Finding the ‘hidden forests’

Finding the ‘hidden forests’

23 December 2008

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The Philippines — To reach the town of Danao in Bohol, we had to drive through winding roads of varying quality, through sparsely populated villages and lonely hillsides covered in grassland.

Arriving at the EAT (for Extreme Ecotourism Educational Adventure Tours) Center, we glimpsed tarpaulins showing people engaged in such extreme sports as rappelling down mountainsides, propelling kayaks down rapids, plunging across crevasses in a “zip” line and exploring caves and rocky riverbeds. With some alarm, we wondered if we would be asked to engage in such challenging pursuits. With some relief, we noted the fading light and concluded it would soon be too dark to be traipsing about mountainous territory.

That was also apparently the thought foremost on the mind of Paul Manalo, a consultant with the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) who had put together the orientation program on assisted natural regeneration (ANR) for our group of media visitors. “Sayang, it’s too dark now to bring you to our site,” Manalo said. “We wanted you to see for yourselves what we’re talking about. We would have taken you on a little mountain-climbing.” I sighed with relief. Even a “little” mountain-climbing is too much for me these days, I’m afraid.

But even if only through slides and an oral presentation, what we heard and learned about ANR was enough to convince us that this was one approach to regenerating our disappearing forests that deserved public support and encouragement.

“Traditional” reforestation efforts usually involve planting seedlings in deforested areas, usually with volunteer manpower or local residents who are paid for every seedling they plant. Neria Andin, assistant director of the Forest Management Bureau, says such reforestation efforts typically cost P33,000 per hectare, with much of the effort going to waste when the replanted area is laid waste by fire or dies off during a drought.

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In contrast, said Andin, ANR involves minimal cost and less effort. Best of all, it is a process that makes use of nature’s bounty and processes.

“There are potential forests in our grasslands,” declares Pat Dugan of Bagong Pag-asa Foundation, which is assisting with the ANR projects in Bohol, Davao del Norte and Bataan. “All we need to do is help nature in nurturing the young forest.”

The process starts with identifying the young saplings among the grass, shrubs and under older trees, which are “placed” there by the action of wind, birds or insects that spread the seeds far and wide. Once identified, the seedlings and saplings are marked out, with the cogon grass around, each one flattened to prevent the grass from further growing and spreading. Then all that’s needed is to keep flattening the grass every six months, make sure the young trees are watered, and protect them from grassfires, most of which are started by kaingineros.

Providing the human labor are members of nearby communities, who are paid to search for the saplings, flatten the grass and protect the trees. In as little as six months, Dugan avers, one can see the visible results of a regenerated forest, with 625 “regenerants” per hectare enough to create a forest.

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Dugan says deforestation is caused not so much by logging as by kaingin, the burning of mountainsides by destitute farmers seeking arable land. But mountain land is not very suitable for agriculture, and once they have eked out everything they can from the land, the kaingineros move on, abandoning land on which nothing (or seemingly nothing) else can grow but cogon.

It’s no small irony, then, that most of the village folk recruited to work on the ANR areas are probably former kaingineros themselves. But being so, they have an innate knowledge of the seasons and familiarity with the land that makes them experts on the conditions best suited to bring out the forests lying dormant among the grass.

To further protect potential forests from fires, some cleared lands are surrounded by fire breaks, cleared strips of land that make it difficult for flames to leap and spread. In some areas, the locals have planted pineapples and banana plants to augment their income.

Another plus that ANR brings to reforestation is that it assures biodiversity, since the potential trees spotted in the grass are usually indigenous species that reflect the wide diversity in the area. Unlike in traditional tree planting efforts, where well-meaning people bring in a single specie that may not be suited for the area, or worse, can actually harm the surrounding trees, as in the case of the inappropriate gemelina trees, for instance.

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But an ANR project could not succeed without the support of the local government, which can unify the affected communities behind the effort and protect the proponents from contrary interests.

In Danao, Mayor Louis Thomas Gonzaga, along with Vice Mayor Jose Cepedoza and the councilors, has proclaimed the town an “ANR municipality,” the first in the country. This means that the project enjoys the full support of the local government, including funding. The LGU decided on this course of action, Gonzaga said, because the project is meant to protect the watershed, a valuable resource for the people of Danao.

Indeed, Danao even now is in talks with a Metro Manila city for a form of “carbon swapping,” with the urban city government providing an environmental grant to Danao to compensate for its abysmal carbon footprint. If it pushes through, the regenerated forest of Danao will certainly count as a huge resource.

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