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Buzzwords rehashed

Emerging issues produce new buzzwords. You see that in the spread of slash-and-burn (kaingin) agriculture in once-timber-rich areas like the province of Palawan.

Today kaingin has blistered the towns of Aborlan, Rizal and Quezon in the south, plus Roxas and Taytay over in the north.

Slabs of once-lush forests of Puerto Princesa, plus stretches on the western coast, nudging national-highway sectors, have been seared by kaingin.

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Palawan Gov. Jose Alvarez grapples with a complex problem. In-migration jacks up pressure. And so does the razing of primary forests for palm oil plantations, notably in Sofronio Española town and Brooke’s Point.

The province still has over 666,338 hectares of forest, plus 8,000 ha of mangroves. But they offer patchy comfort, given the troubled history, note leading nongovernment organizations.

Kaingin-blistered slopes cannot stem soil erosion or rain runoff. That results in massive soil erosion. Recall how killer logs and soil, unleashed by typhoons, smashed Lanao del Sur and plastered Misamis Oriental. Many victims are still missing today.

When the Spanish colonizers came in 1521, lush tropical rainforest blanketed 90 percent of the country, or 27 million hectares. Two years after the Americans took over, about 70 percent or 21 million ha remained forested. The first modern logging operations, in 1904, started in Negros. Philippine mahogany (dipterocarp) entered the world market.

Between 1934 and 1941, forest cover dwindled to around 17 million ha. In-migration rose with population growth. Settlers, for example, started to occupy the Mount Makiling Forest Reserve.

Forests continued to dwindle after World War II. “The Philippines is the first Asian country to liquidate its forest wealth,” Patrick Durst of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) records.

From less than 500,000 cubic meters in the late 1950s, logging “baron” exports crested at 11.1 million cubic meters in 1974. Exports then slumped to 841,000 cubic meters in just a decade. Forest cover dwindled to 18 percent. That’s below the 30-percent safety benchmark.

Loss of habitats threatens 89 species of wildlife, mostly endemic to the Philippines. “A prima donna of log exporters in the ’70s, we became a wood pauper in the ’80s,” observed the Inquirer.

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“Penury and hunger drive kaingineros to slash and burn trees for a harvest or two,” notes former United Nations forester Napoleon Vergara. Confronting illicit loggers who bankroll politicians often proves lethal.

“Green” priest Neri Satur was shot in 1991 for confiscating “hot logs” in Bukidnon. Catholic radio journalist Gerry Ortega campaigned to protect indigenous communities and was gunned down.

Botanist Leonard Co was shot while doing research in Leyte in 2011. Co was “probably the last of classically trained botanists in plant taxonomy and systematics.” The military never proved its claim that Co was “caught in a crossfire with communist guerrillas.”

That record haunts Palawan, despite indications of a slow turnaround from the pits. There was an annual increase of 54,480 ha in total forest area between 1988 and 2003, say official forestry statistics. That rise is continuing, albeit more slowly than most would want.

Asia and the Pacific are starting to reverse forest loss, asserts the FAO in the 2011 study “Forest Beneath the Grass.”

“Primary forests nonetheless continue to be chain-sawed,” as in Samar, for example—by a logging firm owned by imprisoned Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile.

Today’s 30- to 40-year logging cycles do not provide sufficient time for forests to recover, argues the Biological Conservation journal. Basilan demonstrated that even before the Abu Sayyaf began to run riot.

“Peak timber” shoves against forest limits, observe Australian National University scientists. Harvests first surge, peter out on a peak, then plunge into free fall.

“Peak timber” is spurred by slow growth of commercially viable species. “Logging in the tropics tends to focus on a small fraction of trees.” Abandoned tree stumps symbolize extensive collateral damage.

A “second wave clearance” problem emerges, as Mindanao demonstrates. Roads bulldozed by loggers open once remote areas to a flood of land-hungry shifting cultivators—and yet more illegal loggers.

The impact of bulldozers and yarders dragging logs through fragile tropical soil is severe. “In retrospect, it would probably have been better from an environmental perspective to rely on the carabao power that small-scale illegal loggers depend upon.”

Tree survival rates are low in erratic government reforestation efforts. Under the Arroyo administration, more than 72 centavos out of every peso was spent on salaries in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

“We’ve long gone over the peak,” says agro-forestry specialist Patrick Dugan, coauthor of “Forest Faces.” We must “now focus on options for turning the situation around.”

The first step to climb back up the peak is to adopt—then enforce—“policies that create incentives for people to plant, harvest and sell trees.” This would tamp down pressure to harvest from the natural forests.

Second, address the lack of tangible and sustained support to help millions of small-scale farmers living on steep slopes, and apply improved land use methods. Only then will they jettison the unsustainable but the sole farming system they have.

That would also crib “the prevailing attitude that any cutting of trees is ipso facto a criminal act.”

Hopes for the future rest with people given a stake in planting and thereafter protecting forests, writes BBC’s Mark Kinver. The alternative is that old buzzword: disaster.

Juan L. Mercado was a communication officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangkok. Thereafter, he was posted in FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy, as attaché de cabinet. He wrote for the Inquirer as a regular columnist from February 2004 until December 2014.

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TAGS: Forests, Kaingin, Leonard Co, Neri Satur, palawan, slash-and-burn agriculture
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