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The Philippines Fast Becoming The Next Land Of The Dodo – OpEd

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Sooner rather than later many of the Philippines’ plants and animals will face the same fate as the proverbial dodo bird.

Its biodiversity is being destroyed at a fast clip, perhaps reaching an irreversible trend. Sooner rather than later, many of its plants and animals may be as dead as the proverbial dodo – the large, flightless bird that is now extinct.

No country has its plant and animal life being destroyed faster than in the Philippines, to go by the recently released Red List of Threatened and Extinct Species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) based in Switzerland.

Another group, Conservation International (CI), recently described the Philippines as the “hottest” of the 25 so-called “bio-diversity hotspots” in the world – a record that does not speak well of the government’s environmental conservation program and the public’s apathy to environmental concerns. Hotspots are areas with the least number of species existing, the least number of species found in an exclusive ecosystem and have an alarmingly high degree of threat against the existing species.

The other hotspots include the Tropical Andes, Mediterranean Basin, Madagascar Islands in the Indian Ocean, Mesoamerica, Caribbean Islands, Indo-Burma, Atlantic Forest of Brazil, Cape Floristic Region of South Africa, Mountains of Central China, Sundaland, Brazilian Cerrado, Southwest Australia, Polynesia and Micronesia, New Caledonia, Choco/Darien/Western Ecuador, Western Ghats and Sri Lanka, California Floristic Province, Succulent Karoo, New Zealand, Central Chile, Guinean Forests of West Africa, Caucasus, Eastern Arc Mountains and Coastal Forests of Kenya and Tanzania and, Wallacea.

The World’s Hottest Hotspot

The IUCN Red List, released on September 28 of last year, indicated the precarious future of Philippine flora and fauna. Of the 11,046 endangered and extinct plant and animal species documented by IUCN in 112 countries, 932 species, amounting to nine per cent of the world’s total endangered and extinct species, are in the Philippines

The List is the most comprehensive analysis of global conservation ever undertaken, which involved 120 national governments and 735 environmental non-governmental organizations. IUCN has been in the forefront of environmental documentation globally for the past 20 years.

On record, the Philippines has 387 threatened species, making it number four in the list after Malaysia with 805 species, Indonesia with 763 and India with 459. Of its threatened species 50 are mammals, 67 birds, 8 reptiles, 22 amphibians, 28 fishes, 3 mollusks and 16 are other invertebrates.

However, with regards to extinct and threatened plants and animals, the country heads the list in Southeast and South Asia , and is second after Africa worldwide. The country has 318 extinct and threatened animals classified as follows: 2 extinct, 47 critically endangered, 44 endangered, 103 vulnerable, 7 conservation-dependent, 84 near-threatened and 31 species with deficient data.

Some of the threatened animals are the Philippine eagle, the rarest and the second largest eagle in the world, which is now down to about 350 – 600 birds compared to 6,000 eagles forty years ago. Another is the Mindoro crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis), which is near to extinction. It is only recovering due to help from captive-breeding programs and conservation measures. The three-striped box turtle, which abound in the Sulu Sea , was also included in the Red List because it is under threat due to its value as a traditional medicine.

Among plants, the country has 227 extinct and threatened plants, the fourth most in the world. Of the total, 37 are critically endangered, 28 endangered, 128 are vulnerable, 3 conservation-dependent, 24 near-threatened and 7 with deficient data.

Endangered Marine Ecosystems

The country’s marine and aquatic life are equally endangered. The Philippine coral reefs, one of the most diverse and largest in the world, may not be around for long. The World Bank last March released in its Environment Monitor monthly report that only 4.3 per cent or 1,161 sq km of the country’s once-sprawling 27,000 sq km of coral reefs are in good state. This used to cover 10 per cent of the country’s land area. But even then, the remaining parcel will eventually die as there is very little effort to stem the death of these natural fish-breeding grounds, the World Bank report said.

With the impending loss of the coral reefs, 10 to 15 per cent of the total marine fisheries’ production for human consumption will be lost and adversely affect the livelihood of an estimated 65,000 fishing families, the report added. Some 500 to 700 coral reef species are being lost as the reefs die.

In 1998, the highly influential environmental think-tank, Earthwatch Institute, warned that 30 per cent of the Philippine coral reefs were already dead and that aggressive conservation efforts needed to be undertaken. But political events overcame genuinely committed conservation efforts, rendering the coral reefs to die due to destructive fishing methods, aquaculture development and pollution.

Mangroves, equally important breeding and spawning grounds for fish and shellfish, have not been spared. Mario Carreon, of the Fisheries Resources Management of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), stated that the Philippines has already lost some 11,543 square kilometers of mangrove forests. These were indiscriminately cut for firewood, construction, charcoal and lost to fishpond conversion.

“The coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangroves support 80 per cent of all commercial species of fish and shellfish. In the last 20 years, these have declined as much as 57 per cent in the Philippines,” he said.

The Philippines , with more than 7,000 islands, 2.2 million sq km of territorial waters and 300,782 sq km of land, once had the most expansive mangrove and coral reefs in Southeast Asia . But this is no longer true as Carreon said 4,000 hectares of mangroves are destroyed yearly.

Who is to Blame?

The World Bank and CI recently released US$150 million to support the protection efforts of these bio-diversity hotspots. CI is working in the protected 359,000 Palanan Wilderness Area of Palanan, Isabela of the Sierra Madre Ranges where 10 per cent of the country’s remaining rainforest exists.

Among the factors blamed for the destruction of biodiversity are deforestation, booming population, poaching, over-hunting, logging, pollution and urban sprawl.

In the Philippines, various sectors-farmers, fishermen, government and non-government groups, globalization advocates and environmental policymakers-have been tossing the blame at one another. The answer can only be any or all of them.

But governmental policies take a big share of the blame, as well as government agencies that lack the political will to protect the national patrimony and foster a sense of natural stewardship among the people. All these, plus the fact that conservation programs are hardly a priority or carried out in earnest.

Deploring the country’s sad state of corals, the World Bank said: “The Philippines , which has perhaps the best coral reefs, does not give importance to its water resources. The people should find ways to rehabilitate the coral reefs because almost 55 per cent of the fish consumed in the country depend on the coral reefs.”

The World Bank itself is not free of any blame for global environmental decay. It is often being held largely responsible for the poverty of developing countries- one reason why deforestation is widespread worldwide.

The World Bank continued: “Dynamite and cyanide fishing is still rampant in the Philippines and Indonesia and the governments have done little to curb these destructive fishing methods which are illegal under Philippine laws as well as under the 1975 Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES).”

The Coral Reef Alliance (CRA), which monitors coral reef developments worldwide, said the country has not done well in protecting its coral reefs, and instead, is a major illegal exporter of coral reefs for aquariums, especially in the United States .

In the Philippines , the coral reefs are protected under Presidential Decree 1219, which, however, is not rigidly enforced. The CITES law, to which the Philippines is a signatory, prohibits the sale of coral reefs.

With regards to deforestation, Senator Loren Legarda, who once headed the Senate’s environment committee, blamed flawed government policies for the loss of forests and plants. “Government negligence has prompted the devastation of not only forests but all that live with it,” she said.

Flawed government policies have been worsened by corruption in environmental conservation programs.

For instance, Dr. Frances Korten, former head of the Ford Foundation in the Philippines, said that the $US325 million loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 1990 for national reforestation was a failure. “The program was ill-advised and managed and relied on insufficient data. The program all the more accelerated the damage it intended to reverse,” she charged.

The continuing loss of bio-diversity in the country may thus be said to be the collective result of administrative, mismanagement, corruption and social inequity.

*Michael A. Bengwayan has a Masters Degree and Ph.D. in Development Studies and Environmental Resource Management from University College Dublin, Ireland as a European Union Fellow. He writes for the British Gemini News Service, New York’s Earth Times and the Environmental News Service. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation, New York


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