Year-end wishes for agriculture

Published January 12, 2019, 12:00 AM

by manilabulletin_admin

Dr. Emil Q. Javier
Dr. Emil Q. Javier

In many countries because of the very close ecological and cultural links between agriculture (crops and livestock) and forestry, both sectors are administered by the same national ministry or department. This was our set up under the old Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources (DANR), until environment, forestry and mines were carved out together into a new Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

As far as this writer is concerned, agriculture in the broad sense includes crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry. Hence, forestry’s inclusion in the wish list.

Seventh wish: For DENR
to rediscover forest production

By the looks of it, the DENR with Secretary Roy Cimatu at the helm, indeed had a banner year. The Department reported exceeding its targets for environmental programs on solid waste management, clean air, and clean water.

Much remain to be done but significant progress had been made in monitoring, closure and rehabilitation of open and controlled dumpsites; establishment of materials recovery and recycling facilities; monitoring and formulation of airshed action plans; rehabilitation of esteros and waterways, and establishment of water quality management areas.

The National Greening Program reported reforesting 125,000 hectares and hiring 1,175 additional forest protection officers. Supervision and closure of erring mines are still much in the air but serious dialogues with the mines sector are underway.

But easily DENR’s most conspicuous single achievement was the temporary closure and rehabilitation of Boracay. Thanks no doubt to the resolute will of the President.

Conspicuously absent is the mention of achievements in agroforestry and forest production. Even the National Greening Program had been all about the environment — forest protection, biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation.

There is hardly any reference to producing forest products for domestic use and for exports; for creating livelihoods for poor people in the countryside, particularly the lumads whose vast ancestral domains are often slope lands not very suitable for arable agriculture but more ecologically suited for agroforestry and forest plantations.

In 2017, we imported US$2.04 billion worth of forest-based products like paper, paperboard, plywood, veneer panels, wood furniture and pulp. These in spite of the fact that out of our 30 million hectares of land mass, 15.81 million hectares are forest lands, and of which 10.1 million hectares have been classified by DENR itself as Established Timberlands.

Surely, had we been paying attention and investing in our 10.1 million hectares of timberlands, we would be producing most of these forest-based products themselves. And in fact we should be exporting these forest-based products as two retired UP Los Baños foresters, Adolfo Revilla and Florentino Tesoro, had been passionately pointing out all these years.

In 2017, our primary round wood log production was only 731,000 cubic meters. With the total log ban, practically all these logs came from plantations of introduced fast growing species. Since these fast-growing wood species, mainly falcata, gmelina,deglupta, and mangium can easily produce 60-80 cubic meters of wood in 8-10 year rotations, this means that at most we have a million hectares of plantation forests. Just imagine what we can produce if we have three million hectares of planted bamboo, rattan, fast-growing trees, coconut, rubber, oil palm, coffee, durian, etc. out of the 10 million hectares of classified timberlands!

My seventh wish therefore is for DENR to rediscover forest production: 1) set targets for agroforestry and plantation forests, 2) secure ownership rights of the people who plant them, and 3) link them with investors in wood processing plants to assure tree farmers of markets for their produce. And most importantly rid us of the inane department rules on permit to cut planted introduced species of trees and worse, another permit to transport the logs, in the guise of protecting natural forests.

Redirecting the national
greening program to agroforesty
and plantation forests

Since we had been investing heavily in the national greening program (NGP), we can simultaneously achieve the twin national purposes of eliminating poverty and conserving the environment, by simply redirecting the greening program to not just reforesting here and there but into organized agroforestry and plantation forests.

The NGP as presently implemented has two shortcomings — one, ecological and the other, social/cultural. In the first place, the emphasis on replanting with native tree species to conserve and save them from extinction has no scientific basis. None of our indigenous tree species are endangered.

If the purpose were to conserve our plant biodiversity, replanting of native trees is not the way to go because it is ineffective, costly and wasteful. The simpler, more expedient way is to conserve them in their natural state (in situ) by way of parks, reservations and protected areas which are not subject to exploitation. In fact, we have legislated that through the national network of protected areas (NIPAs) representing all the major eco-silvicultural environments. It is a matter of robust forest surveillance and mobilizing local government and community support by way of incentives to maintain integrity of the NIPAs.

Reforestation with native species is costly and wasteful because of their low survival rates. DENR will be loath to admit it but the real problem with the previous reforestation efforts and the current NGP (apart from allegations of corruption in seedling procurement and contract planting) is the low survival rates of the seedlings due to weed competition and very significantly due to fire.

Our partly denuded forests if allowed to regrow will naturally revert to tropical rainforest kind of vegetation. They become denuded and become grasslands after the kaingeros cut down the remaining trees left by the original timber concessionaries. The kaingeros then grow a succession of annual crops (rice and corn), in the process exhausting the fertility of the soil. Subsequently, the kaingeros abandon the kaingins and move on, clearing more. Annual fires during the dry season continue the process of degradation until cogon grass (Imperata) completely take over. Unlike trees whose growing points are aboveground, the growing points of cogon are found in their underground rhizomes and are therefore immune from fires.

The cogon grass provide the fuel for the annual fires. Thus, if there is no effort to manually to mow down the cogon, with the accumulation of cogon biomasss on the ground, very hot tree-killing fires are inevitable.

Hiring laborers to weed the plots around the newly planted seedlings is laborious and expensive. And worse, as pointed out in monitoring and assessment reports, these hired hands will not mind if the seedlings are killed by fire because they will be forever employed.

Here’s where the greening program misses out on the social/cultural aspect. The people who plant the tree seedlings will themselves look after the seedlings only if they have an economic interest in their survival. They will have an interest in the survival of the trees if the trees belong to them (not necessarily the land).

The subsidies of the greening program therefore should be redirected to organized groups of farmers and committed local government units (LGUs) who will program the establishment of forest and industrial tree plantations that will serve as the permanent sources of livelihood of those poor communities.

However, for those areas ultimately intended to become protection forests or natural reserves, the same strategy can be applied. The jump from grass vegetation to tropical rain forest is problematic because of fires. Better to apply the principle of stepwise seral succession from grass to an intermediate species, and ultimately to timber species.

The farmers will initially plant the fast-growing species as their medium term source of income but will be required to plant the indigenous tree species in between. After say two rotations of the fast-growing trees by which time the indigenous trees are already 15-20 years old, and no longer susceptible to fire, the tree farmers should be compensated for the value of the timber species they planted and move on.

However, it is very important that the tree plantations be linked to investors who will establish wood processing plants in the vicinity of the plantations to minimize log transport costs and therefore raise the farm gate value of the raw materials and income of the tree growers.

To be continued… Part 4

Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP).
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