Unseen price tags

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Saturday, May 3, 2014


JOCKEYING by presidential aspirants, like Jejomar and Mar, cram headlines. These stories blur gut issues that will determine whether our grandchildren will inherit a livable country.

Collapse of the soil is one such threat. It takes nature 100 years to form a centimeter of topsoil. That thin layer separates us from starvation or food. Yet, an hour’s downpour, on deforested land, will flush this resource into the sea.

Cebu and Batangas top the list of provinces that lost over three-fourths of its top soil. In Mindanao, 299 million metric tons of topsoil are swept away yearly. Nationwide, erosion for upland agriculture costs P6.3 billion, wrote Herminia Francisco and Maria de los Angeles in a UN Food and Agriculture Organization study.

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Lost soil nutrients represent 4.2 percent of gross value added in agriculture. That chews up one percent of everything the country earns. This sum could have been “spent for soil conservation.”

Three senators burned P581 million in pork. But how does one quantify a loss which spans generations?

Muddy stains discolor the seas where major rivers exit, as in Lingayen Bay or Davao Gulf. These are saline graveyards for irreplaceable topsoil.

In 1595, trees blanketed 27.5 million hectares. But a logging mafia wrecked that “heirloom.” Their log exports topped 11.1 million cubic meters in 1974, making the Philippines one of the world’s trimber prima donnas. Exports plummeted to puny 841,000 cubic meters a decade later. The forests still have to recover. We now import wood.

The first hard-to-detect symptoms appear in heavily logged over areas. Plants fail to regenerate. Tree crown covers fall. Wildlife and other plant life disappear as soil collapses. “Reversing soil erosion makes fighting insurgency seem like child play,” the late national scientist Dioscoro Umali wrote.

Degradation damages pile up unnoticed. This delays corrective measures, accelerating further deterioration. When tallied, loss can exceed by 10 times deforestation. These invisible price tags should help us sense the hidden patterns of change.

“All too often, we register the dramatic flareups,” editor Theo Sommers once noted. “Yet, the geological changes underfoot often escape our notice. We reveal in linear extrapolations of existing trends. But we are inclined to forget that every trend begets its own counter trend, every vision it's revision.”

Tourism officials market rice terrace festivals. Less obvious is the fact that the terraces have lost half of their farmers. Almost 80 percent of them can no longer harvest enough rice to feed their families. On average, rice produced lasts only 5.1 months. ”It is no surprise that young ones, particularly those who have gone to school, migrate to other provinces such as Isabela, Quirino, Pangasinan and Baguio City.”

All these have not upset minds mired in long vanished abundance. “There’s more where it came from,” officials shrug. Can our vision be broader?

In his book “The Governance of Ecology,” former Environment Secretary Victor Ramos writes: "Local governments are in the best position to create the most environmentally informed communities.” He pinpoints features that make for effective ecological governance in a country an often paralyzed by personality politics.

Resolving the common crisis “in our environmental present and future,” Ramos says, is not only for the strong but the creative. All should contribute in settling those invisible price tags. After all, they too have grandchildren.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on May 04, 2014.

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