The Philippines’ Dwindling Forest

Forest is one of the most valuable resources in the Philippines, providing recreational and ecosystem services such as food crops, livestock, and fish.

In 2002, the country was one of the top ten deforestation countries that contributed 17-20 percent GHG from global forest loss (GIZ). Although forest loss contributes to GHG emissions of the country, LULUCF was not included in PH’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC).

According to Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), Philippine forest lost 60% of its forest cover, from 17 million in 1934 to only 6.8 million hectares in 2010 (figure 1).

Fig. 1. Decreasing forest cover from 1934–2010. (PIDS 2011)

This decreasing trend was attributed to six general causes: fire (incendiarism, hunting, throwing of cigarettes, forest fire, and grass fire), kaingin/illegal entry, illegal cutting, honey, long dry spell, and others (DENR).

From 2000–2010, government forest policies priorities focused on utilization rather than mitigation or cessation on the extraction of forest resources. Timber and lumber industries benefited from the weak implementation of institutional mandates that should limit or control extractions. It was only until the end of the decade that the country shifted priorities as evident deforestation was observed and environmental groups rallied to return the lost forest cover.

Policies against Deforestation and Degradation

Forestry Reform Code or PD 705 is the main basis of the forest protection policy in the country. This outdated policy in 1975 was amended through Republic Act (RA) 7161 in 1991 which included the increase in forest charges on timber products but failed to include policies for forest management problems such as deforestation.

Following the massive forest cover loss in 2010, the government ramped up its forest protection efforts through Executive Order (EO) 23 or the Moratorium on the cutting and harvesting of timber in the natural and residual forests and creating the anti-illegal logging task force and EO 26 or the National Greening Program (NGP).

Moratorium on cutting and harvesting timber (Executive Order No. 23)

This prohibits logging contracts/agreements, renewing tree cutting permits except for the clearing of road right of way by DPWH, site preparation for tree plantations, silvicultural treatments, and similar activities. This also ordered the closure of sawmills, veneer plants, and other wood processing plants (if they fail to present proof of sustainable sources of legally cut logs) (GIZ).

Executive Order No. 26 or the National Greening Program (NGP)

A priority program of the Department of Environment and Natural Resource (DENR) to bring back a decade-worth of forest cover lost through planting of 1.5 billion seedlings in 1.5 million hectares of land nationwide within six years (2011–2016). This had a 30 billion budget allocation.

Here’s NGP’s major accomplishments:

  1. planted 1,662,229 ha of trees and implanted 1.37 billion seedlings of different species
  2. generated approximately 3.3 million jobs and employed 462,066 persons in upland and rural communities
  3. targeted an annual survival rate of 85%, and accomplished 83% only, except in 2015 with 82%
  4. PH cover marginally increase after five years; annual forest gain of 240,000 hectares, representing a 3.5-percent annual increase in the forest area which landed the country in the fifth spot worldwide with the most annual forest area (FAO)

Despite the success claimed by the government, Commission on Audit (COA) identified poor program monitoring on NGP, which focused on the number rather than the survival rates of seedlings. COA noted fastracking of the programs led to exhaustive and unfair targets for field officials, the absence of survey, mapping, and planning, far and untenured areas that will be abandoned after the project, and missed opportunities for POs (profits for seedling production.

“Reforestation remains an urgent concern but fast-tracking without adequate preparation and support among stakeholders led to waste of resources.” according to COA

Some policy recommendations mentioned by Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) to improve NGP include: raise in planting performance on a national, regional, and local site levels; report survival rates of planted seedlings; report replanting activities; and complete report on the expenditure for transparency.

In 2016, the government extended NGP until 2028 to rehabilitate the remaining 7.1 million hectares of unproductive, denuded, and degraded forest land (Enhance NGP). This issued policy guidelines on the development of new plantations, sustainable management of established plantations, and protection of the existing forests. It also formed an anti-illegal logging task force which is being facilitated by DENR, Arm Forces of the Philippine, and Philippine National Police.

National REDD+ Strategy (PNRPS)

Formulated in 2009–2010, REDD+ Strategy aimed to identify planned and unplanned deforestation and forest degradation at the national, regional, and local levels to facilitate conservation interventions, financial feasibility of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. This is included in the National Framework Strategy on Climate Change (NFSCC) and the National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP) 2011-2028 which was approved by the Climate Change Commission.

Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park (NSMNP) Act of 2001

RA 9125 established the Northern Sierra Madre Mountain Range within the province of Isabela as a protected area and its peripheral areas as buffer zones for its management and other purposes.

Why protect the Sierra Madre?

Sierra Madre, Spanish for “mother mountains,” is the Philippines’ longest mountain range, covering the stretch of the northeast coast of Luzon island (approximately 1.4 million hectares). It is the Philippines’ largest Protected Area and one of the last remaining tropical rainforests in the country that serves as a habitat to diverse terrestrial biodiversity including some endangered and endemic species.

Forest Management Bureau-DENR reported that Sierra Madre holds the highest variety of species among the country’s protected areas which is composed of the following but not limited to 1,079 species of trees; 55 mammals; 294 birds; 25 amphibians; 65 reptiles; 36 freshwater fish; 128 butterflies; and 35 dragonflies.

Its vast land and seascapes house 68 protected areas including national parks, forest, and marine reserves and protected areas that span over 10 provinces from Cagayan to Quezon. More than 1.5 million individuals residing in Cagayan Valley rely on its 16 watersheds for irrigation in 2015 (DENR). It is tagged as the backbone of Luzon as it protects the country from typhoons such as Typhoon Rolly, and floods that might sink its adjacent cities and communities.

Its diverse resources have been protected by Indigenous People groups for decades from forest degradation and deforestation. According to a National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) records as cited in an article, there are 11 IP groups in Sierra Madre including the Agta or Dumagat (Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya, Quirino, Isabela, Aurora and Quezon), Bungkalot (Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya, Quirino and Aurora), Isinai (Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya and Dupax Norte and Dupax Sur), Gaddang (Nueva Vizcaya, Isabela, Quirino and Cagayan), Ibanag (Cagayan, Nueva Vizcaya and Isabela), Itawes (Northern Cagayan), Kalahan (Southern Caraballo and Central Sierra Madre), and Yogad (Isabela).

Pressing issues to protect Sierra Madre

Protected areas in the Philippines, such as the Northern Sierra Madre Park have been experiencing major environmental threats despite the existing forest laws and policies. Illegal logging, slash and ‘kaingin’ farming, fuel-wood collection, illegal hunting of endangered animals, and residential expansion are prevalent within the Sierra Madre Biogeographic Zone. This equates to 1,400 hectares of forest degradation per year (Conservation and Society).

Forest Foundation Philippines noted major issues in the conservation of the park. Among these are illegal logging, road construction, and development, agricultural practice, and mining.

Illegal Logging

There are only five commercial logging companies currently operating in Sierra Madre but there are indications of “operation lapses” causing irreplaceable damage to its forest resources.

Between 20,000 to 35,000 cubic meters of wood is illegally extracted from the park with a market value of Php 238 million to 393 million pesos in 2007. Contrary to what government officials claimed that illegal logging in the park was a small-scale livelihood activity, the value and amount of timber illegally transported was comparable to commercial logging. Pressured by environmental groups, the government of Isabela enforced its existing policies and formed Provincial Anti-Illegal Task Force to monitor illegal hotspots, confiscate timbers, prosecute corrupt government officials and middlemen (Conservation and Society).

Road construction and Development

Major projects such as Kaliwa Dam in General Nakar, Quezon, and an 82-kilometer road construction through the protected Sierra Madre mountains (Isabela Road) were identified to have impacts on its natural resources and biodiversity. Environment groups and IPs called for further review of the project to better assess the outcome of the project. However, implementers and the government argued that these projects will open opportunities for economic development and proceeded with the projects.

Agricultural practices and mining activities
Forest occupants utilize forest land for their food and source of income. Mining, on the other hand, has an aggregate area of 811,541 hectares in Sierra Madre.

“To make forest protection effective, we need a regulated National Greening Program and convergence projects among government agencies involved in environmental protection with CSOs on strengthening stakeholders’ capacity for forest governance. We need to integrate and make CSOs and POs be involved from planning to monitoring and evaluating the projects, programs, activities, and initiatives.”

Conrado R. Vargas, Executive Director, Prelature of Infanta-Community Organization of the Philippines, Inc. and Save Sierra Madre Network Alliance, Inc. (SSMNAI)
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Reference

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Researcher at Climate Tracker

A research specialist and editor in a national government agency in the Philippines. Considers herself a polymer clay artist. Loves watching true-crime documentaries and drinking green tea with honey. Also speaks Filipino.