Forest protection for survival and hope
Forests of the Sierra Madre mountain range, Luzon Island, Philippines
CI Photo
 
The world observes the International Year of Forests in 2011, and according to the United Nations, it is hoped that the occasion would serve as an effective “global platform to celebrate people’s action to sustainably manage the world’s forests.”
To mark the occasion, Conservation International, which works in nearly 40 countries around the world, highlighted the world’s ten most at-risk forested hotspots. These hotspots are those that have all lost 90% or more of their original habitat and each one harbors at least 1,500 endemic plant species (species found nowhere else in the world). If those forested habitats are lost, the endemic species are also lost forever. These forests potentially support the lives of close to one billion people who live in or around them, and directly or indirectly depend on the natural resources.With an estimated seven percent of remaining original forest, the Philippines comes fourth in the list, behind Indo-Burma, New Caledonia, and Sundaland, all located in the Asia Pacific region.
World’s 10 Most Threatened Forest Hotspots

 

Hotspot

Remaining habitat

Predominant Vegetation Type

1

Indo-Burma (Asia-Pacific)

5%

Tropical, Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

2

New Caledonia (Asia-Pacific)

5%

Tropical, Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

3

Sundaland  (Asia-Pacific)

7%

Tropical, Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

4

Philippines (Asia-Pacific)

7%

Tropical, Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

5

Atlantic Forest (South America)

8%

Tropical, Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

6

Mountains of Southwest China (Asia-Pacific)

8%

Temperate Coniferous Forests

7

California Floristic Province (North America)

10%

Tropical,  Subtropical Dry Broadleaf Forests

8

Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa (Africa)

10%

Tropical, Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

9

Madagascar & Indian Ocean Islands (Africa)

10%

Tropical, Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests

10

Eastern Afromontane (Africa)

11%

Tropical, Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests; Montane Grasslands and Shrublands

One of richest, most threatened

The Philippines’ forests support a treasure trove of biological diversity.  The country as a whole has been identified as one of the world’s mega-diverse countries, and is also designated as a biodiversity “hotspot” because its biological riches are also the most threatened.

Many endemic species are confined to forest fragments that cover only seven percent of the original extent of the hotspot. This includes over 6,000 plant species and nearly 200 bird species, such as the iconic Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi). Such is the uniqueness of the Philippines’ biodiversity that some species can only be found in one island like the Cebu black shama (Copsychus cebuensis) and the Philippine tamaraw (Bubalus mindorensis), or even in just one mountain like the Mt. Isarog shrew rat (Rhynchomys isarogensis)!

Historically logged for timber products, today, the remaining forests are also being cleared for farming and to accommodate the needs of the nation’s high population growth rate and severe rural poverty.

While the International Year of Forests has been dubbed as a “celebration,” it also serves as a sounding of alarm and a call to action to protect the world’s remaining forests.

In the Philippines, forest degradation has been attributed as a contributing factor that has worsened the impacts of numerous floods and landslides which have devastated the country, causing significant loss of lives and property. Oftentimes, such disasters are followed by renewed calls and increased efforts for forest protection, the latest of which is the signing of Executive Order 23 by Pres. Benigno Aquino, Jr.  The EO, in recognition of the forests’ role in preventing flash floods and hazardous flooding, prescribes a logging moratorium on the country’s natural and residual forests and creates an anti-logging task force. But even as communities and conservationists assess the EO’s possible effects and prepare to monitor its implementation, wood producers and some upland communities are already protesting the moratorium, citing possible revenue loss and unemployment impacts. 

Beyond timber

Undoubtedly, forests provide livelihood and foster economic growth in terms of providing wood supply. However, they also provide so much more ecosystem services or benefits beyond wood. Some of these benefits are not even easily calculated in terms of financial terms, but they are vital to sustaining our survival.

 Forests overall cover only 30 percent of our planet’s area and yet they are home to 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. They also sustain the livelihoods for 1.6 billion people, who directly depend on healthy forests for income. The trees, flowers, animals and microorganisms found in forests form a complex web of life. The interactions between the species and the ecosystems in them function as natural factories of some of our most basic needs, like clean air, healthy soils, medicines, crop pollination and fresh water. 

“Forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate to give room to pastures, agricultural land, mineral exploitation and sprawling urban areas, but by doing so we are destroying our own capacity to survive,” said Olivier Langrand, CI’s international policy chief. “Forests must be seen as more than just a group of trees. Forests give us vital benefits. They already play an enormous economic role in the development of many countries as a source of timber, food, shelter and recreation, and have an even greater potential that needs to be realized in terms of water provision, erosion prevention and carbon sequestration.”

A hundred years ago, the Philippines was practically covered in forests – about 95% of the total land area. Today, less than 7% of that remains. How much more can we afford to lose?

Forests and climate change

Climate change is easily one of the most “popular” environmental issues in the world today, and yet what may not be as widely-known is that deforestation is also a significant climate change issue.  Forests play an important role in stabilizing the climate. It is estimated that emissions resulting from deforestation represent approximately 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions, more than the annual emissions of all the cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships in the world.

Forests are also superior stores of carbon. The World’s 10 Most Threatened Forest Hotspots store over 25 gigatons of carbon, helping to clean the air and cope with the already inevitable effects of climate change.

Recognizing the role of deforestation in contributing to greenhouse emissions, CI and its partners around the world are pushing for governments to adopt REDD+ mechanisms. REDD+ is a suite of policies, institutional reforms and programs that provide developing countries with financial incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to enhance economic growth by preventing the destruction of their forests. The acronym stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation “plus” conservation, the sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.  The “plus” in the acronym ensures that while we protect forests, we also have opportunities to conserve our ecosystems and rehabilitate forests for increasing species’ and communities’ resilience in adapting to climate change, and sustainably use our forests for economic growth.

A global REDD+ mechanism presents a key opportunity to generate the funding, political will, and internationally agreed-upon policies, economic incentives and social safeguards necessary to protect forests and combat climate change, while improving human well-being and ensuring protection of indigenous people and community rights in developing nations. It is a cost-effective climate change solution that can be implemented now, without waiting for new technologies.

Working with Communities to Restore Forests

In the forests of Sierra Madre, CI is currently working with the local governments, communities, the DENR and donors from the private sector through the Philippine Peñablanca Sustainable Reforestation and Quirino Forest Carbon Projects. Both passed the Climate, Community and Biodiversity (CCB) Standards garnering Gold Level ratings—the first of its kind in the Philippines. CCB Standards is the most widely used and globally respected international standards for evaluating forest-based projects.  These standards help ensure that projects provide multiple benefits expected from them such as climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity conservation and community well-being.

A third-party auditor of international reputation validates the projects every five years or can do spot checks intermittently to monitor whether they live up to the standards and can revoke their global ratings if they fail to maintain compliance.   These projects have been started with appropriate consultation with the stakeholders covering the local communities, the local government and the DENR to agree on action plans.  These plans are implemented in areas where these stakeholders jointly take part in conserving biodiversity and bringing back the forest, while sustainably providing themselves with alternative livelihoods.

The Peñablanca and Quirino projects entail working with local communities to establish, protect and maintain at least 2,600 hectares of reforestation and agroforestry areas, through conservation agreements with farmer beneficiaries to ensure that they keep their part of the bargain such as stopping unsustainable practices of firewood collection and charcoal making.  While the forest areas involved make up only a small part of the Sierra Madre mountain range – the largest block of remaining natural rainforest in the Philippines – it is hoped that the two projects will serve as models to be scaled up and replicated in other areas.   It is also a good example of a private-public partnership in conservation working at its best with the private sector providing the necessary seed funding.

In the Palawan Biodiversity Corridor, the proclamation of the Mt. Mantalingahan Protected Landscape paved the way for efforts that will protect the 33 watersheds in the area and its capability to provide various forest-based, ecosystem services that are estimated to have a total economic value (TEV) of US$5.5 billion.

These ecosystems services include water, soil conservation, flood control, carbon sequestration, non-timber forest products and the high potential of waterfalls, caves and other culturally-interesting areas for ecotourism. The watersheds within MMPL are extremely valuable to the lowland agricultural economy in the area. Again, beyond timber.

Key Biodiversity Areas

There are plenty of opportunities for ecosystems conservation, forest protection and forest restoration projects. The country has 228 Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA), 116 of which contain forested habitats while the rest are major marine or wetland habitats.  The terrestrial KBAs were compiled through the collaboration among the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Conservation International, Haribon Foundation, and other expert groups

These sites represent the key habitats for globally threatened and endemic species, and are therefore considered globally significant for biodiversity conservation and habitat protection.  These are where we can possibly prioritize investments for forest protection and restoration while we set aside the adjacent areas for ecologically-sound forest management and agroforestry to sustain community livelihoods.

Many of these KBAs still lack formal government protection, while waiting in the wings are an additional 51 Candidate KBAs,  which may be elevated to KBA status when new data or surveys come in that will confirm the presence of globally threatened species.

Year of Forests, Year of Hope

The world observes the International Year of Forests in 2011, and as the year unfolds, let it not be a tribute to a dying resource, but a celebration of hope as we all work together towards healthier and life-sustaining forests for future generations.

 (This article originally appeared in the Talk of the Town, Opinion section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer on February 12, 2011)