Imagine being tasked to identify and document all the plant species in an area as vast as a forest. This might sound overwhelming, but for HARIBON’s researchers, it is all in a day’s work.
From March to May of 2023, the Engaging Multi-stakeholder Participation Towards Ecosystem Restoration for Community Resiliency (EMPOWER) team conducted a Flora Diversity Assessment for its three project sites. Working alongside local communities and environmental offices such as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), they surveyed each of the three 15-hectare restoration sites with the goal of identifying plant species and informing People’s Organization (PO) partners about these findings. The data is vital because it will guide the selection of native species to be planted during forest restoration.
Assessments at the Pantabangan-Carranglan Watershed Forest Reserve (PCWFR) and Bicol Natural Park (BNP) were held first in March 2023. Meanwhile, a later study was made at the Aurora Memorial National Park (AMNP) on May 16-18, 2023.
How did the team assess plant diversity at the sites?
- Site selection. They carefully picked the areas with environmental conditions that they wanted to help improve. Factors like location, elevation, landscape, and how the land was being used were considered.
- Sampling design. In these chosen areas, the team set up two big 20-meter by 20-meter plots like giant grids to study the plants. Inside each big plot, they created a smaller 2-meter by 2-meter plot in order to focus on the smaller plants. The team went around the big plots and documented the types of large tree species with trunks wider than 15 centimeters located inside them. This helped the team identify the existing tree species in the area, as well as the small plant species called ‘understory species’ growing underneath the large trees and which are inside the small plots.
- Data collection. To recall exactly where they found the documented species, the team used GPS devices to tag their locations and took several photos to record their activities and their existing environments.
- Analysis. Once the team gathered all this information, they used a specific mathematical method to figure out the number of different plant species in the site and how evenly they were spread out. They measured the species diversity using a tool called the Shannon Diversity Index. Two components were analyzed, the Species Richness or the variety and number of different species, and the Species Abundance or the relative abundance and evenness of species.
What did the team find?
At PCWFR, the areas studied comprised of numerous grass species and a type of hardwood tree known as a Dipterocarp. When it came to plant varieties, the team found a limited amount, recording only four (4) kinds. One of the plots at this protected area (PA) was mostly filled with the tree species Ligas and Santol, while another plot was mostly dominated with Anabiong. The small plants growing underneath the bigger trees were mostly Hagonoy. An invasive vine, Bikas, was also noticeable. One species identified that is worth noting is the Auri (Acasia auriculoformis), which is an exotic tree species.
At BNP, the findings were completely different from that of PCWFR. The team’s foresters found numerous varieties of plants, indicating a healthy and diverse ecosystem. In one of the big plots, they found eight (8) types of plants with small plots having eleven (11) types of plants, showing a tree to plant ratio that is well balanced and distributed. Some species of trees they found included Tangisang Bayawak, Mahogany, Melina, Narra, Apitong, Binunga Macaranga, Langka, Tibig, Takip-Asin and Antipolo.
At AMNP, instead of identifying plant species, the team focused on finding special "mother trees" both inside and outside the areas they wanted to restore. They counted a total of 14 different species of these trees, which play an important role in restoring forests. By locating them and making sure that they are protected, the project’s efforts to help the entire forest recover will be more supported and sustained.
What do these findings mean for the EMPOWER project?
The results from the Flora Diversity Assessment showing the plant diversity and abundance of the project’s restoration sites greatly informs the team of each PA’s plants that impacts overall ecosystem health.
At PCWFR, the diversity of plants was quite low and there were some invasive species like Bikas that needed to be addressed during the rehabilitation process. These results meant that the team had to work on making these areas healthier by bringing back more diverse flora, such as introducing a mix of indigenous plant and tree species. At BNP, assessment results showed that the site had a much healthier environment due to a wider range of plant types that the team was able to identify. This diversity is essential for the forest to stay healthy, and this information will help HARIBON’s foresters choose the right trees to restore. Meanwhile, at AMNP, they found several "mother trees," which are key to the restoration process and in keeping the forest's family tree healthy. Gathering data through the three site assessments is like having information to a map that will guide the researchers on which specific areas and species to restore to a healthier state.
Conducting a Biodiversity Assessment can be an arduous task that consumes a lot of time, with a full tree species inventory of a region alone typically taking years to complete. A Rapid Flora Assessment, however, has given HARIBON’s foresters a way to speed up the process without compromising the accuracy and thoroughness of information that needs to be acquired. Collecting data on plant diversity, abundance, and distribution, among other variables, the assessment is a vital tool in forest restoration and is used by researchers to identify, document, and analyze the plant species inside a target area. This data has informed and will continue to help the EMPOWER team in creating thorough plans that account for which species and ecosystem services need to be strengthened in the PAs.
Among the information discovered through the flora assessment which have been particularly beneficial to the project are the plant and tree species that have disappeared from the sites due to human activities, many of which provide food and shelter to various animals. By identifying them, the team utilized the Rainforestation Technology (RF) during the restoration process to reintroduce these particular species back into the forest ecosystem and restore their ecological functions.
The assessment also helped in identifying invasive plant species that may be detrimental to the success of the project’s restoration efforts. Invasive or exotic plant or tree species compete with native or endemic species for forest resources such as light, water, and nutrients from the soil. Unchecked, an increase in their population can lead to loss in biodiversity and in effect the disappearance of ecosystem services that forests provide. This allowed the team to prioritize native species and remove invasives.
Another notable benefit from the flora assessment is being able to find tree species that can grow and thrive in each target area, taking into account factors such as soil type, climate, and elevation. This information enabled the team to use species that are well adapted to particular site conditions.
The flora assessment conducted by the Haribon Foundation for the EMPOWER project funded by the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) has shed important light on the variety and abundance of plants at PCWFR, AMNP, and BNP.
With this information, the EMPOWER team was able to utilize Rainforestation Technology to restore the degraded ecosystem and continue to improve the associated ecological, economic, and social benefits of the protected areas. Results from this initiatve may also be used by the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) or other projects to help in the restoration plan for their respective PAs, emphasize the need for the use of native tree species adapted to particular site conditions, and have plans for the removal of invasive species.
Such efforts will successfully help in restoring the sites’ ecosystem services, which will ultimately benefit the local communities on an ecological, economic, and social level.