In the Philippines, fighting climate change impacts with nature (part 1)

Last month, Typhoon Haiyan — possibly the largest tropical typhoon to make landfall in recorded history  — devastated the Philippines, leaving more than 6,000 dead, almost 1,800 missing and millions homeless. Dealing with natural disasters has always been a part of life on Earth; however, scientists predict that the continued impacts of climate change will make extreme weather events more frequent.
Science has found that maintaining and restoring intact ecosystems like mangroves, reefs and forests can help buffer communities from these occurrences. This week, Conservation International’s Lynn Tang shares a couple of the ways Conservation International is promoting these activities in the Philippines. (Note: Although this post was written prior to the storm, we were relieved to learn that this region was largely spared from destruction.)
It is my first time in the Philippines. As we drive north out of the capital city of Manila, we are surrounded by miles and miles of deforested land. After eight hours of driving through degraded land and agricultural plantations, I start to wonder if there is any primary forest left in this country, despite its reputation as one of the world’s 17 “megadiverse” countries that harbor the majority of the Earth’s species.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Before arriving in the Philippines, my guidebook told me that the rate of deforestation here is one of the highest in the world. In fact, the Philippines is fourth on the list of the world’s 10 most threatened forests. Most of the lowland forests have been cleared and only 7 percent of the country’s original forest remains. I take photos of hills that have been cleared of forests, and patches of burnt land within precious watersheds.
The next morning we head out to CI’s field site located at the fringes of the Quirino Protected Landscape. This area is located on the northern Philippine island of Luzon and at the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountain range, which contains the largest remaining tract of old-growth tropical rainforest in the Philippines.
The Sierra Madre forests are home to hundreds of wildlife species, many of which are unique to the Philippines, such as the Philippine eagle and golden-crowned flying fox. The area also contains the headwater of the Cagayan Valley River basin, which supports major irrigation systems on which hundreds of farming communities in Quirino and other provinces depend.
Here, just like elsewhere in the Philippines, the main cause of deforestation is “slash-and-burn” farming, brought about by migrant and population growth, and exacerbated by uncertain land tenure which leads farmers to focus on maximum short-term gains rather than long-term sustainability.
While agriculture is an important economic activity for the region, overexpansion and deforestation will reduce the ecological services — such as water filtration, flood prevention and climate change mitigation — that a healthy intact forest provides. In recent years, Quirino and other provinces in the Philippines’ eastern seaboard have also been experiencing stronger and more frequent storms, further threatening lives and livelihoods.
Before we visit the CI field site, we drop by the provincial office, where I interview Elizabeth Nicolas, the provincial administrator of Quirino province in charge of implementing the province’s development strategy. Throughout my visit to the Philippines, I had encountered many women in leadership roles, and it was great to meet one more.
Ms. Nicolas tells me that many areas of the Quirino watershed are degraded, and that the biggest challenge with deforestation is the need to work with the people who are causing the deforestation. The famers here are not destroying the environment because they want to, but because it is the only livelihood they know of, and they lack the knowledge, education and opportunities to change their behavior. They need to be offered alternative livelihoods that will reduce their dependency on timber, agriculture and forest-based products.
CI’s project here focuses on changing the behavior of these farmers. In partnership with the provincial government and a local NGO, the Quirino Forest Carbon Project is working with the farmers to reforest and protect the landscape. Farmers are trained and financially compensated for planting and caring for seedlings on their land, instead of practicing rotating slash-and-burn agriculture.
The project also helps the farmers to secure long-term tenure for their land. Farmers and their plots are strategically selected based on their proximity to the watershed and natural forest areas.
Under this project, 177 hectares (437 acres) of farmland have been reforested so far, to the benefit of 95 farmers. These farmers now also have an enhanced understanding of climate change and the role of trees in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
Apart from planting new seedlings, the “reforestation” farmers are also responsible for caring for these seedlings until they become mature trees in 20 years or so. This ensures that these reforested plots, which often sit on the fringes of primary forest, act as a protective buffer and prevent further encroachment.
Perhaps the greatest indication of the success of this project is that other farmers in the province are eager to sign on, but at present there aren’t enough funds to support the expansion of this project.
As a further testament to the success and authenticity of the Quirino Forest Carbon Project, it is the first in Asia to have been independently audited and validated against the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) and against the Climate Community and Biodiversity (CCB) Standards at the Gold level. These two accreditation bodies audit forest carbon projects to ensure that they meet their goals in generating carbon credits and the additional benefits that they claim to deliver.
What’s unique about this project is that it is primarily funded by More Trees, a Japanese NGO that solicits funds from individuals and companies in Japan with a primary aim to contribute to mitigating climate change and conserving biodiversity. Planting trees and reducing deforestation anywhere on this planet will help to reduce global carbon emissions and ultimately mitigate climate change. I am inspired and amazed that there are individuals that care enough about the health of the global climate to voluntarily contribute to a project that is miles away from where they live.
Progress on a global climate treaty is moving slowly at best; policymakers continue to debate nuts and bolts. Yet it’s heartening to know that there are others who recognize that we need to translate the urgency of fighting climate change into practical, measurable actions on the ground. Talking about the problem won’t make it go away; immediate action is critical.
Lynn Tang is the senior manager for partnerships and development in CI’s Asia Pacific Field Division. Read part 2 of this post.