THINK OF THESE: Trouble in paradise

To be poor and be without trees is to be the most starved human being in the world. To be poor and have trees is to be completely rich in ways that money can never buy.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of “The Faithful Gardener: A Wise Tale About That Which Can Never Die.”

The Philippines is touted to be Pearl of the Orient Seas. Lindsay Bennett, author of the island guide, “Philippines,” described the country in this manner:

“Images of dreamy beaches and crystal waters surely dominate our perception of the Philippines, but the landscapes are many and varied, from coastal atolls to mountain ranges, from sand beaches to vast tracts of dense tropical rainforests.”

But what makes the Philippines truly a paradise is its endemic wildlife species. “Diversity is the key to all life here,” Bennett wrote. “Animals and plants have developed innumerable adaptations and specialisms that differ from one community to the next.”

But the paradise is in big trouble as some of its unique wildlife species may soon join the dodo into extinction. To name just a few: Philippine eagle, Philippine tarsier, tamaraw, and waling-waling.

According to the Washington-D.C.-based Population Reference Bureau, “more than 400 plant and animal species in the Philippines are currently threatened with extinction.”

The reason for their disappearance: vanishing forests. “The once spectacular primary forests of the Philippines are now a relic of a bygone era,” wrote Rhett Bulter in a feature published in the website of Mongabay. “What little primary forest does remain exist on the island of Palawan.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that between 1990 and 2005, the Philippines already lost a third of its forest cover. “But the country’s deforestation is down since its peak in the 1980s and 1990s,” it adds.

When Ferdinand Magellan “rediscovered the Philippines on March 16, 1521, forests blanketed 95% of the country. When the Ormoc City tragedy happened – which left 8,000 people dead – timber cover was only 18%.

Logging – either legal or illegal – has been cited as culprit for the rapid disappearance of the country’s forest cover.

“Forests were decimated at an astonishing rate of 300,000 hectares per year,” wrote Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan in an article which appeared in “Philippine Daily Inquirer.” Toward the end of the administration of Ferdinand Marcos, forest hectarage was down to 7.2 million hectares, “about half of what it was when he came to power.”

“Who had the privilege of cutting trees?” asked Marites Danguilan-Vitug in an article she wrote for “World Paper.” “The wealthy and well-connected. They lived in the big cities. Some even sold their rights to the forest concessions and lived off the green of the land. Moreover, money for logging supported candidates during election campaigns.”

Then People Power came and Corazon Aquino became the president. But still the problem continued to exist. “Despite government bans on timber harvesting following severe flooding in the late 1980s and early 1990s, illegal logging continues today,” wrote Butler.

Aside from logging, other causes of deforestation in the country include: legal and illegal mining operations, agricultural fires (as a result of kaingin farming), fuelwood collection, and rural population expansion.

Spreading cities have also contributed to decimation of forests. “Asphalts is often the last harvest for many forests,” the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali, a Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient, once said.

In recent years, some Filipino environmentalists fear “that plantation agriculture, especially oil palm, could emerge as the newest threat to remaining forests.”

As those forested areas devoid of its cover, soil erosion, river siltation, flooding and drought have become the rule rather than exception.

“Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation – far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country a conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” deplored Harold R. Watson, recipient of the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for peace and international understanding. “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land.”

Water crisis looms. “There has been a drop of 30% to 50% in the country’s water resources in the past 20 years or so,” pointed out Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, a national scientist.

“We have lost most of our forest of old over the past 50 years and along, with them, many of the ecological services they provide,” deplored Peter Walpole, executive director of the Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC).

Meanwhile, Ashley Arriaga woke up very early in the morning. She took a bath and ate the breakfast which her mother prepared. She went downstairs and took two seedlings of narra, which will be planted in a watershed near the school.

“Our teacher told us to bring seedlings of any trees,” said Ashley, a grade four pupil of Villa-Doneza Central Elementary School in Bansalan, Davao del Sur. “This will be our contribution to reforest the watershed which has given us water through the years.”

She’s thinking. I hope other Filipinos will have the same persuasion. For as American President Theodore Roosevelt said: “A person without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is as almost as helpless.”