THINK ON THESE: Where have all our forests gone?

“We all have forests on our minds. Forests unexplored, unending. Each one of us gets lost in the forest, every night, alone.” — Ursula K. Le Guin


I grew up in a place near the river. Above the river were trees – a forest, actually. When I visited the place again, I couldn’t see any trees anymore. The same scenario is happening all over the country today.

“In 1934, forests comprised more than half (57%) of the country’s total land area,” reports the Senate Economic Planning Office (SEPO). “In 2010, the forest cover has gone down to 23% or about 6.8 million hectares.”

It was during the time of the Cory Aquino administration that the country’s total forest cover plateaued, according to a report by Karol Ilagan of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

“But geographical breakdown of the data shows a grim picture,” Ilagan wrote in 2012. “Half of all provinces lost forest cover totaling more than 154,000 hectares in the past 12 years.”

Fires, slash-and-burn farmers 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.”

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

Surging population has multiplied the problem. In the mid-70s, there were only 43 million Filipinos. In the 2020 census, the population went up to 109 million. By 2050, it is projected to grow to 147 million.

“Poverty, lack of jobs and wages, and absence of farm lots in the lowlands have forced some people to invade the forest,” said the late Heherson Alvarez when he was the secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Spreading cities have also contributed. “Asphalt is often the last harvest for many forests,” the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali once said.

The outcome: “The productivity of the country’s agricultural lands and fisheries is declining as these areas become increasingly degraded and pushed beyond their capacity to produce,” said Kathleen Mogelgaard, of the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau.

“Rapid forest loss has eliminated habitat for unique and threatened plant and animal species,” she added.

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

“One of the big hurdles in conserving the Philippine eagle is that each breeding pair requires a range up to 40 square kilometers to adequately feed and rear their offspring, which makes it particularly vulnerable to deforestation,” said Scientific American.

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 Rev. Harold Watson, recipient of the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for 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 sources. Rivers and streams also carry eroded soil to the coasts, where it interferes with fish nursery areas,” experts claim.

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, an academician at the National Academy of Science and Technology.

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

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

Alvarez added, “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.”

Forests are among the most valuable natural resources in the Philippines, SEPO noted. “They provide a range of ecosystem services, ranging from the provision of food crops, livestock and fish to providing recreational experiences,” it said.

In 2013, the forestry sector contributed 0.12% to the national gross domestic product. Forests also serve as significant carbon sinks and are vital for biological conservation and environmental protection, locations for education and research, habitat for indigenous flora and fauna, and resettlement areas.

According to the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), forests serve as home to some 12-15 million indigenous peoples and provide livelihood to many families.

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