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Transition curve?

/ 12:11 AM September 02, 2014

Brazil today loses less than 6,000 square kilometers of  forests yearly—down from 20,000 a decade back, The Economist reports. It spearheads the Amazon Region Protected Areas, which is 20 times Belgium’s size. This is the “transition curve, a turning point in seemingly irreversible deforestation.”

The Philippines is somewhere near the bottom, along with Mexico, The Economist chart shows. Some argue that we’re even on the upswing, along with India. That would indicate we, too, have reached the transition curve.

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What are the implications for the Philippines—and the region, we asked FAO’s Patrick Durst, who is based in Bangkok. Married to a Filipina, Durst worked in Asia and the Pacific for four decades. Excerpts of his response:

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) assessments do indicate “a net change in the world’s forested land.” That’s deforestation minus forest expansion. There are a number of buts, though.

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Large replanting does not offset continued large losses of natural forests which are still being razed at an unacceptable pace. And plantation forests, due to structure and composition, cannot replace natural forests.

Cutting trees is not deforestation per see. We need wood products for growing populations. Forests regrow, if managed properly. But that remains a big “if.” Poor harvesting practices, for instance, result in the failure to ensure regeneration.

“To save the forest, you have to think outside the forest,” World Resources Institute’s Andrew Steer suggests. There are two big reasons for the recent slowdown in tropical deforestation. One is the easing of population pressures. The other is the hefty improvements in farming from forested lands.

One rarely mentioned aspect is creating jobs. If rural folk had alternative ways of earning a living, they’ll not clear forests on steep slopes just to earn a pittance. It is a difficult  way to survive. Often, they run afoul of sheriffs for illegal encroachments.

In places like Bohol, the forest surge is partly due to remittances sent back home by overseas Filipino workers. This income relieves pressure on the land and forests.

Development workers often glamorize the “need to keep the farmers on the land.” In reality, the best thing is to help marginalized farmers transition to jobs that don’t depend on clearing forests and barren soil cultivation.

OFWs in Dubai and in other places are often sons and daughters of these same upland farmers. Their remittances have done more to help increase forest cover in some  parts of the country than all the direct efforts of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, under its National Greening Program, to stop the clearing of trees and to plant instead cassava and corn.

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In Brazil, 44 percent of the Amazon is now a national park, wildlife reserve or indigenous reserve, where farming is banned. In India, which sparked the green revolution, a third of its forests are overseen by local governments.

Costa Rica is often cited as having largely succeeded in increasing forest cover by blending incentives “and improving  the economy in ways that drew people off the land and out of the forests.”

Intensification of agriculture is not a foolproof guarantee, Durst cautions. It must link up with policies and enforcement to tamp down forest clearing. Protecting forests does not hinge on simply signing proclamations or executive orders. Neither on just more jail terms. Such measures do not ensure forest protection. A blend of incentives and penalties is critical.

Policies matter—and the political will to enforce them. Some countries, including the Philippines, have made trees worth even less. By banning or curbing commercial harvests, we make trees worthless in the eyes of managers or owners.

Protecting forests is not a matter of just simply declaring parks and protected areas. Not when people already cluster near forests and rely on them for daily bread, as in the Philippines. It makes more sense to use the carrot-and-stick approach. Combine restrictions with incentives and jobs.

Today, payments for forest-based carbon and water are still in the realm of talk, not reality. And no one can anchor ecotourism on trees alone. You need other attractions. All motivation shifts to planting crops, from corn to cassava to oil palm.

The key is to provide assured tenure that people have confidence in, Durst argues. Will the tenure system in effect hold—say, two, five, 10 or 20 years down the road? Otherwise, they’ll exploit forests unsustainably.

People covered by community-based forest management agreements here were able to harvest trees after a year. But then restrictions were slapped on. This is hardly a recipe for stability. Under such conditions, it is natural for people to get while they can. They cut whenever opportunity arises. There is no motivation to manage for the long term.

The problem calls for more than just writing a law. Equally important is the ability and the freedom of people to challenge government decisions. Authoritarian regimes are generally dismal failures in protecting forests and other equally vital natural resources.

The Marcos regime illustrated that authoritarian governments operate on cronyism and corruption, lack checks and balances, and stifle media. These undercut the good governance of forests. Records show that forests are among the first to suffer and are the hardest hit as they are a ready reservoir of resources that authoritarian regimes can exploit for their own benefit.

There is no question that forest management and protection have improved in the Philippines and elsewhere with increasing democratization.

(E-mail: [email protected])

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TAGS: Brazil, column, deforestation, Food and Agriculture Organization, Juan L. Mercado, Patrick durst
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