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On March 21, Thursday, 193 United Nations member-states will mark “International  Day of Forests.” That includes a Philippines stripped to only a fifth of its original 27.5 million-hectare tree cover. There’s no other way but up.

Asia and the Pacific are starting to reverse forest loss, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports in “Forest Beneath the Grass” (2011). They regained 2.2 million hectares of trees. Spurred by private groups, a delayed yet promising start to reforestation is underway here.

“A ‘phoenix forest’ is emerging,” writes hydrologist and research director Pedro Walpole, SJ. “Regeneration is taking place as old secondary forests regain their original stature…. But they need a nurturing hand.”

President Aquino plowed an unprecedented P54 billion to back a National Greening Program, notes former FAO forester Napoleon Vergara. Will this enable our forests to catch up with bolting temperatures? The world is “warmer now than at any time in at least 4,000 years,” Journal Science reported Friday.

Thursday’s rites will include usual recitals of squandering forest wealth. There’s no shortage of hard data, including  plunder by the timber mafia. Studies come from diverse institutions—from the University of the Philippines to the World Bank. The last “virgin” forests in Samar, meanwhile, are chainsawed by a senator’s logging firm.

We were the “first Asian country to liquidate its forest wealth after World War II,” FAO notes. One of the top three log exporting “prima donnas” in 1974, we’re now a timber importing pauper. Reforestation efforts were erratic. And tree survival rates are low. Under the Arroyo administration, salaries at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources chewed up 72 centavos out of every peso of its budget.

These impersonal statistics acquire human immediacy in the 2008 book “Forest Faces: Hopes and Regrets in Philippine Forestry.” It portrays 53 Filipinos—from scientist to rebel to T’boli leader to cardinal. “If we don’t do the impossible now, we shall face the unthinkable soon,” they all agree.

“The scale of forest loss irrevocably altered the identity of many Filipinos,” says this book, which is copublished by Environmental Science for Social Change at Ateneo University and FAO. “Today’s degraded forests reflect a history of logging and abandonment…. Degradation of vital watersheds continue. Encroachments wreck ill-protected areas, though they’re at the core of receding biodiversity.”

“Hunger defines our lives,” says South Cotabato’s T’boli leader Timbang Tungkay. His people used mountain forests down to Allah river until lowland migrants shoved them off the land. Stretching over months,  gutom   (hunger) unleashed high infant death rates. “The forest always had a human face,” writes development planner George Aseniero. “And it was always Jose Rizal’s forest,” referring to the hero’s poems about the forests in Dapitan and Mount Makiling.

“A fiesta culture can sap strategic coherent action,” Walpole cautions. “We lack a common perception as to what lessons (were) learned. We live by anecdote and the hope of sunrise…”

Surging temperatures, however, can focus the mind. Over the coming decades temperatures are “likely to surpass levels not seen on the planet since before the last Ice Age,” cautions Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann. Previous research extended back roughly 1,500 years. “We and other living things can adapt—to slower changes.”

The World Bank makes that point in its report “Turn Down The Heat.” Current efforts to tamp down global warming below a 2 degrees Celsius increase are faltering, it says. A 4 degrees Celsius hotter world will wreak havoc everywhere. “Things can get ugly fast.”

In the last three years, Tropical Storm “Sendong,” then Typhoon “Pablo” followed by Typhoon “Crising” slammed Mindanao—a region where typhoons hit, at most, once every 12 years or so. There is no guarantee another one won’t again barrel down this track in 2013.

“How do we explain the decreasing number of years in the occurrence of destructive typhoons affecting southern Philippines?” marine scientist and Magsaysay Awardee Angel Alcala asks. “Since the 1980s, typhoons hitting the country, below the 10-degree latitude, seem to be increasing in frequency at year’s end.”

Skim through the March 2013 World Bank report on “Wetlands under threat from Sea Level Rise” in 76 countries. A sea-level rise of one meter due to higher temperatures is likely to destroy 60 percent of the developing world’s wetlands. Annual cost: $630 million per year. Sea-level rise is unstoppable and will continue for several centuries. In Asia, China and Vietnam will bear the brunt of the losses. Lakes and low-lying coastlands in the Philippines will be affected. Wetland mangrove ecosystems in some Pacific low-lying nations will succumb to rising seas. To survive, their population and culture will have to migrate elsewhere.

“Rainfall is changing in Mindanao,” climatologist Jesus Ramon Villarin, SJ, earlier wrote. This Jesuit priest explored rainfall patterns in Mindanao over the last 50 years, through light detection and ranging lasers. The impact of altered precipitation “on croplands in Cotabato and other major river basins will be considerable…”

On the eve of the 2013 “International Day of Forests,” Geophysical Research Letters will publish a British weather service study. Somalia’s 2011 famine, where almost 100,000 died, stemmed partly from rains that petered out because of the La Niña weather pattern. It says that changing rainfall patterns are creating major food problems.

Are we getting the message—finally?

(E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com)

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