THE current reforestation efforts by the Philippine government has been recently criticized by civil society organizations.

Specifically, they expressed their disappointment over the government's National Greening Program (NGP) and its choice of exotic trees, such as mahogany and rubber, which are not suitable for the Philippine environment.

As a response to this issue, a new approach has emerged in the restoration of Philippine forests, known as "rainforestation."

"Rainforestation is using our native trees in restoring our forests," according to Thaddeus Martinez, a forester from the Haribon Foundation. "We are prioritizing some of the endemic trees within a particular place. We are always tracking to have the tree species match with the sites."

Martinez, the program coordinator for Haribon's Road (Rainforestation Organizations and Advocates) to 2020 program, emphasized the use of native tree species, such as the many species of dipterocarps to not only restore forests in barren areas, but also to provide additional benefits for both wildlife and nearby communities.

A different type of approach

The concept of rainforestation in the Philippines originated from Dr. Paciencia Milan, former chairperson and chief executive officer of the Foundation for the Philippine Environment (FPE). It was introduced in 2002 to Haribon, which has adapted the concept into its Road to 2020 initiative.

Haribon, the Philippines' pioneer environment organization, is the current convenor of the Rainforest Restoration Initiative (RFRI), a network of 14 national and international organizations that promotes rainforestation. These groups have collectively restored 22,000 hectares of forest cover throughout the country since 2005.

The RFRI has conducted hundreds of tree-planting activities in provinces, such as Rizal, Quezon, Zambales, Laguna, and Surigao del Sur.

At present, the Road to 2020 campaign is focused on forest protection and restoration in the Mounts Banahaw-San Cristobal Protected Landscape, which spans Laguna and Quezon province. It serves as the home to endemic fauna such as the Philippine eagle, Luzon fruit bat, Philippine cockatoo, and Japanese bullet frog, as well as unique palms, ferns, and mahogany trees. The nearby forests also help store and purify fresh water that flows downhill toward towns like San Pablo, Laguna.

Martinez noted the enthusiasm of nearby towns, such as Rizal, Laguna, to tree-planting initiatives in their locales.

The people's organizations representing these towns have conducted knowledge and resource-sharing activities with non-government organizations (NGOs) regarding information such as specific sites for reforestation, the native tree species common in these lands, and other best practices related to environmental conservation. In return, the local communities reap the financial rewards for taking care of their forests and its biodiversity.

"We provide the livelihood incentives to the communities. The communities raise the seedlings until they become fruit-bearing trees or vegetables. They maintain the site and then receive a quarterly financial incentive," he said.

How it combats climate change

Martinez said that rainforestation initiatives not only help increase forest cover in the Philippines, but also increases climate resiliency in the country.

In contrast to the rushed reforestation approach under the NGP, using this method helps stabilize the natural equilibrium in forested areas, which would allow surrounding communities to adapt more easily to the impacts of climate change.

"Climate change mitigation is a long-term solution. We cannot help resiliency if your environment is not good," he added. "If we are trying to restore our forests, we will have bigger carbon sequestration. The more trees, the more carbon sequestration, the lesser the impact of climate change, the healthier the forests, the better the resiliency of our communities."

The use of native trees also results in the return or increase of biodiversity in these areas, which helps restore natural balance crucial to local resilience to disaster events and provide more adaptable livelihoods for nearby communities.

"Biodiversity is a way of life. That's why we are trying to emphasize that all things are connected," Martinez said. "If you are used to planting trees, it will reflect all throughout. If only people has the right attitude to love the environment, it will have a good effect on our climate. The more we protect the forests and biodiversity, directly or indirectly, it will have a good effect to lessen the impacts of climate change."

He cited the rainforestation activities in the Caliraya-Lumot Watershed in Laguna as an example of its benefits toward biodiversity conservation and climate resilience. Since the tree-planting initiative started in 2009, local inhabitants have reported changes in their environment, such as a cooler microclimate, fresher air, an increased presence of birds, insects, and smaller plant species, and a moister, more fertile soil. The improvements in soil conditions have resulted in increased productivity from farming activities, which led to higher financial incentives for farmers.

Challenges and opportunities

Despite numerous criticisms, reforestation initiatives by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in collaboration with NGOs and the private sector, have succeeded in increasing forest cover in the Philippines in recent years.

The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that the country has around eight million hectares of forest cover, which constitutes only 27 percent of the total land area.

However, the country experienced the fifth highest annual increase of forested area in the world from 2010 to 2015, restoring 240,000 hectares per year. This is a drastic change from the reported annual loss of 18,700 hectares of forests from 2000 to 2010.

But the Philippines has a long way to go in its efforts for reforestation, considering it has one of the lowest forest covers in Southeast Asia. Aside from the choice of tree species unsuitable to the selected environment, local activities by nearby inhabitants may cause negative impacts on the ongoing reforestation efforts.

For instance, the Road to 2020 program has observed the presence of small-scale farming and poaching activities in strict protection zones, such as areas in the Mounts Banahaw-San Cristobal Protected Landscape.

Such a problem highlights the importance of education and awareness-raising campaigns in communities near such zones. Explaining the significance of biodiversity conservation in stabilizing a fresh water supply, maintaining tolerable climate conditions, and providing economic benefits via ecosystem services can help discourage them from conducting illegal activities.

"Different people have different attitudes, we cannot please everyone. But what we can do is to do the right thing, influence them, and give them appropriate means of livelihood. It is very important that we provide additional income to provide some of the illegal activities," Martinez said.

Rainforestation also applies to urban areas, which can use the advantages provided by increased forestry. The increased presence of native trees in cities offers multiple benefits such as cooler microclimate, increased genetic diversity, and beautification of sites such as road sides.

The role of forestry in improving climate resiliency is critical for regions such as Metro Manila, which has seen its green spaces shrink in recent decades and suffers from the urban heat island effect and flooding episodes brought by monsoon and typhoon-induced rainfall.

He also emphasized that rainforestation is the key for ensuring that the increased forestry leads to sustainable development in local communities and stable wildlife ecosystems. While NGOs may lack the financial and logistical resources to conduct such a wide-scale project, collaborations with the government and local residents can alleviate said issues and foster a more efficient rainforestation movement.

"It is an ambitious program, but it's good that we have started something. And we have a clear vision of how we are going to restore our forests the right way, and that's using our own native trees," Martinez said. (John Leo C. Algo)