In the past 40 years, the country has been swept by fatal and destructive floods, among them the great Central Luzon inundation of 1972, Ormoc (1991), Bicol (“Reming’’ 2006), Metro Manila (“Ondoy’’ 2009) and Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities just before Christmas this year.
In just one decade, 2000 to 2010, 27 floods and 17 landslides occurred, affecting about 1.6 million people each year and destroying crops and infrastructure worth tens of million pesos a year. In all these floods and landslides, deforestation was a major factor. Bald mountains, depleted forests and barren watersheds caused rainwater to flow down and flood the plains.
It was not this way in the beginning. Thousands of years ago the land was covered almost entirely by rain forest. After more than 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, rain forest still covered about 70 percent of the country. The depletion of the forest continued during the American regime, and accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s when big-time loggers made fabulous fortunes practically overnight.
At the start of the American regime in the 1900s, the country had 21 million hectares of old-growth forest covering 70 percent of the land. Now, the forest area is 7 percent, a result of “probably the most rapid and severe deforestation in the world,’’ according to American researcher Lawrence R. Heany of the Field Museum of Chicago.
One way to arrest rapid deforestation is to ban logging, and the government has done just that. In February 2011 President Aquino imposed a ban on the cutting and harvesting of timber. But apparently the ban is not being strictly enforced, as the logs that rolled down to the plains in Northern Mindanao recently showed.
Another way to remedy deforestation is reforestation. Malacañang last Dec. 22 announced plans to resurrect a multibillion-peso project to restore the rain forests of Bukidnon and Lake Lanao, the water source of Mindanao’s six rivers. The project is part of the P7-billion Integrated Natural Resources and Environmental (Inrem) program that is up for approval by the National Economic Development Authority’s Investment Coordination Committee.
The Inrem program, conceived in 2007, should be given the highest priority and be approved and carried out as soon as possible. It failed to gain ground in the past due to lack of government funds and will power to push the project. But the government does not have to rely solely on public funds to carry out the project. A lot of funds are available from foreign partners.
Presidential Adviser on Environment Neric Acosta said about P4 billion, to be financed by loans from the Asian Development Bank and grants from several aid agencies, will be used to reforest the highlands of Bukidnon and Lake Lanao. If this part of the project could be started as soon as possible, it would accomplish two things: it would reforest the highlands of Bukidnon and Lake Lanao and prevent a recurrence of the terrible floods that struck Northern Mindanao and provide livelihood to people who have lost their farms and jobs.
The Aquino administration has to muster the political will and undertake as soon as possible a massive reforestation program covering all the severely deforested areas in the country. Perhaps it should observe some local reforestation projects and learn and adopt some of their good points. One of them is a 2,500-hectare reforestation project in Penablanca, Cagayan, which is now absorbing excess rainwater and trapping soil sediments, preventing runoff and erosion and consequently preventing flooding and landslides.
Another is the assisted natural regeneration (ANR) program in Danao, Bohol. “Traditional’’ reforestation usually involves planting seedlings in deforested areas and costs P33,000 per hectare. In contrast, according to Neria Andin, assistant director of the Forest Management Bureau, ANR involves minimal cost and less effort.
The program, funds and manpower are already there. More financing could be obtained from private sources as well as foreign aid agencies. Now the only thing missing is political will to start the project and sustain it.
A massive reforestation program should enjoy the highest priority. The floods of Ormoc, Metro Manila and Northern Mindanao, among other occurrences, should prod the government to start the program now.
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