In 2011, Typhoon Sendong brought 12 hours of continuous rain to Mindanao Island. Tragedy took place after that. The rivers flooded and people were crushed by logs or drowned. The government declared it “a national disaster” with the storm affecting 338,000 people in 13 provinces.
Sean McDonagh, a priest who worked in the area, said that decades of deforestation Cagayan de Oro City and nearby provinces was to blame for the scale of the disaster. Much of the region was converted from rainforest into pineapple plantations.
“The deforestation was literally criminal,” he told The Universe Catholic Weekly. “If the rainforest in the area had been left intact, even 12 hours of continuous rain would not cause this devastation. The rainforest canopy would stop the torrential rain from hitting the ground directly. Trees would also absorb the water.”
“The root cause is the denudation of our forests,” commented one environmentalist. “This is a sin of the past that we are paying now.”
Harold R. Watson, a former American agriculturist who had been helping the locals in Mindanao, agreed. “When man sins against the earth, the wages of that sin is death or destruction,” he explained. “This seems to be universal law of God and relates to all of God’s creation. We face the reality of what man’s sins against the earth have caused. We are facing not a mere problem; we are facing destruction and even death if we continue to destroy the natural resources that support life on earth.”
It is impossible to exaggerate the ecological debacle threatening the Philippines. More than 90 years ago, the Philippines was almost totally covered with forest resources distributed throughout the 30 million hectares. These resources provided income, employment, food, medicine, building materials, and water as well as a healthy environment.
In the 1950s, only three-fourths of the archipelago was covered with forest, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). By 1972, the figure had shrunk to half, and by 1988 only quarter was wooded and just one tiny fraction of this was virgin forest.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said about 7,665,000 hectares of the country is forested. Between 1990 and 2010, the country lost an average of 54,750 hectares per year.
According to environmentalists, logging operations – legal and otherwise – are mowing down the country’s remaining forest cover. The Rev. Peter Walpole, executive director of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Environmental Science for Social Change, said the Philippines “trusted” logging companies to cut down trees and manage the forest. “But they did a very bad job,” he decried. “That started the problem that we have now.”
In 1989, the government imposed a lumber export ban in an effort to save the country’s forests from uncontrolled illegal logging. The following year, the ban was quietly lifted, but was reinstated after loud criticism.
DENR, the lead agency responsible for the country’s natural resources and ecosystems, is virtually powerless in stopping rampant illegal logging. It has no guns, no radios, no boats, and only few men to roam the jungles, where they are usually terrorized by armed men or rebels.
Another culprit of the rapid disappearance of forests in the country: mining operations. This is the reason why some B’laan tribe in Kiblawan, Davao del Sur are fighting the entry of Sagittarius Mines Inc. (SMI) into what tribe leaders said was the tribe’s ancestral domain.
“The forest, to us, is like a vast market. We get everything we need there. It is our hunting ground, our drugstore, our farmland and our sanctuary. Destroy the forest and you also destroy our lives,” Rita Dialang was quoted as saying by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Other causes of deforestation in the country include forest fires, volcanic eruptions, geothermal explorations, dam construction and operations, fuelwood collection, and land development projects (construction of subdivision, industrial estates, and commercial sites).
The country’s surging population has likewise contributed to the problem. At least a fourth of the total population lives in the upland areas, where most trees are located. Most of them practiced slash-and-burning agriculture (kaingin farming). “These migrant farmers attack virgin forest lands to cultivate the rich soil, which they quickly deplete,” observed Watson. “Then, they move on, looking for more. One day, there is no more.”
If you think deforestation happens only in the uplands, you’re wrong. Even in the lowlands, mangroves are fast disappearing. Mangrove forests grow where saltwater meets the shore in tropical and subtropical regions, thus serving as an interface between terrestrial, fresh-water and marine ecosystems.
In 1981, there were an estimated 450,000 hectares of mangrove areas in the country. Since then, there has been a decreasing trend from 375,000 hectares in 1950 to about 120,000 hectares in 1995.
At that time, one environmentalist wrote: “All over the country, whatever coastal province you visit, you see the same plight – desolate stretches of shoreline completely stripped of mangrove cover and now totally exposed to the pounding of the ocean’s waves.”
“Deforestation is a symptom of a bigger problem,” says Nicolo del Castillo, an architect by profession who teaches at the University of the Philippines. “I probably sound baduy (tacky and outdated) but I see the problem in the prevailing system of values, that is, the greed, the need to be the biggest, the wealthiest, and sometimes you feel hopeless. I am an optimist, but possibly there will be more tragedies and maybe then more people will wake up.”
How many Ormoc tragedy – where almost 5,000 people perished (almost half of them residents of Isla Verde – should happen before Filipinos should heed the warning?
“For over a century, we have waged a relentless assault against our once majestic woodlands,” said ex-Senator Heherson Alvarez. “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 reached this state, we are almost at the point of irreversibility.”
But perhaps not. “Hope is on its way,” said Dr. David Kaimowitz, director-general of Center for International Forestry Research. “We have had enough of doom and gloom.”
For this reason, the FAO regional office in Bangkok published In Search of Excellence: Exemplary Forest Management in Asia and the Pacific. “These inspiring stories remind us there are good people out there doing good things in the forests,” Dr. Kaimowitz said.
Of the 22 case studies featured in the 404-page book, four are from the Philippines.
Luzon has three good examples. The Kalahan Forest Reserve between Santa Fe, Nueva Vizcaya and San Nicolas, Pangasinan, provides a compelling case of an indigenous ethnic group using forestry practices to help maintain cultural identity.
There’s the muyong as practised by the Ifugao people, known for their rice terraces. A muyong is an untilled slope covered mainly with timber, fruit trees, climbing rattan, bamboo, palms and other associated natural vegetation, which is often used as a source of fuelwood.
In Los Baños, Laguna, the 4,224-hectare Mount Makiling Forest Reserve “is the only intact forest within the vicinity of Metro Manila,” said the book, published by the FAO regional office. When it was first set up in the early 1900s, its primary objective was “to promote scientific and technical knowledge related to conservation and ecosystems.”
In Kalibo, Aklan, the 70-hectare Buswang Mangrove Plantations was included in the book. The reason: A community-based organization is able “to protect the area, and later the forest, from encroachers, including attempts by powerful individuals to appropriate parts of the area for their own use.”
Mindanao has no case included. But since the late 1970s, the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) in Bansalan, Davao del Sur, has been promoting the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT), a sustainable upland farming that combines soil conservation and reforestation in one setting.
The FAO book was published in 2005. Watson, the director of MBRLC, was given the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1985 for his innovation. But despite the sustainability of the aforementioned systems, they failed to capture the attention of policymakers and even politicians. Farmers, even landowners, also ignored them.