By AMIANAN SALAKNIBAN
We Filipinos are suckers for ranks and being on the top spot of all the listings in the world from beauty contests to tourist spots. Do you know that in 2011, Conservation International placed Philippines as 4th among the world’s top 10 most threatened forest hot spots? It’s on the top but not the kind of list we should be proud to be part of.
Philippines is one of the countries with the fastest loss of forest cover worldwide with a 157, 400 hectars per year deforestation rate. According to environmentalists, if this continues, our remaining forest cover will be eradicated in less than 40 years.
And so, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), as one of the major state agencies that received the biggest appropriation from the national government under the Aquino administration, developed a reforestation effort to solve this crisis. With a whooping budget of 7.2 billion pesos, its centerpiece program, the National Greening Program (NGP) boasted of planting “1.5 billion trees covering 1.5 million hectares for a period of six years from 2011 to 2016.”
If you visit their website, their reports are staggering! Every year, they overdo their achievements. In December of 2015, they had planted over 916 million seedlings and generated more than 3 million jobs, accomplishing 113% of their target. However, do these numbers ensure that the seedlings will turn into trees and turn into forests? Do these numbers ensure that the community will benefit the most out of it? If it is so great, why did several issues on NGP’s implementation keep on popping up all throughout president Aquino’s term? Let us count these and know why the NGP needs a massive revamp despite the numbers.
1. COA says it is a failure
Last year, the Commission on Audit (COA) said that NGP and the cadastral land survey project of the DENR were “unsuccessful” due to the lack of efficient and effective system of implementing and monitoring of the projects.
According to their report, DENR considered “nonplantable areas” as tree-planting sites without detailed mapping and planning. Seedlings were delivered and planted at the wrong time, some were during rainy season which gave the “planted seedlings a very short period to recover and withstand the onset of the dry season.” Some planting sites were not even assigned a partner organization to help monitor the growth of the plantations. Lack of coordination with other agencies such as the DPWH killed some of the seedlings planted during road widening and other government construction.
2. NGP is institutionalized land grabbing
In the Amianan Salakniban Conveners meeting in 2015, regional environmental groups reported NGP problems all over North Luzon. In Cagayan Valley region, NGP intensified land grabbing of powerful families. In Isabela, community reports that some politicians invoked the NGP to claim and annex around 1000 hectares of land within their old logging concession. Minority settlers and peasants were threatened to be displaced from the land, the major source of their livelihood. This includes areas of indigenous peoples who settled in lands that are considered public land.
In Quirino, a 300-hectare gmelina plantation will be expanded to 500 hectares under the NGP. The plantation which covers four villages was once a cornfield planted by peasants before the DENR included the land in a reforestation program in 1997. Since then, the DENR has declared the area as a forest zone, banning peasants from cutting trees and planting crops in portions of the land covered by the reforestation contracts.
In Ilocos Sur, Defend Ilocos reports “institutional land grabbing” masked as reforestation project through the conversion of 500 hectares of rolling hills in Sta. Cruz, Ilocos Sur into a eucalyptus plantation by Vice Mayor Virgilio Valle. Another 700 hectares is forcibly being converted for same purpose which affects seven barangays in the municipality. Farmers are being restricted access and use of the once communal land area for livelihood.
3. NGP forests are biodiversity dead-zones
According to NGP data, half of the trees planted in the program constitute forest tree species that are mainly for timber production. Majority of these are exotic trees are Mahogany, Gmelina, and rubber that are fast growing but are poorly adapting to our environment. In 2011, DENR ordered the production of 25 million seedlings of exotic species while only 5 million seedlings of native or indigenous species were ordered.
According to Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, forests born from these trees are harmful to our environment because native organisms do not recognize and thrive harmoniously with them. That is why in a manmade mahogany forest in Bohol, it is strikingly noticeable that not a single bird can be heard or spotted there. If you look down, the ground is almost clean of shrubs and vegetation. Only a few types of grasses that are resilient enough can live among these exotic trees. This is the same in the case of gmelina where communities that planted it observed that it sucks up the soil dry and its fruits are poisonous to animals.
In the book “Philippine Native Trees 101: Up Close and Personal, “Professor James LaFrankie described the importance of prioritizing native trees like Molave over exotic species. He explained that native species of trees have a relationship to water, land and organisms developed in the span of millions of years.
“Certain fungi live with the roots; certain insects feed on the plant parts, while others pollinate the flowers. Birds and mammals live along the branches and feed on the seeds. No such relationship exists for the newcomer. The result is ten hectares of mahogany in a biodiversity-dead zone.”
4. NGP trees are not typhoon resilient
Another purpose of NGP is for our protection against typhoons. After a strong typhoon, we immediately see fallen trees blocking the roads. It turns out, these trees planted in national and city roads, subdivisions, parks and almost everywhere are mostly exotic.
In an article in Pacifiqa.com, it points out that the root of the proliferation of exotic trees is the underfunding in the research about our native trees. People know too much about exotic trees distributed commercially rather than our native trees that it became the “easy way out”
But if the government funds research on the 3,600 species of trees that are native to the Philippines, we would find options of what endemic species of trees to plant that has the same attributes that the exotic ones were valued for.
5. Commercialized reforestation
Many Civil Society Organizations (CSO) that have partnered with NGP projects report that DENR regional or provincial offices have biases in choosing seedling suppliers. In a rappler.com article “Is the gov’t reforestation program planting the right trees?” it describes how contracts for seedlings that were supposed to be given to a local organization as additional source of their livelihood were given to a commercial supplier instead because of a bidding “technicality”. In the end, the commercial supplier delivered the wrong species of seedlings for the locals to plant.
6. Hires Goons as Envi Protectors
In the Philippine Institute for Development Studies research published in 2013, there is a part wherein it implied that NGP has a counter –insurgency component. DENR conducted Focus Group Discussions with the members of Peoples Organizations and asked them if the program “actually reduced insurgency in (their) areas”, in which the answer is “maybe”. Some might ask what the direct relation of reforestation with the insurgency is. It’s money, “maybe”.
For the protection of the forests, DENR intensified its hiring of “Bantay Gubat” composed of ex-rebel returnees such as the defunct Cordillera Peoples Liberation Army (CPLA). According to human rights group DINTEG, since it split from the New People’s Army and surrendered in 1987, CPLA has become an autonomous armed paramilitary group hired by powerful people and politicians to do their bidding. Some were already integrated into the AFP and some engage in socio-economic activities. One of the human rights violations committed by CPLA is the killing of IP leader Daniel Ngayaan who was active in the environmental protection of Chico River in Kalinga against mega-dams in the 80’s. Yet ironically, DENR is ow paying these criminals to protect our forests. # nordis.net