Bohol, tarsiers have disappeared in new mahogany forests, where they used to thrive in friendlier vegetation.

Those alien mahogany areas are now described as “green deserts”, as hardly any other forms of life may be found coexisting with them – no birds on their branches, no insects on their leaves, no bacteria in the ground, and no other vegetation around.

They have thus upset the ecological balance where they have thrived, and while seen as a good source of timber, they have run counter to one of the professed goals of the NGP, which is to preserve the nation’s biodiversity, and hence the ability to sustain life far into the future.

The goal, biodiversity experts tell us, should not simply be to rehabilitate a denuded forest with whatever trees grow fast or provide economic value, but to restore the forest to as close to its original native vegetation as possible.

And that means we need to be reforesting with native species like narra, apitong, lauan and the like.

Otherwise, we could end up with forests that, except for the trees themselves, are virtually lifeless.

Cielito F Habito is a is a Filipino economist, professor and columnist.

PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ANN