OpinionsEnvironment ConnectionTrue state of the environment

True state of the environment


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What is the true state of the environment of the Philippines? Believe it or not, we do not fully know.

Consider the report on the three round-table discussions led by the National Academy of Science and Technology in 2010. It was reported that in 2003, the total area of forest in the country was 5.932 million hectares. The area jumped to 7.168 million in 2003. It is unbelievable that in two years the forest grew by 1.236 million hectares. A mature forest takes several decades to develop. A National Scientist, in responding to this statistics, sarcastically said that the Philippine forest area as reported must have included fruit trees planted by people in their yards!

But let us ask further questions. Do these figures include plantations and secondary forests in the various seral stages? If the figures are based on satellite imagery, was there an attempt to ground-truth the estimates? If the answer to the latter question is no, then there is much room for doubt.

Every man on the street knows that our forests have always been the target of environmental violations such as kaingin for farming and illegal (even legal) tree cutting for lumber. Our experience while conducting fieldwork in rainforests of the country for more than 30 years is that appearance of a closed forest canopy seen at a far distance often gives a false image because the inside portion of that forest had actually been logged or cleared for farming. These practices have contributed to the highest rate of deforestation among the six countries of the Coral Triangle area. The importance of conducting ground-truth checks is evident.

In 1998, the area of primary (also referred to as old-growth or climax) forest was estimated at 1.78 million hectares, consisting mostly of submontane and montane (mossy) forests. If this figure is correct, it is impossible to have 5.932 million hectares of climax forest within five years in 2003. Original climax forest consists of lowland (dipterocarp) at sea level to ca 800 meters altitude or above sea level, and mid-mountain or submontane forest and montane or mossy forest at higher altitudes up to 2,000-3,000 meters. It is known that in most of the Philippines, the lowland forest has almost disappeared entirely, and a large proportion of the mid-mountain forest is under cultivation by upland communities. In brief, there is reason to doubt the estimates of 6-7 million hectares of forest in the Philippines. The burden of proof is on those who made these estimates, considered inaccurate by many.

For the marine environment, there is some agreement. It is widely admitted that coastal areas are severely degraded. Mangrove forests have been reduced to less than 100,000 hectares, and the remaining “good” remnants have been heavily logged. As everybody knows, much of mangrove areas have been converted into fishponds, human settlements, and industrial areas. Another type of forest, beach forest, in the country no longer exists; it has been converted to human settlements. Coral reefs have been badly battered, and only less than 10% of the total area remains in good condition.

The degradation of coastal ecosystems has had dire consequences on the marine biodiversity considered the source of basic food for 60% of our population. I have been repeating several times that not more than 10% of the original biomass of fish (100-150 tons/square kilometer) that existed in coastal areas 30-40 years ago presently exists today. What is frightening is that coastal communities continue to extract from what remains, leading to a collapse of coastal fisheries in the very near future. A good case of species extinction is the chambered nautilus in Tañon Strait between Cebu and Negros Islands. Ultimately, extinctions of certain species of fish will occur, as indicated by the disappearance in fishermen catch of some 20 pelagic species around Bohol Island according to one published report.

The government, local and national, must address the problem of depletion of marine biodiversity, including fishery species, immediately by such interventions as establishment of more marine protected areas, restricted fishing in certain coastal areas or during specific times, replanting of mangroves in depleted areas, full protection of at least 20-30% of our marine ecosystems, control of coastal pollution from domestic and industrial wastes, etc.

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