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DENR chief grilled on reforestation program

MANILA, Philippines – Environment Secretary Ramon Paje was grilled about the government’s reforestation program on Tuesday, June 3, during a Senate hearing on his ad interim appointment.

The National Greening Program (NGP) is the Aquino administration’s biggest environment program, with the goal of planting 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 million hectares by 2016.

So far, the program has planted 392 million trees over 683,482 hectares, according to data from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

It receives the lion’s share of the department’s budget – P6.1 billion out of P23.36 billion or around 27%.

Senator Antonio Trillanes IV questioned the NGP accomplishment report, pointing out that all the numbers were coming from the department instead of an objective third party.

Paje had earlier admitted that it was the Forest Management Bureau (FMB) under the department doing the counting of planted trees.

“That’s our problem, Secretary. How would we actually know that this data is correct because this data also comes from your office? This may be self-serving data. If an international body conducted the survey, it would be believable,” said Trillanes.

Paje replied that all planted trees are geo-tagged and are trackable via global positioning system (GPS).

Geo-tagging is the process of attaching coordinates or location-specific information to photos or videos taken using a camera or mobile phone. Photos of planting sites can be viewed in the NGP website.

The DENR also uses drones to conduct aerial surveys to validate whether regional offices, local governments, and people’s organizations are planting their committed number of trees.

Success story?

Senator Sergio Osmeña III also cautioned against painting the NGP as a success story too early in the program.

Though Paje proudly reported that the planting target for 2013 had been exceeded by around 80,000 hectares, Osmeña asked how many of the upland communities who helped plant the seedlings actually benefited from the seedlings.

“When do they harvest the trees? When do they get the benefits and then reharvest? Because that’s when you know it’s successful,” said the senator.

He was referring to the poverty-alleviating aspect of the NGP. More than a reforestation program, President Benigno Aquino III said he wanted the NGP to provide livelihood and income for rural communities when he made the program a national priority through Executive Order 23.

Paje replied that most of the trees planted have not yet reached the stage of harvesting. Some exotic trees, already deemed "fast-growing," take 10 years to reach maturity. Crop trees like cacao, however, take two to two and a half years to grow.

But he assured the Senate panel that earnings from the harvesting of trees in 1.5 hectares would be more than enough to allow a farmer to replant 50 hectares.

This computation is based on DENR estimates that one tree can produce one cubic meter of fuelwood, which can sell for P2,000 ($46) each.

Under the NGP, trees are planted in two types of areas: protected areas and production areas. According to Paje, protected areas are planted with endemic trees, like Lauan and narra, in order to bring back biodiversity. Harvesting of timber is prohibited in protected areas of which the country has 232.

Production areas, meanwhile, are planted with crop trees and exotic trees, with the goal of providing upland communities with a source of income when they harvest the trees.

'All blue skies'

Osmeña again questioned Paje on his statement that 8 million hectares of denuded and unused land all over the country can be used as planting sites for the NGP.

“I’m a farmer. It’s not as simple as that. Where are your soil samples? Do you know if those 8 million hectares are suitable for planting?” Osmeña said.

Paje admitted that the DENR has only been able to make soil samples and tests on 1.5 million hectares of the 8 million.

Paje had also stated that if these hectares of land could be “made productive” through planting of palm oil and other high-value crops, the country could earn as much as P800 billion a year given that one hectare of productive land can yield P100,000.

But Osmeña was not convinced. “You keep showing us blue skies so everything looks good. But it’s not that simple. Productivity doesn’t just depend on the soil. It’s the micro-climates of an area and the nature of the crops that can tell you if it’s going to be productive.”

Hurried program?

This is not the first time Paje was questioned about his implementation of the NGP. (READ: Is the gov't reforestation program planting the right trees?)

People’s organizations tapped by the DENR to help plant trees have criticized how the program is being hurried at the expense of the quality of trees being planted.

Allegations of corruption, such as the favoring of certain commercial seedling suppliers and land-grabbing of sites meant for tree-planting, are rife.

Dr Perry Ong, a biology professor from the University of the Philippines previously told Rappler, “Paje’s mindset seems to be to meet NGP’s targets at all costs regardless the consequences.”

But he gave Paje credit for the NGP being among the “most well thought of projects” of the government and for actively involving civil society organizations and communities in the NGP.

Problems plaguing the NGP may lie in the ground personnel or regional and provincial DENR officials who enter into anomalous deals under the guise of the NGP, he said.

Paje chose to be brief when asked about his thoughts on the intense questioning, “It was fair. No hard feelings.”

The hearing on his appointment will resume on June 10. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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