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Philippines: A Fragile Paradise – OpEd

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From the northern shores of Batanes to the southern coast of Sulu, some 7,100 islands rise from the surface of the Pacific. Most were once biodiversity-rich islands, pock-marked by ancient high volcanoes, mountain ranges and  atolls which poke their heads above the blue surface. Many imagine the islands of Palawan, Cebu, Bohol, Negros and the deep waters reaching a depth of 11 kilometers, rich with corals, fishes of all kind and what is believed the energy of the future, deuterium.

The archipelago was besieged by super powers in the past, its territories still threatened now because of suspected rich oil and mineral deposits.

But the worst threat is internal. Citizen-initiated, aggressive, relentless, unethical to a point God-less. As if the future does not matter.

The world’s second largest archipelago country after Indonesia, the Philippines includes more than 7,100 islands covering 297,179 km2 in the westernmost Pacific Ocean. The Philippines lies north of Indonesia and directly east of Vietnam. The country is one of the few nations that is, in its entirety, both a hotspot and a megadiversity country, placing it among the top priority hotspots for global conservation

The archipelago is formed from a series of isolated fragments that have long and complex geological histories, some dating back 30-50 million years. With at least 17 active volcanoes, these islands are part of the “Ring of Fire” of the Pacific Basin. The archipelago stretches over 1,810 kilometers from north to south. Northern Luzon is only 240 kilometers from Taiwan (with which it shares some floristic affinities), and the islands off southwestern Palawan are only 40 kilometers from Malaysian Borneo. The island of Palawan, which is separated from Borneo by a channel some 145 meters deep, has floristic affinities with both the Philippines and Borneo in the Sundaland Hotspot, and strong faunal affinities with the Sunda Shelf.

Hundreds of years ago, most of the Philippine islands were covered in rain forest. The bulk of the country was blanketed by lowland rainforests dominated by towering dipterocarps (Dipterocarpaceae), prized for their beautiful and straight hardwood. At higher elevations, the lowland forests are replaced by montane and mossy forests that consist mostly of smaller trees and vegetation. Small regions of seasonal forest, mixed forest and savanna, and pine-dominated cloud forest covered the remaining land area.

Unique and Threatened Biodiversity

The patchwork of isolated islands, the tropical location of the country, and the once extensive areas of rainforest have resulted in high species diversity in some groups of organisms and a very high level of endemism. There are five major and at least five minor centers of endemism, ranging in size from Luzon, the largest island (103,000 km2), which, for example, has at least 31 endemic species of mammals, to tiny Camiguin Island (265 km2) speck of land north of Mindanao, which has at least two species of endemic mammals. The Philippines has among the highest rates of discovery in the world with sixteen new species of mammals discovered in the last ten years. Because of this, the rate of endemism for the Philippines has risen and likely will continue to rise.

Plants

At the very least, one-third of the more than 9,250 vascular plant species native to the Philippines are endemic. Plant endemism in the hotspot is mostly concentrated at the species level; there are no endemic plant families and 26 endemic genera. Gingers, begonias, gesneriads, orchids, pandans, palms, and dipterocarps are particularly high in endemic species. For example, there are more than 150 species of palms in the hotspot, and around two-thirds of these are found nowhere else in the world. Of the 1,000 species of orchids found in the Philippines, 70 percent are restricted to the hotspot.

The broad lowland and hill rain forests of the Philippines, which are mostly gone today, were dominated by at least 45 species of dipterocarps. These massive trees were the primary canopy trees from sea level to 1,000 meters. Other important tree species here include giant figs (Ficus spp.), which provide food for fruit bats, parrots, and monkeys, and Pterocarpus indicus, like the dipterocarps, is valued for its timber.

Birds

There are over 530 bird species found in the Philippines hotspot; about 185 of these are endemic (35 percent) and over 60 are threatened. BirdLife International has identified seven Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs in this hotspot: Mindoro, Luzon, Negros and Panay, Cebu, Mindanao and the Eastern Visayas, the Sulu archipelago, and Palawan. Like other taxa, birds exhibit a strong pattern of regional endemism. Each EBA supports a selection of birds not found elsewhere in the hotspot. The hotspot also has a single endemic bird family, the Rhabdornithidae, represented by the Philippine creepers (Rhabdornis spp.). In May 2004, a possibly new species of rail Gallirallus was observed on Calayan island in the Babuyan islands, northern Philippines. It is apparently most closely related to the Okinawa rail (Gallirallus okinawae) from the Ryukyu islands, Japan.

Perhaps the best-known bird species in the Philippines is the Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi, CR), the second-largest eagle in the world. The Philippine eagle breeds only in primary lowland rain forest. Habitat destruction has extirpated the eagle everywhere except on the islands of Luzon, Mindanao and Samar, where the only large tracts of lowland rain forest remain. Today, the total population is estimated at less than 700 individuals. Captive breeding programs have been largely unsuccessful; habitat protection is the eagle’s only hope for survival.

Among the hotspots other threatened endemic species are the Negros bleeding art (Gallicolumba keayi, CR), Visayan wrinkled hornbill (Aceros waldeni, CR), Scarlet-collared flowerpecker (Dicaeum retrocinctum, VU), Cebu flowerpecker (Dicaeum quadricolor, CR), and Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia, CR).

Mammals

At least 165 mammal species are found in the Philippine hotspot, and over 100 of these are endemic (61 percent), one of the highest levels of mammal endemism in any hotspot. Endemism is high at the generic level as well, with 23 of 83 genera endemic to the hotspot. Rodent diversification in the Philippines is comparable with the radiation of honeycreepers in the Hawaiian Islands and finches in the Galapagos.

The largest and most impressive of the mammals in the Philippines is the tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis, CR), a dwarf water buffalo that lives only on Mindoro Island. A century ago the population numbered 10,000 individuals; today only a few hundred animals exist in the wild. Other mammals endemic to the Philippines include: the Visayan and Philippine warty pigs (Sus cebifrons, CR and S. philippensis, VU); the Calamianes hog-deer (Axis calamaniensis, EN) and the Visayan spotted deer (Rusa alfredi, EN), which has been reduced to a population of a few hundred on the islands of Negros, Masbate and Panay; and the golden-capped fruit bat (Acerodon jubatus, EN), which, as the world’s largest bat, has a wingspan up to 1.7 meters.

The Negros naked-backed fruit bat (Dobsonia chapmani), which was thought to be extinct in the Philippines, has recently been rediscovered, on the islands of Cebu in 2000 and Negros in 2003.

Reptiles

Reptiles are represented by about 235 species, some 160 of which are endemic (68 percent). Six genera are endemic, including the snake genus Myersophis, which is represented by a single species, Myersophis alpestris, on Luzon. The Philippine flying lizards from the genus Draco are well represented here, with about 10 species. These lizards have a flap of skin on either side of their body, which they use to glide from trees to the ground.

An endemic freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis, CR) is considered the most threatened crocodilian in the world. In 1982, wild populations totaled only 500-1000 individuals; by 1995 a mere 100 crocodiles remained in natural habitats. The recent discovery of a population of this species in the Sierra Madre of Luzon brings new hope for its conservation, as does the implementation of projects aimed at raising awareness and protecting the crocodile’s habitat. The Crocodile Rehabilitation, Observance and Conservation (CROC) Project of the Mabuwaya Foundation is active in carrying out such projects.
Other unique and threatened reptiles include Gray’s monitor (Varanus olivaceus, VU) and the Philippine pond turtle (Heosemys leytensis, CR). A newly discovered monitor lizard, Varanus mabitang, from Panay is only the second monitor species known in the world to specialize on a fruit diet.

Amphibians

There are nearly 90 amphibian species in the hotspot, almost 85 percent of which are endemic; these totals continue to increase, with the continuing discovery and description of new species. One interesting amphibian, the panther flying frog (Rhacophorus pardalis), has special adaptations for gliding, including extra flaps of skin and webbing between fingers and toes to generate lift during glides. The frog glides down from trees to breed in plants suspended above stagnant bodies of water. The frog genus Platymantis is particularly well represented with some 26 species, all of which are endemic; of these, 22 are considered threatened. The young of all Platymantis species undergo direct development, bypassing the tadpole stage. The hotspot is also home to the Philippine flat-headed frog (Barbourula busuangensis, VU), one of the world’s most primitive frog species.

Freshwater Fish

The Philippines has more than 280 inland fish, including nine endemic genera and more than 65 endemic species, many of which are confined to single lakes. An example is Sardinella tawilis, a freshwater sardine found only in Taal Lake. Sadly, Lake Lanao, in Mindanao, seems likely to have become the site of one of the hotspots worst extinction catastrophes, with nearly all of the lakes endemic fish species now almost certainly extinct, primarily due to the introduction of exotic species (like Tilapia).

Invertebrates

About 70 percent of the Philippines nearly 21,000 recorded insect species are found only in this hotspot. About one-third of the 915 butterflies found here are endemic to the Philippines, and over 110 of the more than 130 species of tiger beetle are found nowhere else.

But Where Are the Forests

The Philippine forests are rapidly disappearing. By 2025, there may be no virgin forests, many forestry experts predict. Non-believers scoff at this, saying it is an exaggeration. But the figures cannot be wrong. The effects of deforestation are not figments of imagination. The worsening poverty caused by inadequate and ruined natural resources are real.

The rate of deforestation in the country is among the highest in the world. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, in 1934, 57 percent of the country or 42 million acres were forested, 26 million acres of which was primary or virgin forests. In a span of 50 years, almost two thirds of the forests was lost to deforestation as indicated in a study by Frances Korten of the Ford Foundation in 1990. It found out that the country’s forest was down to only 16 million acres, 1 million of which was virgin forests.

But the worst deforestation happened during the period of 1990 to 1999 where 750,000 acres of virgin forest were lost. Today, only 1.75 million acres remain of the nation’s virgin forests.

The loss is incredible, the rate of deforestation in that decade was almost 75,000 acres a year. It also came at a time when logging ban was imposed in some selected sites in the country.

As a result, flooding, soil erosion and degradation pegged at 100,000 tons of soil yearly, loss of species diversity and genetic material, loss of human lives and properties and aesthetic and recreational loss were at their worst.

Much of the blame I on governments that over the years have passed laws favorable to logging concessions and implemented forest protection poorly.

Unchecked illegal logging remains the main culprit,  government negligence has prompted the devastation of forest. Today, much of the remaining forests are still being invaded by commercial loggers.

The country was Asia’s greatest exporter of rainforest timber since 1920s and remained so until 1960. However, overzealous extraction, disregard for future supply and poor logging practices, exacerbated by illegal logging, have effectively destroyed the industry and severely degraded much of the remaining forest.

Philippine forestry laws passed since 1930 have failed to provide adequate security provisions for virgin and secondary growth forests, thus the forests had virtually no protection at all. For instance, there is only one forest guard for every 7,500 acres.

But even then, many official policies and strategies from the very start were faulty. Laws that required harvesting on a sustained yield basis were lacking, the logging industry lacked supervision, little attention has been paid to selective logging and timber extraction methods allowed logs to be taken even from extremely steep and fragile slopes.

Although it was obvious by the early seventies that forest resources was dwindling rapidly, practices that sustained yield were not heeded. Legislation to phase out raw log exports, in the belief that this lucrative trade was the main cause of overcutting, was first introduced in 1973. However, the ban was never implemented and a modified scheme served to concentrate ownership of timber licenses in the hands of a few Marcos supporters, with little commitment to reducing raw log exports.

Despite a subsequent ban on the export of raw logs since 1986 and the not-so successful community-based forest management there is still a continuing bias towards log production. Even after 1991 when logging was banned in sensitive areas such as virgin forests, in residual forests with a slope of 50 percent or greater and in watershed areas, compliance with the mandatory conditions and prevention of illegal logging is made difficult by insufficient resources.

From 1972 to 1988,  the logging industry amassed $42.85 billion in revenues at the rate of $2.65 billion a year. But it also laid to waste some 8.57 million hectares of forests. Over the same period, loggers destroyed 9.6 million acres of virgin forests, raking in $19.4 billion in income.

The country’s forest cover is now only 17 percent, far below the 60 percent required for ideal ecological balance. If the trend continues, there will be no forests by 2050 and that the Philippine hardwoods which used to dominate the forests will be gone.

Decades of forest destruction by wanton and indiscriminate logging have made the country prone to landslides, this has led to the degradation of watersheds which are basically the lifeline of food production and water supply. because of environmental degradation, the Philippines has become one of the most disaster- prone countries in the world where tremendous rise in threats to life, resources and property is always widespread.

Such a situation is difficult to put back into order

Deforestation is the major reason behind flooding, acute water shortages, rapid soil erosion, siltation and mudslides which have proved costly not only to the environment and properties but also in human lives.
Reversing the tremendous forest depletion is a gigantic, if not, an impossible task, considering that the rate of deforestation far outstrips the rate of reforestation.

Social forestry, where forest productivity rests on local community participation, is showing signs of progress in the country. But the strategy is not enough. More so because land ownership and forest management are issues which cannot be separate from each other. The Legal Resources Center (LRC) says that for the government to have an effective forest management program, some of the existing government environmental policies need to be overhauled.

True enough. Many environmental government policies look at conservation without consideration of the rights of the people who live where conservation or environmental programs are. While the Philippine Strategy for Sustainable Development calls for local participation in forestry programs, the truth is, indigenous peoples’ participation is marginal, solicited only for the purpose of lending projects cultural credibility. 

Mount Pulag National Park in Benguet is an ideal example. Many times used as a reason to avail of international funding of environmental programs, majority of the people are never involved in a real sense. The Kalanguyas, tired of the exploitative approaches of so- called environmental program implementors, bluntly told the government it has no need of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the area.

Forestry projects in the Philippines has devoured millions of dollars in loans and grants. But there is little to see. In 1990, the government borrowed $325 million from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for a national reforestation plan. It went to the dogs. The Upland NGO Assistance Committee (UNAC), an umbrella organization of 125 upland NGOS working directly with upland communities concluded that the program was a failure. Politicians meddled in the program, government foresters became contractors, trees species planted were for commercial use, and the reforestation targets were not reached in many parts of the country.

The program was ill- conceived and managed and relied on insufficient data. The function of the multilateral banks is to make hard-currency loans for projects that can generate foreign exchange for repayment. Thus, they are ill-suited to solving environmental problems. ADB’s provision of massive environmental loans to the Philippines accelerated the very damage it intended to reverse.

The continuing loss of forests in the Philippines is a result of combined administrative mismanagement, corruption and social inequity. The value of forests, both as a resource base and as an environmental control, remains undervalued in the face of over-riding economic need.


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Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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