Crowded Philippines losing last of its forests

Posted: 30 September 2008

Author: Henrylito Tacio

UN demographers projected in 2002 that the population of the Philippines in 2008 would reach between 75 and 85 million. But the population has already overshot the high projection and now stands at 89 million, up from 60 million in 1990. And the country's forests, as well as its people, are paying the price in terms of urban overcrowding and rural deforestration.

Most of the country's forests were situated in the uplands, which make up more than 60 per cent of the country's total land area. "The uplands are fragile areas, and when they get overloaded with population, they just can't take it," says Jeff Palmer, former director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC). Between 1990 and 2005, the Philippines lost one-third of its forest cover. Although the current deforestation rate is around 2 per cent per year, a 20 per cent drop from the rate of the 1990s, deforestation continues.

Denuded forest, Philippines
Denuded forest, Philippines
Bare mountains where the forest has been felled, Philippines. Photo © Henrylito Tacio
"No one says there is an increase in real forest cover in the Philippines. Maybe there is an increase in the number of trees, but it is not the forest we idealise, romanticise, log or even live in," says Peter Walpole, executive director of the Ateneo de Manila University's Environmental Science for Social Change. "We have lost most of our forest of old over the past 50 years and, along with them, many of the ecological services they provide."

Illegal logging Where have all the forests gone? "A few hundred years ago, at least 95 per cent of the Philippines was covered by rain forest; only a few patches of open woodland and seasonal forest, mostly on Luzon, broke the expanse of moist, verdant land," said Dr. Lawrence R. Heaney, an American curator who holds honorary appointments at Silliman University, the University of the Philippines, and the Philippine National Museum. By the time the Spanish arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, scattered coastal areas had been cleared for agriculture and villages. Three hundred years later, rainforest still covered about 70 per cent of the country. But in recent years, the country has become almost devoid of forest cover. Primary forests have been destroyed doth by logging and agricultural expansion. The result has been a significant decrease in natural resources. Despite government bans on timber harvesting following severe flooding in the late 1980s and early 1990s, illegal logging continues. Illicit wood cut from secondary and primary forests is routinely smuggled to other Asian countries. "In 1992, the date of the most recent forest survey, old-growth rain forest had declined to a shocking 8.6 per cent," Dr. Heaney reported. "By late 1997, that percentage probably dropped to 7 per cent, and perhaps further still." Additional threats to Philippine forests come from legal and illegal mining operations, collection of fuelwood, and kaingin farming (slash-and-burn agriculture). "These migrant farmers attack virgin forest lands to cultivate the rich soil, which they quickly deplete," said Harold R. Watson, recipient of the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for peace and international understanding. "Then, they move on, looking for more. One day, there is no more."

Soil erosion The loss of forest cover has led to many environmental problems. "Most of these were not seen in such intensity and magnitude before our time," says Roy C. Alimoane, the current MBRLC director. "The signs cry out for immediate, nationwide attention." Deforestation is now increasingly blamed for soil erosion: "Such erosion is an enemy to any nation - far worse than any outside enemy because it is one you cannot see vividly," warns Rev. Watson. "It's a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land." At least two provinces - Cebu and Batangas - have lost more than 80 per centof their topsoil to erosion. In Luzon, four major basins - Bicol, Magat, Pampanga, and Agno - are in critical condition due to acute erosion and sedimentation. The rampant cutting of trees has also significantly reduced the volume of groundwater available for domestic purposes. "If the forest perishes, so will the life of people," contends Diosmedes Demit, one of the farmers who joined the 'Fast for the Forests' in 1989. "The trees are our source of life. Without trees, there will be no water. If there is no water, there will be no life." Cebu, which has zero forest cover, is 99 per cent dependent on groundwater. As a result, more than half of the towns and cities in Cebu, excluding Metro Cebu, have no access to potable water. In Metro Manila, where there are no forests to speak of, the water table is falling at the rate of six to 12 metres a year, as saline water intrudes along the coastal areas.

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
Deforestation also threatens the country's wildlife resources. Two species, the tamaraw and the Philippines eagle are almost extinct, and more than half the birds, amphibians and mammals endemic to the Philippines are threatened with extinction. Joselito Atienza, secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said that 592 of the 1,137 species of amphibians, birds and mammals found only in the Philippines are considered "threatened or endangered." Some 227 endemic species of plants are "critically endangered." Dr. Lee Talbot, former director of Southeast Asia Project on Wildlife Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, issued this sober thought: "A few decades ago, the wildlife of the Philippines was notable for its abundance; now, it is notable for its variety. If the present trend of destruction continues, Philippine wildlife will be notable for its absence." Deforestation may also have played a part in the changing climatic condition in the country. Father Jesus Ramon Villarin, a Jesuit scientist, who has explored rainfall patterns in Mindanao in the last 50 years, discovered that while rainfall over the northern coast of Mindanao has generally increased over the decades,the southern regions are experiencing decreasing rainfall, mostly in the south central parts.

The loss of the Philippine forests is, of course, just one part of a global crisis, fuelled by poverty, greed, population growth and government failures. As Sandra Postel and John C. Ryan wrote in a recent Worldwatch Institute report: "Unless actions are taken soon to put an end to today's cut-and-run style of forestry, little of the earth's natural forest heritage will remain for the next generation."

Editor's note:

In the latest poverty incidence report by the National Statistical Coordination Board, the number of poor Filipinos increased to 33 per cent of the population in 2006 from 30.4 per cent in 2003.

In a statement, in August, in support of the Government's Reproductive Health Bill, 27 economists from the University of the Philippines said that not only does a weak population policy aggravate poverty, it also contributes to a higher rate of maternal mortality. The Bill has still to be ratified.

According to the economists, 162 of every 100,000 live births in the Philippines led to the death of the mother during delivery. This had kept the country off-track to meet the target of reducing the number to 52 for every 100,000 by 2015, as promised under the Millennium Development Goals, they said.