Geothermal power shows that energy development can be more biodiversity-friendly. Energy Development Corporation is demonstrating how…
On top of Mt. Apo, the highest point in the Philippines. The vast stretch of land cradles one of the successfule reforestation projects in the country. (Photo by Albert Labrador for EDC)
When the first Spanish fleet arrived on the shores of the Philippines, the entire archipelago was covered in 28.5 million hectares of primary forests or about 95 percent of the entire land area. Had the crew of Ferdinand Magellan, the first circumnavigator of the world, managed to pierce through the army of Lapu-Lapu in 1521, he would still have to penetrate the dense coppice of Homonhon. Thicker forestlands most probably greeted the frigates of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi when they landed on the islands of Cebu and Samar. Indeed, the Spanish empire settled in an unexploited land where the rainforest matched that of Brazil, a colony then of its rival, Portugal.
Maybe Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and the Spanish colonizers did not feel obliged to plant new trees for every hectare of forestland that they cleared. Yet when the Spanish rule ended at the turn of the century, the country still had 21 million hectares of forests. It was only in the post-war years when the country‟s forests started vanishing at an alarming rate. According to the Philippine Forest Management Bureau (FMB), the Philippines has now only 7 million hectares of forest lands left – less than a million in old-growth forests. This is a meager 23% compared to the densely foliaged land discovered by the conquistadores 500 years ago.
So what have we done to reverse this trend? The fight against environmental destruction is now being waged all over the world, thanks to Al Gore and the global warming buzz. Yet this has also spawned the “fight climate change” bandwagon everyone wants to be a part of – from Hollywood actors, business tycoons, and politicians to environmentalist bloggers. Had Magellan lived today, he might have made expeditions in the name of environmental protection and his chronicler, Pigafetta, would have written profusely about it in his blog. But the good thing about all these discordant voices is that they do not only make us see the ugly effects but also help us accept that climate change is a stark reality and that we are largely responsible for it. But really, how do we address the problem?
A Holistic Approach
The word binhi is the Filipino term for seed source. This “seed of thought” has become the eponymic title of a country-wide reforestation program of Energy Development Corporation, the operator of the world’s biggest geothermal wet steam field.
Binhi as a program goes back to the basic tenet of reforestation – nurturing of mother tree species so seedlings can be propagated. It has been observed that fast-growing species like Mahogany and Gemelina have sprouted everywhere as a result of the massive tree-planting program of the government in the 90s. The knee-jerk reaction then was to immediately plant trees to overtake the deforestation rate and fast-growing trees provided the ready solution. Looking back with the gift of hindsight, we now see that we have overlooked a simple fact: the prime endangered endemic trees were left out in the reforestation race. Among the trees that need conservation, which among them are critically endangered? How many are considered prime (with high economic value) and endemic or can only be found in the Philippines? And that’s how the consensus to proliferate indigenous high-valued tree stocks was arrived at.
Binhi goes beyond than just digging a hole in the ground and sticking seedlings into them. Binhi rethinks the whole idea of reforestation. Yes, the program will still do a lot of tree planting. But what kind of trees would Binhi proliferate and how? What new values would Binhi create for trees? When we see a tree, we see mostly its environmental purposes – carbon sink, forest cover, sanctuary for wildlife and watershed. Yes, those are the natural functions of trees. But in this day and age, maybe it can now be argued that trees should also provide for man’s modern needs? Quite paradoxical isn‟t it? And Binhi is seeking a new and enlightened way of looking at forest protection and preservation. As Patrick Geddes, the great urban planner, said, “By leaves we live and man must find the most appropriate mode of coexistence with trees.” Therefore, Binhi follows a four-pronged strategy: Tree for Life (biodiversity bridging research), Tree for Food (alternative livelihood derived from sustained yield schemes), Tree for Leisure (recreational benefits of trees) and Tree for the Future (the flagship module targeting the setting up of urban forests of prime, endangered and indigenous trees).
The Greening Legacy
Aside from being threatened, these species are not prolific seed producers – they do not produce at rates similar to the fertility rate of Filipinos. It takes 20-30 years for them to fully mature, bear flowers and produce seeds. Even if public schools shifted to planting molaves and yakals, there would not be enough seedlings left to bring back their pre-war numbers, at least not in the next five generations or so.
When EDC was scouring for seeds of tindalo (Afzelia rhomboidea), a tree with superior attributes and timber quality similar to that of narra, the national tree, they found it thriving in the most unexpected place – in a public plaza, at the heart of a city. As it turned out, that tindalo tree was the seedling that former Pres. Manuel L. Quezon planted in the 1938 during the chartering of Bacolod City. It is clear that these threatened trees have better chances of surviving when cultivated in public parks than when left in the wild where they will be eventually logged because no one will be there to guard them. One of Binhi’s goals is to make schools and local governments become seed producers of these trees because they can provide all the pampering and protection that they need.
The tindalo tree thriving in a public plaza in Bacolod City
It became very symbolic to have launched Binhi in the Quezon Memorial Park where the tindalo seedlings that came from the progeny of the Quezon tindalo tree in Bacolod were planted in a homecoming fashion. The tindalo seed has become the icon of the Binhi initiative. It possesses the sturdy traits of prime Philippine trees and historical value of its own. The tindalo icon aims to deliver the message that it is important not just to plant any tree but specially those that are most valuable to the Filipinos’ sustainable development and national identity.
We live in a modern age when the lament is that everything has been done before. Binhi is another way of re-thinking the solution to the rapid decline of our environment. Here in the Philippines, Binhi will show that there is a new, innovative and more audacious way of providing a truly Filipino solution to the environmental crisis. Ultimately, Binhi seeks to empower the Filipino people so they may take it upon themselves to regenerate these tree species that would have otherwise been lost to us forever.
Perhaps the true test of Binhi as a program will be the waiting time for these trees to repopulate the land. The tindalos, yakals, molaves and other similar trees that we plant today will fully mature after my generation has passed this earth. We may not see the full re-greening of our streets but the seeds that we plant today and the seed of thought that we teach our kids will lay down the foundation. The birth of a thousand forests starts with one acorn, as they say. Who knows, our forests might return to the way they were when Ferdinand Magellan first set foot on the Philippine shores. Maybe by that time, tindalo and the rest of its sister species will come back lining up the streets named after them.