Despite widespread perception that the country’s forest cover is diminishing, a forestry expert said that it has, in fact, increased within a period of 10 years.
Dr. Rodel Lasco, Philippine coordinator of the World Agroforestry Center, indicated that the Philippines’ total forest area “has actually increased in a 10-year period (1998 to 2008) according to the official data of the government.”
Figures from the Forest Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources showed that forest cover in 1998 was 6.48 million hectares. It expanded to 7.168 million hectares in 2003 and rose to 7.391 million hectares in 2005. By 2008, the country had 7.8 million hectares of forest cover.
“Our forests harbor one of the highest biodiversity resources in the world,” said Lasco, also dean of the College of Forestry of the University of the Philippines Los Baños. “They are also significant carbon sinks able to absorb all our greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuels, making us almost carbon neutral.”
Although the rate of destruction of forest declined through better conservation awareness and government policy, the World Environment Day, coinciding with the International Year of the Forest, is a momentous reminder for individuals, business and governments to draw attention to the issues of deforestation and the need to protect green spaces.
Forestry experts warn that if the forestland is left unmanaged, soon the country will witness massive floods, erosion, loss of agricultural land and extinction of animals and plants.
Philippine forests have extremely high flora and fauna diversity with more than 13,000 species of plants.
Lasco said that good management is required of forest resources as it provides livelihoods and shelter for about 20 million Filipinos in upland watershed areas.
Forests provide clean water, maintaining biodiversity, mitigating climate change, soil retention and stability, and sustaining traditional forest-based cultures and peoples.
Lasco suggests that while reforestation is important and helpful for supporting reduced emissions, stopping deforestation and forest degeneration is more urgent.
According to the “State of the World’s Forests 2011” released by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the extent of the forest area in the Philippines was 7.66 million hectares as of 2010.
The report stated that in Southeast Asia, only the Philippines and Vietnam recorded increases in forest cover by an annual average of 55 hectares and 207 hectares, respectively.
The increase is mainly attributed to the vigorous reforestation program involving the government and private sectors, particularly its development of industrial forest plantations and management of natural forest areas.
Degradation can be reduced through improved forest-management practices such as fire and pest control; adoption of reduced impact logging; reduction of fuel wood collection, grazing management.
Lasco added that climate change is “likely to affect forest expansion and migration, and exacerbate threats to biodiversity resulting from land use, land cover change and population pressure in Asia.”
But early this year, President Aquino established the National Greening Program not only to reforest 1.5 million hectares of land but also to promote a sustained environmental awareness campaign to combat climate change in the Philippines.
Protecting the forests
While the worldwide pace of deforestation has slowed down as stated by the UN’s State of the World’s Forest 2011—from 16 million hectares between 1990 and 2000 down to 13 million hectares in the 2000-2010 period—there is still unprecedented global recognition of the urgent need to address deforestation and forest degradation.
At the UN climate-change negotiations in the past years, deforestation loomed large in the discussions over a scheme to compensate tropical countries, including the Philippines, for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, plus conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks (REDD+). It is a scheme for poorer countries to protect and conserve their forests in an effort to tackle climate change.
Tony La Vina, part of the Philippine delegates and the REDD+ negotiator, explained that many issues such as structure and scope are generally agreed, and safeguards including ones for indigenous rights and biodiversity protection are approved under the mechanism.
“The REDD+ mechanism which is in place have to safeguard indigenous rights and biodiversity protection,” La Vina said. “It should be good not just for the forests but for the climate, the people and communities.”
He said REDD+ requires significant preparation and planning to produce measurable, reportable and verifiable reductions.
Today, most forest-rich countries such as Indonesia and Brazil are being paid for planting and sustainably manage their forests as central to the issues are concerns over biodiversity.
World leaders believe that forests play a crucial role in climate-change mitigation and adaptation, impacting people in poorer countries that depend on it.
According to the FAO study, REDD+ has attracted financial commitments at the highest levels, with many presidents, prime ministers pledging to take action on its implementation. Australia, France, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States of America collectively agreed to dedicate $3.5 billion “as initial public finance toward slowing, halting and eventually reversing deforestation in developing countries.”
Over 40 countries, including the Philippines, were participating in REDD+ under the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility to improve their ability to implement REDD+ activities.
While the Philippines has a comprehensive policy and institutional framework on natural resources, there is not yet a specific national legal framework on REDD+.
In October 2009 the Climate Change Act was enacted, creating the Philippine Climate Change Commission tasked with mainstreaming climate-change policy into government programs and activities
“Climate-change adaptation measures, including those that pertain to securing our forests, should be integrated into national policies, particularly Philippines faces critical environmental challenges and is already a victim of global warming,” said Red Constantino, executive director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities.
He added that the Philippines’ survival should not solely depend on developed world, “which has been generous largely with pledges, not funds, as climate finance is a recognized priority, and deeper collaboration among agencies and civil society will be critical.”
Key priorities in a vulnerable country
Every year the Philippines suffers from a torrent of violent weather with an average of 20 typhoons passing through the country. Serious floods usually follow the typhoons, causing further destruction with hundreds of people dead, thousands of families homeless and billions of pesos of properties destroyed.
According to the latest Global Climate Risk Index, the Philippines is among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to weather-related events such as climate change. Consistently ranked in the top 10, the country over the 18-year span suffered every year 799 deaths in addition to an average of $544 million worth of climate-related damages, this does not include the devastation left by typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng in September and October 2009.
William Dar, director general of the Indian-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, said that safeguarding the forests, the environment, support for biodiversity, long-term strategy on agriculture and combating global warming are essential for a just and sustainable Philippine environment.
Dar said that among the key priorities the Philippine government must focus on is to develop a long-term strategy on climate change in agriculture and forestry.
“We need to enhance the understanding of the present and future effects of climate change and for communities to adapt to these conditions. Again, a science-based approach is key to all these,” Dar explained. “We need a vigorous program in the Philippines if poor people are to stand a better chance of surviving climate change. The government must do more to help vulnerable people successfully adjust to our changing climate.”
Lasco, on the other hand, said that while climate change could impede the country’s sustainable development as well as affect its natural ecosystems, communities and the government should work together to address the issues.
Some of the measures for ecosystem adaptation, Lasco said, are improved technologies for tree plantation development and reforestation; comprehensive intersectoral programs that combines measures to control deforestation and forest degradation with measures to increase agricultural productivity and sustainability; and reducing logging waste, implementing soil-conservation practices, and using wood in a more carbon-efficient way.
“On adaptation strategies for forests, it should focus on identifying which forest areas are more at risk and which species are unique in these areas,” he added. “Specific adaptation options could include helping vulnerable species migrate, assisting local communities shift from forest products, from forests at risk.”
Written by Imelda V. Abano