Southern Leyte farmers show how to manage forests
One day in April, Florentino Saludo led a team of 19 men in trekking through the forest of Sitio Canlugoc in Lunas, Maasin, Southern Leyte, with a mission in mind: to cut trees.
For the past 19 years, Saludo and his team had been planting trees in some 500 hectares of land under the reforestation program of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). On that day, they set out to harvest their crop.
The men stopped in front of a 40-centimeter-thick mahogany. The sound of a chainsaw filled the air and died down minutes later. A loud creak, the tree thudded to the ground, and the forest was silent again.
The tree was measured, cut in half, and put in a carabao-drawn cart for hauling.
By the time the harvest season ended, hundreds of valuable hardwoods had been cut down.
Saludo and his men are members of the Young Innovators for Social and Environmental Development Association (Yiseda), which was formed in compliance with the 20-year-old program called Community-Based Forest Management (CBFM).
Southern Leyte, a province that has seen massive deforestation, was one of the prime candidates for the program.
Under the CBFM, forest communities are trained in the sustainable use of their resources. Saludo and other residents were taught not to cut down indigenous trees and to establish plantation areas for the harvest of timber.
The earnings from these timber areas are funneled back to the communities.
With a permit issued by the DENR, Saludo and his team were able to harvest the trees from one of the 34-hectare timber areas that they planted years ago.
Saludo found it a saddening event although he knew all along that the hardwoods were to be eventually harvested.
Break from the past
“It pained me to see the trees cut down,” he said in Filipino. “They were like friends; they had become part of our lives. Imagine, for more than 19 years we protected and nourished them. And then in only 10 minutes they are gone.”
But in the past, Saludo admitted, he was involved in the destruction of the forests of Maasin.
“The trees were plentiful and much bigger then,” he said. “I used to go with my father to cut the trees down.”
Saludo said he learned how to cut trees from his father, an upland farmer who also poached timber to be sold elsewhere. It was a way to put food on the table.
During that time in the 1980s, using crude methods and without safety equipment, the farmers cut down trees indiscriminately. They felled hardwoods for fuel and wood products in return for lucrative prices.
Everywhere they went, they left a trail of tree stumps and environmental degradation.
It was also during that time that southern Leyte was hit by an 11-month drought, which was followed by a forest fire that destroyed many hectares of trees in Maasin.
The community, which relied mostly on the forest for livelihood, lost their crops and clean water sources. Good trees, even forest animals, became hard to find.
Saludo’s mother recalled that monkeys, wild boar, deer, and birds such as crows, hornbills and eagles became rarities.
Finally realizing the importance of the forest, Saludo and 14 others formed Yiseda.
In November 2000 the DENR gave them the contract for a CBFM area, entitling them to be the stewards of 549 hectares of timberland for 55 years.
For several years, despite lack of funding and technical support from the DENR, they struggled to keep Yiseda alive. They faced the challenge of motivating their members to help in the reforestation although they themselves had no money and not much knowledge of agroforestry.
Saludo said he and his men had to show the members that they were serious. They constantly held meetings if only to give the example of dedication and commitment.
Soon enough, the members followed.
“The participation of the members will be easy if the leaders serve as examples,” Saludo said.
But in 2005, the community’s abaca plantation—southern Leyte being one of the Philippines’ top producers of abaca—was destroyed by a virus.
Community members who had been relying on alternative livelihood sources such as the abaca plantation became agitated and thought of felling the trees as a means to ease their economic hardship.
The debate on the wisdom of the act escalated but in the end, through Yiseda, the residents were placated by the sobering explanation that the cutting of young trees would do no good for the community and the environment.
Help from Germany
In 2008, Yiseda was among the groups that received funds and assistance from Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), a German government agency that provides technical aid and capacity building to grassroots organizations.
GIZ helped Yiseda craft a five-year reforestation plan and to train the residents to manage forest lands. Under the plan, 50 hectares were reserved for reforestation, 40 hectares for assisted natural regeneration and 20 hectares for agroforestry.
The project is part of GIZ’s program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which is aimed at reforesting and preserving the forests of Leyte and providing livelihood to communities there.
Saludo said the training provided by GIZ was helpful. “For 14 years we did not have a clear plan on how to manage our land. That was why we were slow in our progress,” he said.
Three years into the project, the residents have seen the fruits of their labor. The activity of Saludo and his team in April resulted in the harvest of 669 hardwoods, with each valued at around P5,000. (Yiseda will plant 300 seedlings for every tree cut.)
Yiseda has also benefited from livelihood programs such as livestock-raising and fruit crops, which have deterred members from harvesting trees prematurely.
As a result of its good performance, the government recently entrusted to its members another 75 hectares for reforestation, 25 hectares for agro-forestry and 50 hectares for assisted natural regeneration as part of the Aquino administration’s National Greening Program.
Yiseda has taken steps to ensure the program’s continuity.
“We have encouraged our youth to join the meetings and become more involved in the program. This way, they will know how to run the organization in the future,” Saludo said.
In the community, mothers grow seeds and teach their children how to care for a seedling. The children are taught early on that the forest is part of the community and not just a source of timber.
This is a way of instilling stewardship in the children, Saludo said.