|Greener than green|
|Monday, 30 April 2012|
Think reforestation and usually tree planting in deforested areas comes to mind. And yet, the way that degraded uplands are replanted with trees suffers the tragedy of having diverged reforestation in its authentic and most meaningful sense: the "re" in "reforestation," the return and restoration of the forests' natural wealth, biodiversity and moisture.
This as much as was admitted by Secretary Ramon Paje of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) himself. "In the past, the government pursued a nationwide reforestation program to immediately reforest depleted and denuded vegetative cover using fast-growing exotic species. However, the efforts were besieged with several problems, among them the low survival rate of planted exotic species due to site incompatibility and susceptibility to pests and diseases."
To an overwhelming extent, denuded areas were converted into plantations of big-leaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla), teak (Tectona grandis), yemane (Gmelina arborea), auri (Acacia auriculiformis), gum tree (Eucalyptus sp.), agoho (Casuarina equiesetifolia), Moluccan sau or falcata (Paraserianthes falcataria), large-fruited red mahogany (Eucalyptus pellita), and mangium (Acacia mangium).
In his candid admission, Secretary Paje admits that this strategy was true as well as for the past (more than a year) operations of the National Greening Program (NGP), the Philippine government's plan to plant 1.5 billion trees in about 1.5 million hectares by 2016. In doing so, Paje implicitly conceded that the "green" in the NGP was not so green after all.
During the past few months, it appears that this past misdirection in the country's reforestation program may be a thing of the past. Changes were supposedly institutionalized in a Memorandum of Agreement between the DENR and two civil society organizations, the Foundation for the Philippine Environment (FPE) and the Philippine Tropical Forest Conservation Foundation (PTFCF) for the production and supply of seedlings of prized indigenous forest and fruit tree species, especially those endemic or relatively unique to the NGP planting sites and their specific regions.
Dr. Perry Ong, a director in both FPE and PTFCF, sees in this development a rite of passage for DENR, now "gradually steering its policy away from the use of exotic species to native species for its reforestation programs," a strategy called "rainforestation" or "assisted natural regeneration" (ANR), recognized since the 1990s.
According to DENR, the NGP last year planted some 69.3 million tree seedlings in more than 118, 000 hectares. Of these, five million or seven percent consisted of indigenous species like acacia, mayapis, molave, tindalo, toog, and teak, DENR said in a press statement.
In an ESSCNews interview with FPE Acting Executive Director Godofredo Villapando, Jr , he points out that for this year, civil society organizations will supply 50 million seedlings of native tree species for the 200 million seedlings targeted. This is a jump from seven percent to 25 percent in the rate of use of indigenous species in reforestation.
As Villapando explained, the bulk of the 50 million seedlings will be sourced and bought from nurseries operated by FPE's network of peoples' and community organizations covering 51 provinces and 170 municipalities. According to Villapando, the DENR agreed to increase the rate of indigenous species use by 100 percent in 2016 and community organizations can meet this demand. Also, DENR promised to replace all mature exotic-species stands in the NGP, after timber harvesting, with indigenous species, Villapando told ESSCNews.
There are several key new elements in the agreement. First, the old monoculture will be replaced by a strategy requiring a mix of at least five indigenous species. Most of the species during the first year in production areas will be sun-loving seedlings, such as narra and molave, along with fruit trees such as mango, avocado, sampaloc, and santol. Those in protected areas with existing vegetation will be shade-loving seedlings, such as red and white lauan. Second, the organized communities that raised the seedlings will also be the ones to plant and nurture them to maturity. Third, the growth of the seedlings into mature trees will be individually monitored through GIS technology.
Indeed, this shift to "rainforestation" or ANR does mark a major breakthrough in terms of ecological and social sustainability. In another interview, scientist James LaFrankie describes the old strategy: "When the program is driven as an exercise in bureaucratic implementation, as in many early World Bank-funded projects in the ‘70s and ‘80s, poorly chosen species were planted without regard to site conditions. Nearly complete mortality was not uncommon...Genuine efforts at reforestation with native species are fairly recent (the last 20years) and very small (one to two hectares). They have been most always local community projects."
Dr. LaFrankie identifies four major problems in genuine efforts at reforestation."
First is the lack of knowledge with regards to species and soil. He argues that "for many, perhaps most, native species, we have inadequate ecological knowledge about how to grow such trees. There is a general lack of diversity knowledge in the Philippines. This is especially true within the staff of DENR. Many of the national parks lack staff that know the local trees and could source appropriate seeds."
Second is the poor or limited pre-planting development. To plant millions of quality species takes years of preparation to source seeds and develop nurseries, test soils conditions, and so on. These aspects of tree planting are rarely included in any major project. The orders come down to "plant trees" and so the staff on the ground have no choice but to grab whatever quick and cheap seedlings are available and put them in the ground.
Third is the lack of clear benefits to stakeholders. Too often, there is no motivation to take care of the trees."
And fourth is the lack of funds for follow-up. Too often, trees are planted on public land and then abandoned.
For his part, Villapando traces the problem to a reforestation mindset that is based primarily on valuing boardfeet and carbon sequestration, rather than biodiversity. According to him, what has compensated for a lack of academic research and government training in plant diversity and social conditions was the traditional knowledge, skills and practices, especially of Indigenous Peoples who make up 80% of the communities in their network providing indigenous species seedlings. The remaining natural forest ecosystems that are their ancestral natural habitats continue to be the reliable source of indigenous species seeds. Villapando says that organized and empowered communities are highly motivated to carry out this work based on the high value they place in biodiversity.
Since the 1990s, a growing number of scientists and environmentalists have pointed to the pitfalls of the old reforestation strategy in terms of biodiversity, water cycle services, and soil fertility and retention. Plantations tend to be biodiversity-poor. As such, they become vulnerable to pest attacks, as what happened in Brazil, Indonesia, and parts of the Philippines. They fail to restore the old, endemic Philippine rainforest species that zoologist Lawrence Heaney described as "Galapagos times ten," as among the world's highest in biodiversity due to the country's archipelagic character and geological history.
In a rainforest canopy, and unlike in plantations, there exists a rich mutualism or symbiosis between and among plant and animal species. These include insects, bats, and birds that help pollinate flowers and spread seeds, with an estimated 30 unique species of insects sometimes dependent on one tree species.
In a study completed in December 2006 by the DENR's Environment Research and Development Bureau, it was "found out that exotic or alien species such as Gmelina arborea, Swietenia macrophylla and Acacia auriculiformis have the potential to become an invasive species."
Studies on tropical regions also suggested that plantations act as water pumps, draining rather than nourishing the water cycle. On the other hand, as pointed out by ESSC Director Pedro Walpole, through the process of evapotranspiration from trees and forest floors, natural tropical forests provide "green water," the high level of moisture that makes possible the abundant rainfall feeding tropical rivers and crops. This conclusion is supported by research conducted by scientists David Ellison, Martyn Futter and Kevin Bishop, showing that reducing forest areas reduces regional and continental rainfall.
Plantations also poorly supply organic matter to the soil, compared to natural forests, where large amounts of organic matter formed from forest litter help bind soil more tightly and hinder loss of soil. With trees often clear-cut, plantations tend to suffer more from soil erosion and with it, loss of soil nutrients, including nitrogen that is important to the growth and health of plants, animals, and humans.
As early as August 2004, the DENR already issued Memo Circular No. 6, providing that, "It is the policy of the State that the management and rehabilitation of protected areas and other forest lands shall be undertaken primarily to restore forests to approximate their original structure and functions, and conserve the biological diversity therein." This suggests that though the ANR policy was set way back in 2004, ANR and rainforestation appear to have been petrified for all of eight years before emerging anew.
This experience should now compel NGP policymakers and managers to learn fast and hard in preventing this policy from being re-petrified by embedding these new policies in detail in enduring laws and regulations, and thus propel the policy momentum until 2016 and beyond.
And while the shift in strategy and the initial tripling of the rate of use of indigenous species are indeed commendable, it should be noted that this change is set to begin from a number of stark initial conditions: the remaining 22 percent forest cover (ESSC, 2010) and the degraded quality of the vegetation. We must remain vigilant that these efforts lead to the amount and quality of forests the country needs, the quality of being greener than simply green.