Losing our local Amazon

September 3, 2019

By Albert Balbutin, Jr.

The Sierra Madre mountain range, the longest range in the country with original forests still present.

As news of the Amazon forest fires reaches more and more people, Tropical Depression Jenny leaves the Philippines. It is the 10th cyclone to hit the Philippines this year as listed by PAGASA, weakened by Luzon’s natural protective barrier: the Sierra Madre.

On the other side of the planet another important ecosystem faces its own challenge. More than 70,000 fires have occurred this year, so far, in the Amazon – 83% more than last year according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

But this is just a portion of a long standing issue in the Amazon rainforest. According to NASA, by 2003 more than 60,000 square kilometers of rainforest was cleared – an area half the size of Luzon. 

As a result the 400 or so groups of Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon, as noted by the Pachamama Alliance, have been negatively affected. Meanwhile the remaining 10% of the world’s known species in the Amazon, noted by Conservation International, continue to decrease.

Today, with Amazon forest regulations relaxed and the resulting fires started after the election of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, the world is now paying more attention to forest loss in the Amazon. 

Land cleared by fire in the Sierra Madre. Without proper planning and participation from communities and local government, burning and extraction will overcome sustainability.

And what about Philippine forests?

Since the transfer from Spanish to American rule in the 1900’s, the Philippines has lost more than 75% of its original forest cover, based on data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Forest Management Bureau. 

Even before this, Indigenous Peoples from the Manobo in Mindanao to the Dumagat in the Sierra Madre have been displaced due to mis-implemented environment laws (or lack thereof) meant to keep forest extraction at a sustainable level, and in collaboration with Indigenous communities.

Cleared land from a mining site in Mindanao. Soil and water runoff from cleared land brings more siltation to the coral reefs in the sea, affecting marine life.

This has contributed to the increased number of threatened species found only in the Philippines. In a separate collaborative study by lead author Dr. JC Gonzalez of the University of the Philippines, Los Baños, there are now 168 threatened endemic species, representing 15% of all threatened species in the country. 

Among bird species alone, 50% are decreasing in number based from 2012 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) data retrieved by the Haribon Foundation.

The National Bird of the Philippines: Haring Ibon. An estimated 800 are left in the wild.

What can you do?

More than ever, it is important to stay informed and to understand that we live on a finite planet that needs to be sustained. Participatory governance is another key: how active are we with our local government or civil society groups?

Tree plantings occur every year during the rainy season, but we need people active all year for our environment.

Non-government organizations like the Haribon Foundation have been working on environmental conservation for decades. On the ground, Haribon, Rain Forest Restoration Initiative (RFRI), and the Forests for Life movement have planted more than 1 million native trees in over 20,000 hectares of forest. This effort is guided by scientific data and community-based efforts. All of which could not be possible without the 10,000+ volunteers to date.

Unfortunately, more work has to be done. Not only must we plant more, but we must protect what already exists.

The remaining 24% of Philippine forest must be adequately planned. The Sustainable Forest Management Bill is a network-backed solution to forest degradation in the country, and includes provisions for both protected and production forests. 

It also includes important provisions for community-involvement and protecting indigenous lands. Both are non-existent in current forestry law.

Community participation is key in sustaining forest resources for livelihood, enjoyment, and ecosystem services.

Finally, under Haribon and BirdLife International’s Forest Governance Project funded by the European Union, communities or “non-state” actors uninvolved in government are harnessed as the true stewards of our remaining forests. Haribon is working with Indigenous Peoples and local governments to help ensure that everyone is invited to the table of forest conservation and management.

Act now. Or we are to lose the Philippines’ own Amazon in our lifetime.

How you can help

  • Join a tree planting. By planting trees we help restore forest that was lost and help bring back ecosystem services and local biodiversity.
  • Adopt-A-Seedling. If you cannot get your hands dirty on-site, you can adopt trees from home!
  • Donate. Support on-going conservation efforts from “ridge to reef”.
  • Become a member. Join a group of conservationists and contribute to our forests and seas as a member.