Philippines on verge of ecological disaster

Posted: 6 July 2004

Author: Henrylito D. Tacio

More than 100 years ago, the Philippines was rich in natural resources. Now, as the human population continues to grow (from 83 million today to a projected 133 million by 2050), it is not rich anymore.

As former Environment Minister Fulgencio S. Factoran pointed out: "The popular notion of being rich in natural resources has given us a false sense of security. In fact, we are relatively poor compared with our SoutheastAsian neighbours. With our rapidly burgeoning population, we could expect a rapidly increasing demand on our natural systems for the fulfillment of the most basic needs for survival."

Denuded mountains, The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Denuded mountains, The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Denuded mountains, The Philippines© Henrylito Tacio
Victor O. Ramos, also a former environment secretary, shared the same assessment. "The scientific world has, for years, warned of impending ecological disaster in our archipelago, but such warnings went largely unheeded," he said. "As a consequence, we are beginning to experience just how nature will get back at us for our wanton neglect."

The Philippines, touted as the Pearl of the Orient Seas, has a total land area of approximately 30 million hectares consisting of more than 7,100 islands. As such, the country is a habitat of different species of plants,animals and microorganisms (or what is known as biological diversity).

"The more than 7,000 islands of this archipelago are home to exceptionally high numbers of plants, birds and mammals," said Dr. Russell Mittermeir,president of the Washington-based Conservation International. "The incredible biodiversity of the Philippines also extends to its seas, whichprobably have the highest diversity of coral species on Earth," he added.

The Philippine eagle, the rarest and largest eagle in the world, is only found in The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
The Philippine eagle, the rarest and largest eagle in the world, is only found in The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
The Philippine eagle, the rarest and largest eagle in the world, is found only in The Philippines© Henrylito Tacio
The richness of the flora and fauna in the Philippines is difficult to measure "because there is no comprehensive or current inventory," according to Dr. Raymundo S. Punongbayan, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

But based on available records, the Philippines is home to 14,400 plant species: more than 8,000 flowering plants, 930 ferns and fern allies, 625mosses, 790 lichens, 3,000 fungi, and 1,145 algae. About 3,800 plant species are endemic to the country.

Diverse habitat

The faunal diversity consists of 200 species of mammals, 557 species of birds, 244 species of reptiles, 81 species of amphibians, 54 species ofmillipedes, 44 species of centipedes, 16,704 species of insects, 341 species of spiders, and 2,782 species of molluscs.

The Philippines lies in the Indo-West Pacific Region, recognized as the world's highest biodiversity area in marine environment. The region's coral reef areas, especially those in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, also dubbed as the "Coral Triangle," are considered the centre of the most diverse habitat of the marine tropics.

"Over a third of 2,300 fish species reported in the Philippines are reef-associated," the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), a line agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), reported. "Its scleractianian coral fauna may reach over 400 species and their associated benthos are likewise as diverse."

Unfortunately, the Philippines is fast losing its natural treasures. A comprehensive study on the loss of biodiversity has yet to be made. "Statistics and data on species and their habitats are exceedingly inadequate," the EMB noted.

Threatened species

However, several species have made it to the list of the Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) of the United Nations.Among the fauna listed as either endangered or threatened are the Philippine freshwater and saltwater crocodiles, marine turtles or"pawikan," "calamian" deer, sea cow or "dugong," Philippine deer, Philippine tarsier, Philippine eagle, peregrine falcon, Palawan peacock pheasant, long-billed curlew, spotted greenshank, Mindoro imperial pigeon, nicobar pigeon, superb fruit dove, giant scops owl, talking myna, monitorlizards, pythons, several bleeding heart pigeons, blue-naped parrot, and rufous hornbill.

Among the endangered or threatened flora are Sander's alocasia ("Alocasia sanderiana"), Slippea orchids ("Paphiopedilium spp."), camia ("Hedychium philippinensis"), pitcher plant ("Nepenthes rajah"), aloe or "sabila," "bungang ipot," all species of orchids, several species of "pitogo," "oliva," all species of tree ferns, all species of cactus, and the "lumbang" family.

Rapid destruction of the country's forests has put in peril the habitat of a significant number of these plant and animal species. Statistics show that 54 years after Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan "rediscovered" the Philippines, 92 per cent (27.5 million hectares) of the country's total land area of 30 million hectares was covered with forests. This went down to 70 per cent (20.9 million hectares) in 1863, then to 64 per cent (18.9 million hectares) in 1920, and 36.3 per cent (10.9 million hectares) in 1970.

Logging disaster

Today, the Philippines has a total forest cover of only 6.16 million or approximately 20.52 per cent of the total land area, according experts. Astudy conducted by the World Wildlife Fund showed that more than 119,000 hectares of forest cover disappear yearly.

Logging has been cited as the primary culprit of the rapid disappearance of the country's forest cover. Logging operations, legal and otherwise, are mowing down the country's remaining forest cover. Over the past 50 years, 400 logging companies operated in the country, reports the Environmental Science for Social Change.

The Rev. Peter Walpole, a Jesuit priest who heads the environmental group, said the Philippines "trusted" logging companies to cut down trees and manage the forest. "But they did a very bad job," he decried. "That started the problem that we have now."

The DENR, the lead agency responsible for the country's natural resources and ecosystems, is virtually powerless against logging. "With the present state of our economy (which favoured only the wealthy), people will continue logging even with a ban," said a government official who requested anonymity. "The government is not yet capable of protecting the forest areas. It has no airplanes, boats, weapons, or communications."

Forest guards are a drop in a bucket. In most instances, they are afraid to stop loggers from cutting trees. "Our people are frightened," said a DENR official. "The loggers, in most cases, have guns. The forest guards will choose life rather than death."

Failing parks

Aside from logging, other causes of deforestation in the Philippines are forest fires, slash-and-burn farming (locally known as kaingin), miningoperations, geothermal explorations, dam construction and operation; and land development projects such as construction of subdivision, industrial estates, and commercial sites.

Although the Philippines has 62 national parks (the first one was established on February 1, 1932) and seven wildlife sanctuaries, only sevennational parks meet international standards in national park maintenance.

Other parks are ill-kept, barely funded and have fallen prey to illegal loggers. "This unfortunate state of affairs is largely due to ourantiquated and inappropriate national parks protection laws, the absence of clearly define demarcation of boundaries, inadequate information on the location and amount of resources with national parks," the DENR said.

Worse, there is a dearth of master plans for research and development as well as the lack of political will and a negative attitude towardconservation.

Wildlife trade

Another threat is the high demand for wildlife in foreign markets. Coral reefs, for instance, are gathered and sold as part of the internationaltrade of reef products. "In spite of Presidential Decree 1219, amended byP.D. 1698, which bans coral gathering, many people break off and collect corals to sell as decorative item," deplores the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, a line agency of the Department of Agriculture.

Thousands of birds are also exported for pet lovers and pet shop displays and sometimes as meat delicacies. In addition, the market for shoes, belts and bags and other by-products made of reptile skins is big.

Another consequence of deforestation is removal of topsoil. "Soil erosion, especially in the uplands, is now an extremely serious problem in the country," explains Rodrigo Calixtro, officer-in-charge of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center. "It does not only result in increasing the impoverishment of the Filipino farmers, but also destroys other thingsdown under."

Siltation, caused by erosion, shortens the productive life spans of dams and reservoirs. The Magat reservoir, for instance, has been cut its probable life span of 100 years to 25 years. The Ambuklao Dam reservoir had its life halved from 60 to 32 years as a result of siltation.

Oftentimes, this results to water shortage. "Without vegetative cover,especially the trees, the land's water absorption capacity is greatly reduced," contends Ines Basaen, national coordinator of the InternationalLabor Organization's community-based environment impact assessment for indigenous people's project.

Deforestation has also altered the climatic condition in the country. Periods of drought have become more common and extensive in the dry seasonwhile floods have prevailed in the rainy months.

Heherson Alvarez, another former environment secretary, commented that if deforestation is not soon curbed, time would come that "we will betraveling to Manila and around Central Luzon by bancas (outrigger)."

The signs are now written on the wall!

Henrylito Tacio is an award-winning Filipino journalist who hails from Davao del Sur. He received the Journalist of the Year award in 1999 and was elevated to the Hall of Fame in science reporting in 1998. He is People & the Planet correspondent in Southeast Asia.

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