Is the gov’t reforestation program planting the right trees?

Pia Ranada

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Civil society organizations point to corruption and the wrong mindset as threats to the success of the National Greening Program

RESTORING FORESTS. The National Greening Program aims to plant 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 million hectares from 2011 to 2016. Photo from the National Greening Program website

MANILA, Philippines – Government’s biggest environmental project, the National Greening Program, is meeting its yearly reforestation targets, but critics ask, are we even planting the right trees? 

On Friday, February 21, civil society organizations (CSOs) that are helping the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) implement the NGP aired their grievances about the program.

Though they lauded it as one of the agency’s “most well thought out” projects, they say it is being rushed to reach the 2016 deadline at the expense of the quality of trees being planted. 

The NGP aims to plant 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 million hectares by 2016. So far, they have planted 392 million seedlings in 683,000 hectares of land. 

Groups like the Philippine Tropical Forest Conservation Foundation Inc (PTFCF) and Foundation for the Philippine Environment (FPE), civil society partners of the DENR, said a majority of trees being planted are exotic trees like mahogany, gmelina, and rubber – trees that are fast-growing but less adaptive to the Philippine environment.

A DENR Memorandum Circular in 2011 ordered the production of 25 million seedlings of exotic species for the NGP for that year. In contrast, only 5 million seedlings of native or indigenous species were ordered. 

“We were alarmed with the breakdown of what species would be planted. They told us because they are fast-growing. Second, that there are no planting materials. On both counts, we challenged them,” said Jose Andres Canivel of PTCFC. 

Canivel said that the people’s organizations under them, which include indigenous peoples (IPs) and community organizations, plant native species, many of which are better performing than exotic species in terms of quality of wood, growth and resilience. 

“There is more than enough native species for the NGP,” said Canivel.

Native species like narra, dipterocarps, Philippine mahogany are the kinds of trees that should be planted because they are more likely to survive and fulfill the mission of the NGP to restore Philippine forests.

Here’s why native trees are better, according to Canivel.

  1. They are better adapted to local climate conditions since they naturally grow in the country in the first place. This makes them stronger and more resilient in the long run.
  2. They have higher resistance to pests and typhoons. In Albay, exotic trees fell after Typhoon Yolanda passed through. The native trees lost many of their leaves but remained standing.
  3. They are more effective in promoting biodiversity. Some types of birds don’t make nests on exotic trees. In some cases, undergrowth do not grow where exotic trees are planted. Native animals are also more likely to eat the fruits of indigenous trees.
  4. Many Philippine native trees are high-value trees which can command good market prices, eventually aiding in the poverty alleviation component of the NGP which seeks to provide livelihood for communities through forest products.
  5. Native trees are the types of trees planted by most indigenous peoples and community groups. If the NGP prioritizes native trees, these groups will get the benefits. In comparison, exotic trees are usually sourced from commercial suppliers.  

Going native 

So why is the DENR planting mostly exotic trees?

“It’s clear that in the commodity roadmap of the NGP, we have timber to cater to the wood demand for the future, fuel wood species for the households, high value crops like coffee, cacao, rubber, bamboo, fruit trees, mangrove and endemic or native species,” said DENR Forest Management Bureau Director Ricardo Calderon in a text message to Rappler.

“Remember that NGP is not just for reforestation but also for economic development and livelihood for the upland farmers.” 

Dr Perry Ong, a Biology professor from the University of the Philippines, said one reason given by the DENR for focusing on exotic trees is they are more abundant in supply.

“They only get what is available in commercial nurseries. Of course, you won’t find native tree species seedlings because they survey in the commercial. They were catering to the commercial operator,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English.

But with NGP’s large budget, there’s no reason why the DENR can’t help make native species more abundant in the market, and thus cheaper.

The NGP was allotted P6.2 billion this 2014 – the lion’s share of the DENR total budget of P23.36 billion.

“That’s a game changer,” said Ong. “You just announce, ‘we won’t buy exotic trees for NGP.’ Don’t you think things will change? You have the money, why do you need to respond to the needs of the operators?”

He suggested that the DENR introduce the native trees in phases. A 50% maximum limit for exotic trees in the first year can be imposed. The succeeding year, the limit can be lowered until exotic trees can be completely phased out from the NGP.

The politics of reforestation

Some people’s organizations suspect the bias for exotic trees is tied up with bias for certain seedling suppliers. 

Tribal elder Bernardo Limikid of the Mansaka tribe in Compostela Valley shared how their agreement with the government to produce native seedlings fell through when a “favored” seedlings supplier came into the picture. 

“We had an agreement to plant a nursery worth P160,000. Then the PENRO (Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office) told us it would not push through because they needed to meet a deadline. They already found another supplier. The supplier sent us the seedlings, but they were the wrong species,” said Limikid in Filipino. 

Incidents like this frustrate people’s organizations who, in the first place, partnered with the DENR to receive the benefits of the NGP.

It was supposed to be a mutually-beneficial arrangement in which IPs and community groups would enrich their own lands with their trees, thereby helping the NGP meet its targets. In return, DENR would pay them P12 per seedling and cover other expenses for digging holes and transporting the seedlings.  

But in many instances, plans were never realized. CSOs reported delayed payments from the DENR and DENR field offices not knowing about new agreements made with the national office. 

Ong said he does not know where in the DENR the problem lies. To Secretary Ramon Paje’s credit, he said, he is the only secretary who really involves CSOs in reforestation. Paje is also very responsive to criticism from CSOs and would instruct officials under him to attend to their concerns, said Ong.

Many CSO troubles begin with regional or provincial DENR offices that have suki (favorite) seedling suppliers who are given the hectares of land supposedly given to CSOs for their tree-planting.

For example, a contract for seedlings was given to commercial suppliers in Talisay, Batangas to be planted in Polillo, Quezon even if there was a people’s organization in Polillo able to provide indigenous trees. The organization was disqualified “on a technicality,” said Ong, but in the end, the commercial supplier bought seedlings from the organization at a lower price. The seedlings were then delivered to DENR. 

The CSOs have reported all incidents to the DENR. The agency said they have started investigations.

Ong worries that DENR’s mindset may be to meet NGP’s ambitious targets “at all costs regardless of the consequences.” 

“We may be planting green but is it the right green? This is supposed to alleviate poverty but whose poverty is being alleviated?” –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.