Where have all the trees gone?

by Henrylito D. Tacio

I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree.” Joyce Kilmer wrote this famous line sometime in 1914. Years later, Ogden Nash revised it by scribbling: “I think that I shall never see / a billboard lovely as a tree. / Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, / I’ll never see a tree at all.”

Today, as population continues to surge and deforestation unabated, children in the future may write this epitaph: “I think that I shall never see / a plant they called as tree.”

Haribon, one of the country’s leading environmental groups, said that forest cover in 1900 “was estimated at 21million hectares,” or 70% of the total land area. Less than a century later, by 1988, the natural forests had been whittled down to 6 million hectares, with Luzon having 49.49%, Visayas 10.08%, and Mindanao 40.43%.

A decade later, the once lush forest cover was further reduced to a measly 800,000 hectares, or 18% of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares. “Most of the remaining natural forests are now small and fragmented,” Haribon officials pointed out.

Logging, whether legal or illegal, has been cited as one of the primary culprits of the forest denudation in the country. “The attitude of loggers in this country has always been: get the trees before someone else does,” commented one environmentalist.

This attitude puts a premium on short-term profits, but its effect is long-term irreversible environmental damage like decreased soil fertility, loss of groundwater, extended dry seasons, and flashflood.

Logging is most ecologically destructive in the mountains, where most of our remaining forests can be found,” explained the environmentalist. “It is next to impossible to replant trees on rocky mountainsides once their thin skin of topsoil has been washed away.”

Vice President Noli de Castro urged Filipinos to learn from the past, particularly the lesson from the 1991 Ormoc tragedy, which killed some 5,000 people. “Illegal logging was found to be the main contributor to that disaster,” he reminded.

Aside from logging, other causes of deforestation in the Philippines are farming, forest fires, mining operations, geothermal explorations, dam construction and operation; and land development projects such as construction of subdivision, industrial estates, and commercial sites.

Volcanic eruptions have also devastated some of the country’s forests. Ditto for typhoons, which have devastated considerable hectares of forest cover. The country’s surging population has also contributed to the problem. At least a fourth of the total population live in the upland areas, where most trees are located.

The illness of our forest is complicated – and cannot be cured – with a one-stop prescription of a single medicine,” said ex-Senator Heherson T. Alvarez. “A comprehensive, scientific and ethical strategy and coordinated efforts are needed to care for and manage the forests through sustainable development.”

Looking for excellent stories on forest protection? Well, the Philippines has four cases featured in the book, In Search of Excellence: Exemplary Forest Management in Asia and the Pacific, which I have co-edited.  It is published by the regional office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

There’s the Mount Makiling Forest Reserve at Los Baños, Laguna, which has been described as having “an exceptional diversity of woody plant species, totaling more than the entire number of woody species found in the United States.” Another is the Kalahan Reserve, found between Santa Fe in Nueva Vizcaya and San Nicolas in Pangasinan. The forest reserve is managed by Ikalahan tribe.

Still another is the Ifugao ‘muyongs,’ which are privately owned and managed by the Ifugaos, with clearly demarcated boundaries. A ‘muyong’ is an untilled slope covered mainly with timber, fruit trees, climbing rattan, bamboo, palms and other associated natural vegetation.

Finally, there’s the Kalibo Mangrove Reforestation Project, which has been dubbed as “forest from mud.” The project is now one of the tourist attractions in Visayas.

Hope is on its way,” commented Dr. David Kaimowitz, director-general of the Center for International Forestry Research, of the book. “We have had enough of doom and gloom. These inspiring stories remind us there are good people out there doing good things in the forests.”

Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky,” wrote poet Kahlil Gibran. “We fell them down and turn them into paper that we may record our emptiness.”

Unknown to many, “the best friend of earth of man is the tree,” said Frank Lloyd Wright. “When we use the tree respectfully and economically, we have one of the greatest resources on the earth.” The Holy Bible (Deuteronomy 20:19) reminded us, “Thou shall not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou may eat of them, and thou shall not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man’s life).”

A lot of subdivisions in the country cut down the trees around their houses because they interfere with the surroundings. Unfortunately, experts claim that a well-maintained landscape with mature trees can increase property values up to 25 percent. Trees can cool houses in the summer. Studies have shown that a city lot with 30 percent plant cover provides the equivalent cooling necessary to air condition two moderately sized houses 12 hours a day in the summer.

In the United States, trees reportedly can reduce utility bills (air conditioning in summer, heating in winter) when planted properly. Using trees as windbreaks allows savings of 10 to 20 percent. Shading windows and walls can lower air conditions costs by 25 to 50 percent.

Actually, it is difficult to place a monetary value on the many vital services that trees provide.
However, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection calculates that a single tree that lives for fifty years will contribute service worth nearly $200,000 (in 1994 dollars) to the community during its lifetime. This includes providing oxygen ($31,250), recycling water and regulating humidity ($37,000), controlling air pollution ($62,500), producing protein ($2,500), providing shelter for wildlife ($31,250), and controlling land erosion and fertilizing the soil ($31,250).

The Koran urged, “Even on the eve of the end of the world, plant a tree.” This brings us of a story told by the late American president John F. Kennedy. The great French Marshall Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshall told his gardener: “In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!”

Whoever does not love trees,” said Elder Amphilochios of Patmos, “does not love God.” No wonder, Stephen Girard himself declared, “If I thought I was going to die tomorrow, I should nevertheless plant a tree today.” — ###

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