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Our forests, our life

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Issue date: 
June 17, 2011
Publisher Name: 
Manily Standard Today
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As is Metal, Wood is a classical element unique to Chinese astrology. Its influence over those born of those Chinese astrological signs associated with Wood imbues that person with confidence and strong will, compassion and desire for cooperation. Wood, which is also known as the Tree in the Wu Xing elemental cycle, also symbolizes renewal and rebirth, spring and the arrival of a new season of growth. Wood, in short, symbolizes Life: its vitality, perseverance in the face of obstacles, continuing growth, and flexibility. It should be no surprise that this element also symbolizes life in the natural sciences as well.

A series of environmental columns (this is the sixth of seven columns) is not complete without one on forests. Apart from providing fodder and shelter, forests also anchor the soil with their roots, preserving them against the erosive forces of wind, water, and storm. Through photosynthesis, they help regulate the climate, also serving in this way as carbon “sinks” or stores from the conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen. Trees help maintain a suitably moist, humid climate, and also prevent flash floods and landslides when too much water inundates the land.

Trees also have a religious meaning. Many indigenous peoples see trees as sacred. Buddha found enlightenment under a tree. All the great monotheistic religions - the Jewish Religion, Islam and Christianity - recognize the tree of knowledge in paradise and its role in salvation. In the bible, we see this reference to trees frequently, from “the cedars of Lebanon”, in the Song of Songs to the fig tree cursed by the Jesus Christ to wither for not bearing fruit, and the sycamore tree the tax collector Zacchaeus climbed so that Jesus would noticed him. We know the story: the Lord entered his house and led to Zacchaeus and his family becoming reborn again (a good story for the feast of Pentecost which we celebrated last Sunday). And then there is the olive tree “on which the Savior of the world was nailed”.

I can still recite verbatim Joyce Kilmer’s classic poem, learned in Xavier University Grade School: “I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree./ A tree whose hungry mouth is prest / Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;/ A tree that looks at God all day,/ And lifts her leafy arms to pray;/ A tree that may in summer wear/ A nest of robins in her hair; / Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain./ Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree.”

Signs with Kilmer’s immortal lines decorate the highway coming from the Lumbia airport of my hometown Cagayan de Oro and reminds me of the many Saturdays my high school classmates and I spent planting trees on that highway for the Martial Law-era Youth Civic Action Program. I remember how we disliked that—not so much the tree planting but being forced to wake up Saturday mornings and toiling under the hot sun. I don’t remember anyone explaining to us why we were planting those trees. Only much later did it become clear to me how important this activity was and what is at stake with our forests.

What is at stake is life itself, especially in a country which has lost most of its forests and made itself more vulnerable to floods and other natural disasters. As I have written before, President Aquino’s total logging ban policy is not an overreaction, but a needed response to the state of our forests. The National Greening Program is also a good initiative and deserves to be supported. But what comes next is more important.

The most serious challenge we must address to protect our remaining forests and to renew or rejuvenate our forest lands which have not yet been converted into other uses is where to get the funds to pay for such protection and reforestation. The money needed for this massive effort is enormous; right now, we do not have it. Money is needed not only for forest guards or seedlings needed for tree planting but above all, money is needed to compensate communities who protect these forests and newly planted trees. Many of these communities are indigenous peoples; and unfortunately, many are poor and marginalized.

To solve our forest crisis, we have to change the way we see our forests after we have reduced their value to the revenue we get from the timber we can extract from them. This was wrong at the time when logging was a major industry in the country - because we as a country and society ended up getting very little from that industry. It is even more wrong now where we can no longer harvest timber. Because if we follow that logic, our forests have no value anymore now that logging is prohibited.

Clearly, what we need to do is to change the way we see not just our forests but all of our environmental and natural ecosystems. We have to begin to see and value these ecosystems for what they are - sources of critical and essential ecosystem goods and services that our society and economy cannot do without. These ecosystems provide food, fiber, water and shelter. These ecosystems are critical for climate change—to help us adapt to it and to help us mitigate our own contribution to the problem.

This last week, joining a strong and dynamic Philippine Delegation, I was once again involved with negotiations in Bonn for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD-Plus) a series of initiatives to stop deforestation, reverse its degradation, and conserve and enhance forests. In 2009 during the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, I chaired the negotiations involving nearly 200 countries to arrive at an agreement to establish the REDD-plus mechanism. Last week, I was again asked to chair the continuing negotiations to finally begin implementing REDD-plus.

The goal of the REDD-plus mechanism is to provide incentives for governments, private firms, and local stakeholders to preserve and enhance forests, as opposed to harvesting or converting them. The mechanism however, if designed or implemented badly, could negatively impact forest-dependent communities, including indigenous peoples, or the environment. That is why REDD-plus must be accompanied by safeguards for the protection of stakeholder rights, environmental integrity, and governance. The Philippines has worked hard and successfully so that the REDD-plus agreement (adopted finally in Cancun last year) included such safeguards. Fortunately, as I am able to confirm now in Bonn, it is now widely accepted that a REDD-Plus mechanism can only succeed if safeguards and co-benefits such as the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and the alleviation of poverty are also realized.

Much as the bamboo adapts to the typhoon winds, flexing in order to prevent breaking under severe forces, the Philippines must quickly adapt to the pressures of environmental destruction in order to prevent catastrophe. Much as tree roots anchor soil, Filipinos must unite in preserving our country’s woodlands as the anchor of our environmental health. Because, indeed, our forests are our life.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut