WHEN he was governor, Serging Osmeña Jr. attempted to reforest the hinterlands of Cebu by way of aerial seeding, using ipil-ipil.

Until the 1970s, the role of the National Government in environmental regulation was generally limited to the management of publicly owned land, minerals, timber and waterways. This situation changed dramatically between 1970 and 1980, a period known as the environmental decade, primarily through extensive media coverage and the writings of such biologists as Paul Erhlich, Barry Commoner and Garrett Hardin. They helped the general public become aware of the interlocking relationships between population growth, resource use and pollution.

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During the environmental decade, legislation was passed that required the National Government to enforce regulations affecting water and air quality, resource recovery, pesticides, endangered species, noise pollution, coastal zones, ocean pollution, and toxic and hazardous wastes.

Unfortunate as it is, Cebu’s reforestation problem continues to be controversial since 70 percent of the hinterlands has gone to private ownership.

Deforestation and subsequent erosion over the centuries have left much of the island unsuitable for agriculture. The difficulty of obtaining an adequate food supply in Cebu in the mid-16th century was one of the reasons that Miguel Lopez de Legazpi abandoned the island in search of a more hospitable agricultural environment in the Archipelago.

Today, Cebu continues to be a major population center, primarily due to its key location in the heart of the Visayas, surrounded on all sides by islands of varying sizes and importance. Just as agriculture is the cultivation of fields, silviculture is the cultivation of forests to produce renewable timber resources.

There is now a need to have the political will to recognize the importance and management of forests. Forests are renewable resources that normally can regenerate themselves within 10 to 500 years. They yield two basic kinds of lumber: hardwood and soft wood. Soft wood has more commercial importance than hardwood because they are easier to harvest, produce long pulp fibers and are ready for cutting in 10 to 40 years. In addition to their commercial value as dead wood, live trees have vital ecological functions.

As Rene Dubos reminds us, “Trees are the greatest healers of nature.” They help control climate by influencing the wind, temperature, humidity and rainfall. They add oxygen to the atmosphere and assist in the global recycling of water, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen.

Forested soils absorb, hold and slowly release water, thus recharging springs, streams and underground aquifers, and regulating the downstream flow of water. This regulation of water flow also helps reduce soil erosion, the amount of sediment washing into rivers and reservoirs, and the severity of flooding.

Today, the demographic density of Cebu forces us to consider the ecological importance of forests, in terms of their ability to provide firewood, timber and wood for paper products, without considering the ecological benefits of trees.

According to one calculation, a typical tree that lives 50 years provides $196,250 worth of ecological benefits that are only about 0.3 percent of its sales value as dead wood. For example, a single tree produces $31,250 worth of oxygen, $62,500 worth of air pollution control, $31,250 in soil fertility and erosion control, $37,500 in recycling water and controlling humidity, $31,250 in shelter for wildlife, and $2,500 worth of protein.

Since 70 percent of Cebu’s land resources are now in the hands of the private sector, how will the government convince the sector to reforest their hinterland properties? No amount of reforestation campaign will succeed without the support of the private landowners.

The first step is to encourage management of small tracts of privately owned woodlands by extending tax incentives. We also need solutions to the continuing use of firewood, which threatens reforestation programs.