Our Precious Forests More Than Just A Bunch Of Trees

The current state of Philippine forests leaves a lot to be desired. Despite its importance to national economic, environmental, and social well-being, forests cover only 22.8 percent of the country's land area.

The growing demand for goods and services will place more stress on an integral part of our environment that needs proper management now more than ever. Despite efforts for conservation by different sectors, illegal deforestation, weak enforcement of relevant laws, and improper forestry practices continue to offset any successes by said campaigns.

Forest Resources Bill

The Forest Resources Bill (FRB) aims to promote the sustainable use of forest resources for present and future generations. It utilizes science-based approaches and a strong, sustainable, and participatory framework for responsible and proper forest management.

Legislation for sustainable forest management has been pushed in Congress since 1990, although most efforts are geared towards the industrialization of the forest sector. These attempt to supersede the 1975 Revised Forestry Code, which remains the legislative basis for forest management and utilization.

Currently, there are seven similar bills in the House of Representatives. While two of these focus on both forest protection and sustainable management, the others are more oriented towards its efficient utilization.

"These bills are more on addressing the extraction part of the forest, but nothing in restoring and protecting our forests. Different versions of the bill also reflect the different priorities; therefore, it was difficult to agree on what should be protected," said Princess del Castillo of Haribon Foundation.

Disagreements mainly arise from how key terms under the sustainable forest management framework should be defined. Its passage would also need to overcome opposition from lawmakers and government officials with interests in forest-based industrialization.

Ultimately, del Castillo argues that all of these terms must be defined in recognition of how forests and other ecosystems are connected with one another and therefore, must be protected as well.

"When you're planning to manage your forests, you don't just look at one patch and manage it. Since there are other forests connected to one another, we have to look at them holistically and manage accordingly," she added.

To achieve this, the FRB plans to strengthen implementation of forest-related policies, especially at the local level. Despite local residents knowing the state of their forests and its biodiversity, law enforcement pertaining to its conservation has been weak in most areas around the Philippines.

"The most direct authorities in the area are local government units and they are primarily responsible and accountable for managing their resources," said Nova Regalario of Haribon Foundation.

For instance, local government units will be empowered to take initiative in protecting key biodiversity areas (KBAs) situated within their jurisdictions by incentivizing more activities of the "Bantay-Gubat" personnel. Also being pushed is the reclassification of the Forest Management Bureau into a line bureau, which would allow for regional and provincial offices to be set up and help in implementing a more expansive monitoring and conservation program.

Regalario also highlighted the proposed legislation would address malpractices from previous campaigns, including the National Greening Project (NGP). There were cases in the NGP where natural forests were cut down to plant tree species like cacao and anahaw, which defeated the purpose of the program

Advocates for FRB also propose that half of Philippine lands or 15 million hectares should be forested. Within these areas, 12 million hectares should be reserved for the protection of natural forests, which includes primary and secondary forests. Only one million hectares would be needed for areas needed for economic production, although three million will be allotted for this purpose.

The renewed push for such legislation stems from an increased awareness in environmental protection, especially during a time when more extreme weather events are becoming the "new norm".

"I think the most obvious is the worsening climate-related impacts affecting the country, especially when you look at those calamities related to forest loss," del Castillo said.

The loss of large sections of trees not only means the loss of habitat for wildlife and the disruption of ecological harmony. It also leads to the decline in the sequestration of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and an increased risk to floods, landslides, and other impacts for both human communities and natural ecosystems.

Forest governance

As part of its support for sustainable forest management, the Haribon Foundation has been implementing the Forest Governance (FOGOP) project, which focuses on building the capacity of non-government stakeholders to protect their forests.

The project involves LGUs near three KBAs in the mountainous areas of Quezon Province, Mindoro, and Surigao del Sur. It has a special focus on indigenous peoples, which is crucial for sharing of best practices and the monitoring of these areas.

See photos from our community consultation with Indigenous Peoples in Surigao del Sur.

Since commencing last year, training sessions had been conducted to local communities to educate them about basic ecological concepts and the tools to help them conserve the forests. Participants were also oriented about organizational development and leadership and existing environmental laws to empower them to take action.

While communities have been very open to fulfilling their roles in forest management as they are dependent on these areas for livelihoods, they are concerned about how to sustain initiatives started under the project.

Thus, the FOGOP team is currently formulating measures to ensure that capacity-building would be translated to long-term initiatives. Specifically, it is developing modes of sustainable livelihoods that can be conducted by the locals, such as collection of non-timber products they could sell without disturbing natural harmony.

"If they lack a sustainable livelihood, they still tend to go back to illegal forest activities," del Castillo said.

The successful implementation of such projects will indicate whether Filipinos have learned the true value of forests in living a sustainable life. After all, as should be defined under the FRB, forests are more than just a bunch of trees.

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