‘Peak’—what? | Inquirer Opinion


/ 01:01 AM January 31, 2012

Buzz words sprout from controversies of the day. From the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, “subpoena” and “alpha  lists” spilled into chatter at barbershops and even diplomatic receptions.

Emerging issues mint new buzz words. “Peak timber” is one of them.


“Tropical countries should consider implications of ‘peak timber’… [even as] it has become common to speak of ‘peak oil,’” the journal Biological Conservation suggests. Today’s  30- to 40-year logging cycles do not provide sufficient time for forests to recover.

This rule of thumb stems from a 1950s preliminary research on fertile Basilan Island with its abundant rainfall. Other provinces are less favored. Basilan’s 30-40 year yardsticks were applied nationwide. They are proving unsustainable.


“Peak timber” shoves against forest limits. The trajectory clones the “Hubbert Curve” in tracking oil, note Australian National University’s Phil Shearman and Jane Bryan with William Laurance of James Cook University. Harvests first surge, peter out on a peak, then plunge into free fall.

“Been there, done that,” Filipinos would shrug. In 1595, forests blanketed 27.5 million hectares here. Today, 7.7 million hectares are left, official data claims. That’s probably an overestimate.

Factor in unrecorded killer logs, unleashed  by Tropical Storm “Sendong.” Most tumbled from the mountains of Lanao del Sur. Kaingin-scarred slopes, converted into pastures or corn fields, have patchy vegetative cover. They cannot stem soil erosion. Neither do they hold rain runoff. They result in massive soil erosion.

Thus, mud, rock and logs cascaded from plantations into vulnerable hillsides in the Bukidnon towns of Manolo Fortich, Libona, Talakag and Baungon. In Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, people were smothered by waves of mud.

The first Asian country to liquidate its forest wealth after World War II, the Philippines slammed into “peak timber” early. From less than 500,000 cubic meters in the late 1950s, log exports crested at 11.1 million cubic meters in 1974. Exports slumped to a mere 841,000 cubic meters a decade later.

It still has to recover. Forest cover dwindled, meanwhile, to 18 percent, far below the 30 percent safety benchmark. Loss of habitats threatens 89 species of wildlife. Most are endemic to the Philippines. “A prima donna of log exporters in the 1970s, we became a wood pauper in the 1980s,” observed Viewpoint. (Inquirer, 1/10/08)

“Leaks” are all over, notes former United Nations forester Napoleon Vergara. Penury and hunger drive kaingineros to slash  and burn trees for a harvest or two. Rapid population growth spurs upland migration. Confronting illicit loggers, who bankroll politicians, can be lethal.


“Green” priest Neri Satur was shotgunned  to death in 1991 for confiscating truckloads of “hot logs” in Bukidnon. Catholic radio journalist Dr. Gerry Ortega campaigned to protect indigenous communities and Palawan forests. He was gunned down last Jan. 24.

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.” Lt. Gen. Jessie Dellosa, the 43rd Armed Forces chief of staff, should resolve the glib claim that Co was “caught in a crossfire with communist guerrillas.”

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

The “second wave clearance” problem, cited by Biological Conservation, is a major glitch in Mindanao, Vergara adds. Roads bulldozed by loggers open once remote areas to a flood of  land-hungry settlers, shifting cultivators—and yet more illegal loggers.

The impact of bulldozers and yarders dragging logs through fragile tropical soils 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.”

Asia and the Pacific are starting to reverse forest loss, asserts the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in its 2011 “Forest Beneath the Grass.”

“Asia gained 2.2 million hectares,” the report says. “Primary forests nonetheless continue to be chain-sawed.” The last virgin forests in Samar are being chopped down.

Government reforestation efforts have been erratic. And tree survival rates are low. 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, co-author of “Forest Faces.” We must “now focus on options for turning around the situation.”

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 is to address the lack of tangible and sustained support to help millions of small-scale farmers, living on steep slopes, apply improved land use methods. Only then will they jettison the unsustainable but the only farming systems they have. That would 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 an old buzz word: disaster.

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TAGS: agriculture, disasters, environment, forest, Kaingin, Peak Timber
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