THINK ON THESE: Where have all our trees gone?

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.” – Herman Hesse

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“Plant 10 trees a year bill approved by House panel,” said the Manila Bulletin headline recently.

“The House Committee on Appropriations has approved a substitute bill requiring all graduating elementary, high school and college students to plant at least 10 trees each as a prerequisite for graduation,” wrote scribe Charissa Luci-Atienza

The report said the measure complements Executive Order No. 26, Series of 2011, issued during the presidency of Benigno S. Aquino III.  The executive order aims to mobilize students and government employees to plant 1.5 billion trees over a period of six years (from 2011 to 2016).

“With over 12 million students graduating from college each year, this initiative, if properly implemented, will ensure that at least 175 million new trees would be planted each year,” said Representatives Gary Alejano and Strike Revilla, authors of the substitute bill to House Bills 1154 and 3137.

This is good news indeed as the country is fast losing its forest resources. “Most of the (Philippines’) once rich forest are gone,” to quote the words of the study done by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization some years back.  “Forest recovery, through natural and artificial means, never coped with the destruction rate,” it added.

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 people dead – timber cover was only 18%.

“The once spectacular primary forests of the Philippines are now a relic of a bygone era,” the website Mongabay.com pointed out.  “What little primary forest does remain exists on the island of Palawan,” the country’s last frontier.

“Where have all our forests gone?” asked Roy C. Alimoane, the director of Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center.  American President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as helpless.”

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

Even the forests in the lowlands – mangroves, that is – are not spared from denudation.  “Approximately two-thirds of the country’s original mangroves have been lost,” noted Population Reference Bureau’s Kathleen Mogerlgaard.

Aside from logging (whether legal or illegal), other causes of deforestation in the Philippines are forest fires, “kaingin” farming (slash-and-burn agriculture), and mining operations.  Volcanic eruptions have also devastated some of the country’s tropical rainforests.  Ditto for typhoons, which have devastated considerable hectares of forest areas.

Surging population has compounded the problem. There were only 19 million Filipinos, according to the 1940 census.  By 2020, the population will surge to 111.7 million, National Statistical Coordination Board projects.

“Poverty, lack of jobs and wages, and absence of farm lots in the lowlands have forced some people to invade the forest,” commented former Senator Heherson Alvarez, who served as environment secretary during the administration of Corazon Aquino.

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

The outcome: food crisis, devastation of lands and water resources, biodiversity facing extinction. “The productivity of the country’s agricultural lands and fisheries is declining as these (forest) areas become increasingly degraded and pushed beyond their capacity to produce,” said Mogerlgaard.

The removal of forest cover has bolstered soil erosion in the uplands.  “Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation – far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country and conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” reminded Harold Ray Watson, the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for peace and international understanding.  “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land.”

As a result, food production is jeopardized.  “The loss of nutrient rich soil reduces crop yields and contributes to the expanded use of chemical fertilizers – a practice that can, in turn, pollute water resources,” Alimoane said.  “Rivers and streams also carry eroded soil to the coasts, where it interferes with fish nursery areas.”

But that’s not all.  “Extensive soil erosion has resulted in the siltation of waterbeds, reservoirs and dams, and in the process shortening their productive life spans,” said Dr. Germelito Bautista, of the Ateneo de Manila University.

The Magat Dam reservoir has been reported to cut its probable life span of 100 years to 25 years.  The Ambuklao Dam reservoir has had its life halved from 60 to 32 years as a result of siltation.

Water crisis is looming.  “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, former executive director of Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development.

“Rapid forest loss has eliminated habitat for unique and threatened plant and animal species,” Mogerlgaard observed.  “At the rate our forests are getting destroyed, many species many no longer be around when we need them,” Alimoane said.

More than 400 plant and animal species found in the country are currently threatened with extinction, including the Philippine eagle, waling-waling, and tamaraw, according to the World Conservation Union.

According to studies, more than 60% of the world’s people depend on plants for medicine.  Relatively few of the 250,000 kinds of plants in the world have been fully examined, so it stands to reason that the remaining species contain many unknown compounds of probable therapeutic importance.

Trees are one nature’s most efficient weapons to tie down steep hillsides, check the growth of big gullies, stabilize unsteady stream banks and screen cultivated fields from harmful winds. But the country’s mountains are bald in large patches almost everywhere.

“The illness of our forest is complicated – and cannot be cured – with one-stop prescription of a single medicine,” reminds Alvarez.

To end this piece, allow me to quote the words of English poet William Blake.  “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way,” he penned. “Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”