Planting trees is easily one of the most popular environmental outreach projects, along with beach clean-ups and recycling drives.
It's no wonder then that the government would focus its environment budget on the country's biggest reforestation effort, the National Greening Program. With its billion-peso funds (P6.2 billion for 2014 or US$140.5 million), it aims to plant 1.5 billion trees over 1.5 million hectares by 2016.
How could that ever be a bad thing for the environment?
Accomplishment reports by implementing agency Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) are glowing. As of May, the NGP has planted 392 million trees over 683,000 hectares.
But talking to environmentalists, DENR officials, visiting NGP reforestation sites and interacting with the locals who live near those sites paint not as rosy a picture.
In the Ipo watershed for example, the NGP's first reforestation site, the native and exotic trees planted have grown to maturity. But in other, newer reforestation sites in the watershed, the seedlings never got the chance to grow before forest fires burned them to the ground. (READ: Bulacan deforestation 'drying up' Metro Manila water supply)
An environmentalist who was with me at the watershed looked at the destroyed trees, clucked and said, "National Browning Program."
Locals say these reforestation sites are burned on purpose every year so that reforestation can continue and bring livelihood to the settlers who are hired to plant the seedlings.
Some say contracts to reforest parts of the watershed go to former DENR officials who allow "forest fires" to raze the reforestation sites so they can be given new contracts by DENR to replant in the same site.
The commodification of trees
These schemes sound too devious to be true. But the way the NGP is designed makes it quite plausible.
DENR Secretary Ramon Paje himself admitted that when President Benigno Aquino III signed the NGP into being, "he wanted it to be primarily a poverty-alleviating program."
Hence, the DENR made it the NGP's goal to plant two kinds of trees: native, indigenous trees like narra and lauan; and exotic, fast-growing, cash crop trees like mahogany, gmelina, coffee and cacao. (READ: Is the gov't reforestation program planting the right trees?)
Native trees would be planted in protected areas where no one is allowed to cut them. Exotic trees and cash crop trees would be planted in production areas where locals can harvest them and make a living from them.
For this reason, Save Sierra Madre Network Alliance secretary Elizabeth Carranza, called the name "National Greening Program" deceiving.
"The framework of the program is not to bring back our forest cover but to harvest trees," she said during a hearing on Paje's confirmation as DENR secretary which she testified against.
Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler
In fact, a 2011 DENR Memorandum Circular showed that of the seedlings ordered by the DENR that year, only a 5th were native species. Going by the seedlings alone, it would seem as if the focus of the NGP is to "reforest" the country with harvestable trees.
Which begs the question: is this genuine reforestation or just a perpetuation of the mindset that trees are commodities for humans to exploit?
In the undying debate between economic development and environmental protection, is the NGP siding with the former?
And when you pay people to plant trees, isn't it entirely logical that they would find ways to keep the "demand" going even if it means burning young trees?
How about natural forests?
Paje has defended the NGP by saying the exotic trees easily grow back anyway. Cacao trees can reach maturity in two to three years. Mahogany are fully grown in 10.
"In our production forests, why will we plant something that will take 100 years to grow? So we will choose tree species that can grow in 10 years so that people will get their investment," said Paje.
He reported to a disbelieving Senator Sergio Osmeña III that, in Berlin, the trees grow by half a centimeter a year. In the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao, trees grow 4 centimeters each year.
"We are so blessed, we must exploit these blessings, your honor."
As the Environment secretary and a former forester, Paje seems to talk too much like a businessman or economist for comfort.
Some of his critics have taken to calling him the secretary of the “Department of Natural Resources.”
Production areas are getting all the government support, but what about our primary forests?
The Philippines now has only 24% of its forests intact, the lowest forest cover in Southeast Asia, second only to Singapore. Only around 3% remains of our primary forests.
Primary forests still need all the help they can get. If the NGP continues to plant mostly harvestable trees, the Philippines will be a country of plantation forests as its real forests continue to shrink.
But reforestation is not going to be enough to green the country. The Ipo Watershed reforestation site is the perfect example. Unregulated access of informal settlers (there are even families living inside the watershed) has led to the burning of the reforestation sites.
Elsewhere in the watershed, illegal logging is rampant. Ancient dipterocarp trees are burned into charcoal which informal settlers gather and sell. Or else, they are burned to make way for vegetable gardens.
An assessment of Philippine natural parks rated park management as “poor” to “fair” because of lack of funding, manpower and stakeholder collaboration.
For every 2,300 hectares of protected area, only one person is paid to oversee protection and management, the study found. The government spends only P39 ($0.88) to conserve a hectare of protected area.
Without forest protection, reforestation is only a Band-Aid measure. If you’re reforesting on one side of the forest while the other side is burning, what’s the point?
NGP watchdog needed
And as Senator Antonio Trillanes IV pointed out during a hearing on Paje's appointment, who is watching the NGP?
All its accomplishment reports come from the Forest Management Bureau, an agency within the DENR. A group hired by the DENR to deploy drones to survey NGP sites is not an objective 3rd party.
What the NGP needs is for a credible non-government organization or watchdog to make an independent status report. That group needs to visit each NGP site and report whether the seedlings there actually grew to maturity or were damaged by storms or lack of maintenance.
Someone needs to check if native species are being planted in protected areas. Planting exotic species like mahogany or gmelina in these areas contribute nothing to biodiversity unlike endemic, indigenous trees.
Some exotic trees are in fact considered invasive and even detrimental to biodiversity. Birds stay away from them and almost zero undergrowth can be found in the shade of an exotic tree.
The DENR needs to publish a list of all NGP sites and the people’s organizations or contractors in charge of reforesting and maintaining those sites. It needs to declare how much funds will go to each organization and what kinds of trees will be planted where.
Only then would the NGP live up to Paje’s own professed wish for it: “The more people watching NGP reforestation sites, the better.” – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada is a Rappler multimedia reporter covering the environment and agriculture beats.
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Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.