At the breaking point
A recent New York Times article rhapsodized about the home of Filipino artist Benji Reyes. What’s notable about the house, it said, was that it was “constructed entirely of rare Philippine hardwoods, species so endangered that it is now against the law to cut them.”
Reyes did not source his wood illegally. He found them in old houses about to be demolished, or abandoned structures such as a mine shaft and a factory. The result was a house unlike any other, and unlikely to be duplicated easily. One reason for that is “the scarcity of the wood,” said the paper. “The rate of deforestation in the Philippines has been among the worst in the world, and two years ago the government banned all logging.”
How bad is the loss of Philippine forests? According to a 2012 report by the Center for Environmental Concerns Philippines (CECP), the vast and rich forests covering around 70 percent of the country’s land area in the early 1900s have been nearly wiped out in a mere 100 years.
Environment Undersecretary Demetrio Ignacio admitted as much in a “State of the Philippine Environment Address” he delivered during Earth Day activities in Quezon City last Monday. Next to Singapore, he said, the Philippines has the second lowest forest coverage area in Southeast Asia, now only at 24 percent.
The continuing loss is incalculable. The CECP cites the World Conservation Monitoring Centre of the United Nations Environment Programme for these numbers: “The Philippines ranks 25th among countries with highest number of amphibian, bird, mammal, reptile, and vascular plant species, counting around 10,127 species. Of this number, 6,091 plant species (or 65.8 percent of a total of 9,253 species) and 591 vertebrates (out of 1,309 species) are endemic, or found nowhere else in the world.
“However, only 7 percent of forests now remain as original habitat for these species, according to the nongovernment organization Conservation International, which ranked the Philippines as number four in its list of the World’s 10 Most Threatened Forest Hotspots last February .”
More than the depletion of irreplaceable flora and fauna, however, has been the devastating impact on human lives by the loss of the country’s forest cover. The 2013 Global Climate Risk Index ranks the Philippines as the fourth among more than 190 countries that has suffered the most extreme weather events such as flooding and storms in the past 20 years. In most cases, those disasters have been aggravated by a host of destructive, thoughtless manmade activities—from logging and forest-burning, which lead to soil erosion and landslides; to the improper disposal of garbage, which clogs up waterways, seas and rivers, and kills not only marine life but also the human communities depending on these water systems for their sustenance.
The Aquino administration, said Ignacio, has laid down policies intended to put the Philippines “on the road to recovering the environment that we have lost,” with actions such as the imposition of a total log ban in all natural forests nationwide, and the filing of hundreds of cases against illegal loggers. So far, though, the conviction rate has been paltry—72 people—compared to the runaway rate at which hectares of trees continue to be felled daily.
Clearly, this isn’t enough. On many fronts, the Philippine environment is at the breaking point, from pollution in the cities (despite a Clean Air Act in the books) to the degradation of coastal areas. Worldwide, the scale of destruction is as horrific: At least 50 million acres of rainforest lost every year (the size of England, Wales and Scotland combined), while only 11 percent of the earth’s surface is usable for growing food.
But human priorities seem to be the bigger problem. Studies say it will cost about $13 billion annually to satisfy the world’s basic food and sanitation requirements. That amount is also roughly what Americans and Europeans spend on perfumes and scents alone each year.
The public must be made aware that the fight to save the environment is not the government’s alone. It’s been estimated, for instance, that turning off the faucet while brushing one’s teeth saves around four gallons (15 liters) of water every minute. And that 50 gallons (around 190 liters) are saved every week by turning off the water while shampooing. Paper, it turns out, also makes up 70 percent of office waste. For a start, if people learn to cut back on and reuse paper, then fewer trees need to be cut and forests can regenerate.
And perhaps the next Earth Day will be less grim.