Life Of A Tree Planter – OpEd


I am a freelance writer, a technical consultant on carbon management but for most of the time, I am a tree planter. I don’t have much time for anything else but on a positive note I believe that God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of tasks. And right now, I am so far behind that I will never die.

The Cordillera region has only a forest cover of 31 percent, a bit higher than the national figure of 21 percent. The worst deforested area is Benguet which only has some 29 percent forest cover with Buguias town the least forest cover with 27 percent. The Gran Cordillera is a natural wasteland of 1,800,000 plus hectares. Farming roads form endless mazes to the middle of nowhere, logged barren blocks stretch here and there due to shifting cultivation or “kaingin”, vegetable gardening and just plain tree cutting for home/farm use as well as for mine timbering.

Tree planting is pretty near the bottom of the rung in the mega empire that is the forestry industry in the Philippines. Meaning, everybody wants to cut but very few want to plant. Most forestry workers, like loggers, get paid a hefty living allowance per day for working in remote areas, but not tree planters. Tree planting is conveniently targeted at the precise age group that is stupid enough to actually pay camp costs of at least 200 pesos per day just to be allowed to plant.

In my almost 30 years of planting trees, I have met many so-called tree planters. Mostly greenhorns, new comers, new kids on the block. Many of these rookie tree planters are cockeyed optimists – some ecstatic after getting a college degree like environmental science or forestry. But the rest are a mixture breed–with different educational backgrounds and strange experiences. They think tree-planting is a chance to save the world. Many just come for photo-ops. Others really just don’t give a damn but are there because their friends are there.

Perhaps one of the greats of literature could summarize a rookie tree planter’s experiences in paragraph, but alas, I cannot. Needless to say, they are formative. Young, idealistic guys, looking for adventure. They plant, sing under the trees, party, sleep under the million star open hotel and go back to their normal routine. They regale their friends and colleagues with stories of hardship and environmental revolution. Their pride in their accomplishments as a young tree planters beam in their eyes throughout the year. And despite the tone of cynicism in their prose, their are honest, and to be fair, well-deserved manner.

Others like my best friend Dick (now in Canada) who has been planting for more than 15 years seldom talk of tree planting. When the wind blows, his dreadlocks shift ever-so-slightly, revealing a seasoned planter’s thousand-yard stare. He’s stout like me, but tough as a brick house, while setting up the bush camp. He is is one of the few individuals who actually can do what I can whether it’s camp house, planting alone under a storm or getting out from a ravine after seemingly lost. Even now, among all the people I trained, nothing comes close to him..perhaps two or just three.

Dick burst from the womb of undergraduate agricultural education into a harsh and bitter workforce, tried to carve out his piece of the pie, even in mining in Kalinga but was utterly indistinguishable from the sea of extension majors looking for entry-level positions. I called him and we started our volunteer group ITAG, we went planting trees starting the late 1987 after EDSA, disillusioned and not wanting to wage war in the streets with police no more, doubling up our efforts until the end of the last decade of the 20th century, penniless, boots with holes, jeans like sun tans faded in the unforgiving Cordillera mountains and terrain. We traveled the world under the trees.

Needless to say, after 15 years of tree planting, he knew the tree planting work intimately. He realized that the tree planting groups, mostly fly-by-night NGOs, as well as the government’s DENR were all contracted by big evil logging companies to replant what they’ve clear cut. Heck, there wouldn’t even be tree planting if we didn’t ravage Cordillera’s forests for the mining industry that was killing Benguet relentlessly.

“They’re just working for the machine, man and for filthy rich in Imperial Manila” is what he would tell me. Dick grew bitter. So he left.

I left likewise. But I came back. I am a morphed tree planter. I just started planting because everybody else was cutting. I have gone-but-not-forgotten years of tree planting in other countries–India, Taiwan, Nepal, Tanzania, Kenya, China, Indonesia and even in Ireland. I have run planting groups from villages instilling in me a deep-seeded love, hate, and most of all, protectionism of tree planting.

Also, after years of study and employment researching issues of sustainability, resource management, ecology, and climate change in forestry, I found himself wondering about the public perception of the vanishing Philippine forest in my generation. When i speak and read the seldom-occurring tree planting literature in the popular media, I can notice a striking disconnect between facts and perceptions of forestry and sustainability.

So I rebut. Wood is a sustainable resource and fossil fuels are not – forests grow back and gasoline, crude oil or coal don’t, or at least not at any rate that we’re concerned with. Forestry, unlike agriculture, is one of the very few land uses that doesn’t cause deforestation, as there is a vested interest in trees growing back.

Forestry workers are some of the most marginalized labourers in the country and forest-dependent communities, like most in the Cordillera, some of the most impoverished. The country is so near to becoming a wasteland, it is no laughing matter but i do not see our President, lawmakers, technocrats and government line agencies doing something urgent. They’re sitting on their fat arses. Only a few of them actually understand totally the impact that climate change is bringing.

Solving global warming for instance cannot be done alone by reforestation but by letting people understand the importance and urgency of what we are doing.

For instance, our law tells us not to cut trees. But the law does not explain why. Worse, the law does not know why. That is why, the law can be circumvented by other flimsy reasons to allow tree cutting just to put up a business building, over the fact that trees are more important than buildings because they produce the oxygen we breath.

Can buildings make oxygen? Can they give us oxygen to breathe? Where are our priorities? We have to educate our ignorant law-makers and law enforcers.

Meanwhile, the country will wait. For more deaths. Destruction. For wrong decisions.

Having said all that. I plant. As I said, i don’t have much time. And even if I had, it would not be enough to plant all the trees that needs to be planted.

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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