‘Splendor in the grass’ | Inquirer Opinion
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‘Splendor in the grass’

/ 01:31 AM November 12, 2011

The justice department thumbed down former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s  bid  to hop-scotch through five countries, without Philippine extradition pacts, in search of bone specialists. That has sparked a controversy.

Fine. A democracy has ways to settle such disputes. There are, however, other lower-decibel issues that impinge equally on national interests. We must keep an eye on them too.

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The scorched-earth  razing of trees in Asia and the  Pacific, in the pattern of the 1990s, for example, has been curbed, reports a new United Nations study titled, “Forest  Beneath The Grass.” This says forests are slowly recovering, despite threats from fire, illegal loggers and climate change.

“Asia and the Pacific reversed forest loss faster than any other region in history,” Food and Agriculture Organization’s  Eduardo Rojas-Briales told delegates gathered in China last Nov. 7 to 11 for the Second Asia-Pacific Forestry Week.

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“Over the last five years, new  forests sprouted by 4 million hectares annually,” notes FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010. “Asia gained 2.2 million hectares.”

We are not out of  the woods yet. Losses in Africa and South America  approximate one Costa Rica. “Rates of deforestation are still very high in many countries. Primary forests continue to be burnt or chain-sawed.”

Our last virgin forests in Samar are being chopped down. Less than a quarter is left of the 27.5 million hectares that the Philippines had in the late 16th century. “The Philippines was the first Asian country to liquidate its forest wealth after World War II,” FAO says.

Logged-over areas in Asia and the Pacific are smothered by an invasive grass species, cogon or blady grass. On disturbed soil, imperata cylindrica morphs into a monoculture that chokes other species.

Cogon blankets over 6 million hectares here. “Your children’s panoramas  will be of drab landscapes, blanketed by sterile cogon grass, not the verdant meadows we knew as youngsters,”  National Scientist Dioscoro Umali  said at a 1990 commencement address in the University of the Philippines.

Yet beneath this pernicious grass are potential forests, the new UN study stresses.

Where would these saplings sprout  from? They would come from people given a stake in  planting and thereafter protecting forests, wrote British Broadcasting Corp.’s Mark Kinver. Locals were “a key factor in halting loss of forest cover in Asia and the Pacific.” Through assisted natural regeneration (ANR) projects, they have  turned forest deficits into the start of surpluses.

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ANR differs from traditional  reforestation projects funded and directed by bureaucrats in remote capitals. It is a low-cost  forest restoration and rehabilitation technique that can convert cogon-smothered areas back into productive forests.

How? In return for jobs, local communities reforest—with a twist. They thumb down  imported species favored by large-scale plantations or agro-forestry schemes. Instead, they plant indigenous tree species and hew closely to “the natural process of plant succession.”

This approach ensured “site protection and monitoring,” the UN study notes. “Such schemes enhanced ecosystems, restored biodiversity and increased carbon storage.”

“Success of ANR hinges on effective involvement of local residents in its implementation,” explained FAO senior forestry officer Patrick Durst, who presented the findings in Beijing. “It is vital that local communities are given incentives.”

Locals quickly see ANR’s benefits. These come “in a number of guises, such as diversity in harvestable crops, cost-effective land management, hunting grounds and improved ecological services.”

Is ANR really new for the Philippines? Apparently not. In 2006, the FAO, Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Bagong Pagasa Foundation trained 200 foresters, NGO staff and community representatives on ANR.

This approach can reduce the costs of reforestation by half, assessment of the three-year, $250,000 project concluded. It successfully prevented fires and enhanced local biodiversity.

These “sprouts of hope” led the DENR to launch an “Upland Development Program” to support ANR practices on over 9,000 hectares. The initial funding supported a variety of ANR projects from Balagunan, Davao del Norte, to Danao, Bohol.

Philiex Mining and Shannalyne Inc. signed memoranda of understanding with the DENR to extend ANR pilot sites. In addition, ANR became a selection criteria for the “Best Mining Forest Program” award, starting 2010.

“Perhaps, the most creative innovation emerging from the ANR project is an ‘over-the-counter’ carbon-trading scheme negotiated between sister-municipalities of Danao (Bohol) and Makati City (Metro Manila),” FAO’S Durst adds. “Makati will offset part of its carbon footprint by supporting forest restoration, through ANR, in the hinterlands of Danao.”

Field implementation of ANR, however, bogged down with these initial probes. Environment and natural resources secretaries, notably in the twilight of the Arroyo administration, were hamstrung by increasingly partisan brawls. “Lack of successful field-based ANR examples” blocked buildup of  a broader official constituency.

Did the intense discussions at the Second Asia-Pacific Forestry Week in Beijing recast official mindsets here on “small-in-size-but-large-in-impact” initiatives? That remains to be seen.

There are, meanwhile, potential forests waiting to spring up beneath the sterile cogon grass. They overgrow stumps of trees felled by loggers who, years ago, scrammed with the loot.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Environmental issues, forest, logging, mining, reforestation
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