Forests: Now you see, soon you don’t

A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as helpless,” American President Theodore Roosevelt once said.

The statement is a great reminder for Filipinos as the country is fast losing its forest cover. When Ferdinand Magellan “rediscovered” the Philippines in 1521, forests blanketed 95% of the country. When the Ormoc City, Leyte tragedy happened – which left 8,000 dead – timber cover was only 18%.

“In the last 100 years in the Philippines,” commented Dr. Craig B. Jamieson, biomass consultant of the World Agroforestry Center, “the trend was a continuous loss of forests starting in the 1900s when there was still 70% standing forest. In 1999, only 18.3% were left.

“If this trend continues, the Philippines will have no forest left in the very near future,” he warned.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations seemed to agree. In a study, “Sustainable Forest Management,” it stated: “Most of the (Philippines’) once rich forest are gone. Forest recovery, through natural and artificial means, never coped with the destruction rate.”

Even in the lowlands, the mangrove forests are not spared from denudation. “Approximately two-thirds of the country’s original mangroves have been lost,” reported Kathleen Mogelgaard, of the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau.

Out of the 255,448.85 hectares of mangroves left in 2011, 94.549.86 hectares (37%) is found in Mindanao, 51,547.98 hectares (20.18%) in the Visayas and 109,351.01 hectares (42.81%) in Luzon, according to “State of the Mangrove Summit: 2015.”

“Where have all our forests gone?” deplored Roy C. Alimoane, director of the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC), a non-government organization based in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur.

“The illness of our forest is complicated – and cannot be cured – with a one-stop prescription of a single medicine,” said former Senator Heherson Alvarez who once served as head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Fires, slash-and burn farmers (locally known as “kaingineros”) and commercial loggers (both legal and illegal) – not necessarily in that order – are the main culprits.

Environmentalists said the Philippines “trusted” logging companies to cut down trees and manage the forest. “But they (loggers) did a very bad job,” said Rev. Peter Walpole, a Jesuit priest who heads an environmental group. “That started the problem that we have now.”

One environmentalist said: “The attitude of loggers in this country has always been: get the trees before someone else does.”

In the past, forest resources helped fuel the economy. In fact, in the 1970s, the country was touted as the prima donna among world timber exporters. Today, the Philippines is considered “a wood-pauper,” to quote the words of veteran journalist Juan Mercado.

Other causes of deforestation include volcanic eruptions, typhoons, mining operations, geothermal explorations, dam construction and operation, and land development projects such as construction of subdivision, industrial estates, and commercial sites.

Surging population has multiplied the problem. In the mid-70s, there were only 43 million Filipinos. Today, there are over 100 million and projected to grow to almost 150 million in 2050.

At least a fourth of the total population lives in the upland areas, where most trees are located. “Poverty, lack of jobs and wages, and absence of farm lots in the lowlands have forced some people to invade the forest,” said Alvarez.

The outcome: “The productivity of the country’s agricultural lands and fisheries is declining as these areas have become increasingly degraded and pushed beyond their capacity to produce,” wrote Mogelgaard. “Rapid forest loss has eliminated habitat for unique and threatened plant and animal species.”

A pair of endangered Philippine eagle, for instance, needs at least 7,000 to 13,000 hectares of forest as nesting territory. “Deforestation is terrible,” deplored Dennis Salvador, the executive director of Philippine Eagle Foundation, Inc. “The Philippine eagle has become a critically endangered species because the loss of forest had made it lose its natural habitat.”

The PRB reported: “More than 400 plant and animal species in the Philippines are currently threatened with extinction, including the Philippine eagle and tamaraw.” Also facing extinction are Philippine tarsier and waling-waling.

Deforestation also causes soil erosion, triggering landslides. “Soil erosion is now the most serious environment problem,” argued Dr. Eduardo Paningbatan, a soil scientist from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños.

In 1988, the environment department listed 22 provinces having “alarming” soil erosion rates. Batangas in Luzon and Cebu in the Visayas had been reported to have lost 80-85% of their topsoil to erosion. The erosion rate for Marinduque was 75-80%, while for Ilocos Sur and La Union, 60-70%.

“Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation, far worse than any conquering invader because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” said American agriculturist Harold Ray Watson when he received the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for peace and international understanding.

One effect of soil erosion: less food production. “The loss of topsoil affects the ability to grow food in two ways,” wrote Lester R. Brown and Edward C. Wolf, authors of “Soil Erosion: Quiet Crisis in the World Economy.” “It reduces the inherent productivity of land, both through the loss of nutrients and degradation of the physical structure. It also increases the costs of food production.”

The rampant cutting of trees has also significantly reduced the volume of groundwater available for domestic purposes. Cebu, which has zero forest cover, is 99% dependent on groundwater. As a result, more than half of the towns and cities in the province, excluding Metro Cebu, have no access to potable water, according to a study conducted in Central Visayas.

Experts claim that without vegetative cover, especially the trees, “the land’s water absorption capacity is greatly reduced.”

Deforestation has also altered the climatic condition in the country. Periods of drought have become more common and extensive in the dry season while floods have prevailed in the rainy months.

“On a larger scale, forests act as ‘carbon sinks,’ absorbing carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gases behind global warming,” wrote “Time”’s Michael S. Serrill. “When trees burn or rot, they release carbon into the atmosphere, adding fuel to a warming phenomenon that could have disastrous consequences for humankind.”

In the lowlands, the loss of mangroves has threatened fish production. “An estimated 670 kilograms in fish catch is lost for every hectare of mangrove forest that is clear-cut,” the PRB said.

“There is sufficiency for man’s need,” India’s Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi once said, “but not for man’s greed.”

Alvarez reminded: “We have laid to waste millions of hectares of forest land, as though heedless of the tragic examples of the countries of Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, where large areas have become barren, if not desertified. If we have not, in fact, reached this state, we are almost at the point of irreversibility.”

Dr. Ernesto Guiang, who has worked with some of the government’s environment projects, echoed the same concern: “We are now at the eleventh hour. We have to pay attention to the handwriting on the wall with respect to our forests.”