After the deluge, reforestation

That was Pres. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s enlightened declaration– “We need reforestation…plant good trees.” – after the Biblical deluge and killer landslides in Maguindanao del Norte. During a conference with local government officials of Datu Odin Sinsuat he demanded to know why people were not warned on time, nor evacuated to safer ground. Flood waters rose much too fast, the local officials argued, there was hardly time to warn their constituents, and the incessant downpour softened the earth, causing those landslides.

“Tree-planting should be part of flood control, “ Pres. BBM affirmed, “ Kung may kahoy sa itaas, hindi mangyayari iyan…” ( If there were woods (forests) up there, this would not have happened.) Was he alluding to unbridled illegal logging?

Someone did take note of Pres. BBM’s exhortations, althouogh he was not in Maguindanao. I am referring to no other than Mr. Ernesto Ordonez, who last October 21 presented 5 principles for food security during the 21st Jaime V. Ongpin memorial lecture at the Ateneo de Manila University Law School. Considering his passion for agriculture, it is not surprising that Mr. Ordonez should also be obsessed with reforestation. After all, agriculture, deforestation, food and water security have a chaste, inextricable bond.

Have you heard about the Movement for Water Security? It is a private sector advocacy group which drafted a National Water Roadmap comprised of policies and guidelines for water governance. It includes three vital requirements for an effective reforestation program which are: 1) to secure the area selected for reforestation from unscrupulous individuals; 2) to make sure that people living in said areas are included in the planning so they will have a stake in the project and more importantly, a sense of ownership; 3) to plant the appropriate species of native trees and nurture these to assure survival. Foreign hardwoods, no matter how beautiful are harmful to our environment.

Recently, Mr. Ordonez gave a talk at the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) about the need for protecting the environment. He brought up the Masungi Georeserve Foundation (MGF) as an example. The place is often described as a “rustic rock garden”, a “sprawling limestone landscape” ensconced in the rainforests of Rizal province. Some years ago, when members of the MGF discovered the area, they asked the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) if they could protect 300- hectares from illegal quarrying. Friends who have visited the reserve and enjoyed climbing and swinging over those jagged limestone peaks marvel at how Nature can rehabilitate itself when left in peace.

Masungi won the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Action Award over 2,000 entries that came from 150 countries. That should make any Filipino proud. After putting up with five years of importunities, to put it mildly, the MGF seems to be getting a bit of government protection. Finally, the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) have confiscated deadly weapons from trespassers and arrested 30 armed men who were harassing and threatening the lives of DENR staff. However, vigilance and protection must be consistent.

People in Malacanan know Mr. Ernesto Ordonez, after all, he used to be Undersecretary of Agriculture. Allow me to suggest that Pres. BBM consult Ms. Imelda Sarmiento before he orders reforestation with “ good trees”. Founder of the Hortica Filipinas Foundation (HFF) and a partner of Green Convergence, Ms. Sarmiento has published 3 volumes about Philippine Trees, beautifully illustrated and with informative articles about each specie. She was instrumental in setting up the Living Philippine Native Trees Museum in Real de Cacarong, Pandi, Bulacan.

Tree-planting used to be a fashionable and favored ritual among civic organizations, social clubs and government officials. Special guests were honored with tree-planting ceremonies, their names painted on bamboo slabs for posterity. At every conceivable commemoration, historical or not, everyone would mosey to a mound of saplings at a grassy park. With bright new shovels in hand, guests would go through ceremonial motions of pushing earth on baby plants. Sometimes, no one would remember to rip off the plastic bags.

Boys Scouts were famous for their efforts at reforestation. I remember seeing newspaper pictures of hundreds of youth in uniform, knee socks and signature kerchiefs assidiously planting saplings on hillsides. Did those ever live to become forests and watersheds?

Environmentalists have warned a series of presidents and DENR secretaries of the repercussions of deforestation; landslides, floods, siltation of waterways, harvests forever lost. Human lives are sacrificed, so are homes and livelihoods. It is staggeringly true that many advocates of environmental protection have been killed, with impunity, in the line of duty, by illegal loggers, greedy miners, land grabbers and varied bands of maurauders. Every Chief Executive has had the opportunity to clothe our denuded mountain ranges through efficient, effective reforestation, but it has always been– “After me, the deluge…”