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U-turn at dead ends

/ 09:40 PM August 05, 2013

I’m now 72  and just heard about these trees,” e-mailed former Evening News reporter Melody Santos-Drexler from San Francisco. “Some jerks cashed in (on) imports of exotic species,” Leonor Lagsca of Iloilo wrote. “Gmelina from India or Malaysia’s candlenut tree shoved our native trees into the cellar.”

There’s hope in a “bumper crop of local trees research,” notes Dr. Jurgenne Primavera. “Awareness of native flora has gained critical mass, sweeping in the industry sector. But where is the supply?”

Tongue-in-cheek, Primavera describes herself as “zoologist by training, aquaculturist by profession, tree lover and planter since the 1970s.” Time magazine, in 2008, named her among “100 Heroes of the Environment.”


The Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (Rafi) meanwhile has published “Native Trees in the Visayas.” This book vets scientific data on 101 native trees and rendered them in layman’s lingo. It displays the “white lauan” in Negros Occidental and the four-meter-tall   kaningag   of  Cebu.   Cinnamomum cebuense kost grows only in forest fragments of Tabunan and Cantipla in Cebu.

“Effects (of exotic tree imports) have been heartbreaking,” is Rafi’s candid introduction. “Now, we promote planting of endemic tree species… (Follow up) ensures survival of planted trees.” Today, eight out of 10 trees in Rafi projects do not fall by the wayside.

Providence gifted this country with almost 3,500 tree species. But is imported  sikat? Touted as fast growing, nine foreign exotics dominated government replanting  programs for decades. But they lacked the resiliency of the native trees after typhoons or droughts.

Iloilo’s River Esplanade is lined with Royal Palm trees—a monoculture of  roystonea  elata  hustled from Cuba. On the other end is Cebu’s 296-hectare South Road Properties. Ten years after opening, SRP remains a treeless semi-desert as sea levels rise.

In between are clones, notes Imelda P. Sarmiento, who edited “Philippine Native Trees 101”: In Forbes Park, Ayala Avenue, Ortigas or roadsides, the selection is cramped between foxtails and date palms to “the alien  podocarpus  and golden showers—yellow blooms for Aquino.”

The book musters 137 personal stories to illustrate 108 native trees. They include the critically endangered “Starburst” to “the Landscaping World’s Toast”—lubi-lubi  or  niyog-niyogan. This “is a start… toward reintroducing our own trees to our own people.”

Since 2004, Mindoro pine (pinus  merkusii) caromed into International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Red List” of endangered trees. Calapan City Councilor Girlie Ignacio campaigned to roll back “hometown” threats to Mindoro’s own.  Jesuit scientist Peter Walpole has shown it grows in Zambales, and in Indonesia too. “We will popularize this tree in our urban areas,” Ignacio says.

“Shades of Majesty” is an earlier 212-page book that zeroes in on 88 hometown species. After that came “Beach Forests and Mangrove Associates in the Philippines.” The latter received a Best Book Award from the National Academy of Science and Technology. Coauthored by Primavera and Rex Sadaba, it spotlights 140 species—from the familiar   talisay,  dita  and  ipil  to  tugas  which can grow up to 200 kilometers inland.


The “Washington Sycip Garden of Native Plants” tacks a living dimension on these studies. What was a parking lot at the University of the Philippines Diliman until 2012 has been converted into a park that showcases 101 native trees. It honors a soldier, scholar and multi-awarded founder of the country’s largest professional services firm.

A red brick path today meanders along “islands” of  trees with tags that provide data from scientific name to tree tales. This is education by showcasing. “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education,” Albert Einstein once joked.

The critical need is for nurseries that churn out seedlings, Primavera says. That’d call for a dialogue among a “triad of sectors”—(a) scientists who know the trees, (b) suppliers and  nurseries to grow saplings, and (c) landscape designers, developers and architects who create the demand for trees in public and commercial places.

The agenda must crunch numbers. Landscapers require planting of hundreds of trees, yet of the same species. Why? Need we strap monoculture for our streetscapes and public spaces? Native trees can bridge variety gaps.

There’s the issue of sizes. Landscapers require: “B and B”: up to 15-meter-tall trees ready to be “bagged and burlapped.” Start instead with one-and-a-half-meter saplings. This is a challenge for local governments, too. They get P68 billion in this year’s budget. Invest in trees, not waiting sheds, basketball courts or worse, self-granted allowances.

Landscape designers must convince gardeners and suppliers that there’s a market for native trees. Nothing works better than a buyer with cash.

“Does it make a difference whether we plant foreign mahogany from Bolivia rather than molave from the Philippines?” asks UP professor of plant diversity James LaFrankie. “Yes, and the reason, in one word, is ecology.”

Native species bear a relationship to land, water and organisms that developed over millennia. “No such relationship exists for the alien newcomer. Ten hectares of mahogany is a ‘dead zone’ in terms of biodiversity”: no birds, no insects, no seedling flourish beneath the canopy. “There is no future for 10 hectares of mahogany. It will remain as it is, until cut and replaced.”

“The alternative is… to rebuild forests with native species. Such schemes have been practiced for years by many Southeast Asian communities… The result for our children will be forests that grow.” We need to “U-turn” at a dead end.


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