Philippine Environment Going The Way Of The Dodo, Hardly A Topic In Philippine Election – OpEd


Its virgin forests are predicted to be gone in ten years, its seas are full of plastics, mining has degraded many mountains and polluted rivers and water sources and deforestation is causing devastating floods. Yet, despite these threats, the state of the environment has not been a key issue with the Philippines heading to the polls on May 13.

In the Leaders I Want for Senator Forum at the Ateneo de Manila University none of the candidates spoke on how to solve the pressing environmental problems to the dismay of many voters.

“I wanted them to talk of how they can help stop deforestation pollution, flooding and mounting garbage problems but I heard nothing”: Mylene Austria, , a frustrated student leader quipped.

“No candidate has strong policies on environmental protection,” said George Facsoy, a forester of Cordillera Ecological Center (CEC) “Most even ignore the issues when asked about it.”

The Philippines’ once sprawling 16 million hectares (39.5 million acres) of virgin forests dominated by hardwoods is now down to only 700,000 hectares (1.7 million acres). The blame is falling on governments that over the years have passed laws favorable to logging concessions and implemented forest protection poorly.

The Philippines, with a deforestation rate of 1,900 hectares (4,695 acres) a day, will likely be completely denuded by 2025, forestry experts predict.

Based on the Philippine Environmental Profile, the loss in forest cover between 1990 and 2000, was 262,500 hectares of forest per year. This amounted to an average annual deforestation rate of 2.48%. Between 2000 and 2005, the rate of forest change decreased by 20.2% to 1.98% per annum.

In total, between 1990 and 2005, Philippines lost 32.3% of its forest cover, or around 3,412,000 hectares. Measuring the total rate of habitat conversion (defined as change in forest area plus change in woodland area minus net plantation expansion) for the 1990-2005 interval, Philippines lost 7.9% of its forest and woodland habitat.

The Next Land of the Dodo

The Philippines has some 1196 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles according to figures from the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Of these, 45.8% are endemic, meaning they exist in no other country, and 14.7% are threatened. Philippines is home to at least 8931 species of vascular plants, of which 39.2% are endemic. 5.1% of Philippines is protected under IUCN categories I-V.

Of its wildlife species; 48 of its 110 amphibian species are threatened, 70 of its 590 species threatened, 50 of its 222 mammals threatened, 8 of its 274 reptile species threatened.

It has 3,000 native tree species but 46 of these are critically endangered, and 35 species endangered. Of its 8,941 vascular plants, 212 species are threatened to extinction.

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.

Illegal Logging Still Culprit

“Unchecked illegal logging remains the main culprit,” Philippine senator Loren Legarda who once headed the Senate environment committee says. “Government negligence has prompted the devastation of the forests. Much of the remaining forests have now been invaded by commercial loggers,” she said.

“Philippine forestry laws passed since 1930 have failed to provide adequate security provisions for virgin and second growth forests, thus the forests had virtually no protection at all. For instance, there is only one forest guard for every 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) of forests,” she said.

From 1972 to 1988, Legarda revealed that, “The logging industry amassed US$42.85 billion in revenues at the rate of $2.65 billion a year and laid to waste 8.57 million hectares (21.2 million acres) of forests. Timber was not the only loss, but also natural habitats which treasure much of important animal and plant biodiversity,” she said.

Over the same period, loggers destroyed 3.88 million hectares (9.6 million acres) of virgin forests, raking in $19.4 billion in income.

At the present rate of deforestation, less than seven per cent of virgin and second growth forests will be left by 2010. By 2025, there may be no Philippine forests to speak of left at all.

Reversing this trend is a gigantic, if not an impossible task, considering the fact that the rate of reforestation, which is about 80,000 hectares (198,000 acres) a year, is far out-stripped by the deforestation rate.

Legarda said that deforestation in the Philippines is the major reason behind flooding, acute water shortages, rapid soil erosion, siltation and mudslides that have proved costly not only to the environment and properties but also in human lives.

To avoid such ecological disasters, “It is absolutely necessary for the Philippine government to overhaul some forestry laws which have outlived their usefulness, such as the 1975 Forestry Code, and implement appropriate forestry laws with urgency and genuine political will,” Legarda stressed.

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 percent 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.

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 percent of all commercial species of fish and shellfish. In the last 20 years, these have declined as much as 57 percent 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 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.

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.

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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