Forest experts from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (Unfao) say if there is no change of government policy like adopting a total ban and pushing countryside development with more political will, the estimated 600,000 hectares of first generation forests will be a thing of the past.
Non-believers in the government scoff at this, saying it is an exaggeration. They trumpet that the government's reforestation program is well on track to replace whatever was lost. But the figures cannot be wrong, the effects of deforestation are not figments of imagination, and the worsening poverty caused by inadequate and ruined natural resources are real.
The rate of deforestation in the country is among the highest in the world. According to Unfao's 1994 Sustained Agriculture and Environment Report, in 1934, 57 per cent of the country or 17 million hectares were forested, 11 million hectares of which was primary or virgin forests. In 1990, however, the Ford Foundation said the country's forest was down to only 6.5 million hectares, one million of which was virgin forests. Last year. Sen Loren Legarda in a senate committee report bared that only less than 700,000 hectares remain of the nation's virgin forests.
The loss is incredible. The rate of deforestation in that decade was almost 30,000 hectares a year. It also came at a time when logging ban was imposed in some selected sites in the country.
As a result, flooding, soil erosion and degradation pegged at 100,000 tonnes of soil yearly, loss of species diversity and genetic material, loss of human lives and properties and aesthetic and recreational loss is widespread yearly.
Although it was obvious by the early seventies that forest resources was dwindling rapidly, sustained yield practices were not heeded. The blame is put on governments that over the years have passed laws favourable to logging concessions and implemented forest protection poorly.
"Unchecked illegal logging remains the main culprit," the lady senator said, adding that "government negligence has prompted the devastation of forests. Today, much of the remaining forests are still being invaded by commercial loggers".
The country was Asia's greatest exporter of rainforest timber since 1920s and remained so until 1960. However, overzealous extraction, disregard for future supply and poor logging practices, exacerbated by illegal logging, have effectively destroyed the industry and severely degraded much of the remaining forest.
"Philippine forestry laws passed since 1930 have failed to provide adequate security provisions for virgin and secondary growth forests, thus the forests had virtually no protection at all. For instance, there is only one forest guard for every 3,000 hectares," the former broadcaster said.
Even then, many official policies and strategies from the very start were faulty. Laws that required harvesting on a sustained yield basis were lacking, the logging industry lacked supervision, little attention has been paid to selective logging and timber extraction methods allowed logs to be taken even from extremely steep and fragile slopes.
Although it was obvious by the early seventies that forest resources were dwindling rapidly, practices that sustained yield were not heeded. Legislation to phase out raw log exports, in the belief that this lucrative trade was the main cause of overcutting, was first introduced in 1973. However, the ban was never implemented and a modified scheme served to concentrate ownership of timber licenses in the hands of a few Marcos supporters, with little commitment to reducing raw log exports.
Despite a subsequent ban on the export of raw logs since 1986 and the not-so-successful community-based forest management, there is still a continuing bias towards log production. Even after 1991, when logging was banned in sensitive areas such as virgin forests, in residual forests with a slope of 50 per cent or greater and in watershed areas, compliance with the mandatory conditions and prevention of illegal logging is made difficult by insufficient resources.
From 1972 to 1988, Legarda revealed that the logging industry amassed US$42.85 billion ($58.58 billion) in revenues at the rate of US$2.65 billion a year. But it also laid to waste some 8.57 million hectares of forests. Over the same period, loggers destroyed 3.88 million hectares of virgin forests, raking in US$19.4 billion in income.
During the 41st Annual Children's Museum and Library Convention former Department of Agrarian reform Secretary Horacio "Boy" Morales warned that the country's forest cover is now only 17 per cent, far below the 60 per cent required for ideal ecological balance. He further predicted that if the trend continues, there will be no forests by 2020 and that the Philippine hardwoods which used to dominate the forests will be gone.
"Decades of forest destruction by wanton and indiscriminate logging have made the country prone to landslides," Morales said, adding that "this has led to the degradation of watersheds which are basically the lifeline of food production and water supply. Because of environmental degradation, the Philippines has become one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world where tremendous rise in threats to life, resources and property is always widespread", he said.
Such predicament is difficult to put back into order, Legarda also warned. "Deforestation is the major reason behind flooding, acute water shortages, rapid soil erosion, siltation and mudslides which have proved costly not only to the environment and properties but also in human lives," she said.
"Reversing the tremendous forest depletion is a gigantic, if not, an impossible task, considering that the rate of deforestation far outstrips the rate of reforestation."
The writer is based in Manila covering environment and community development issues.
The Brunei Times