COMMENTARY: A Country Deprived of the Ecosystem Services of the Forests

Last of 2 parts: A nation with a devastated focal ecosystem

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/9 January) – Having crossed the sustainable limit of deforestation in the late 1940s, Filipinos gradually felt the deprivation of the original “ecosystem services” of the forests they used to enjoy. Indeed, due to severe deforestation, the present ecological state of the Philippine environment is helplessly vulnerable to various forms of natural disasters. We suffer from the bad ecological effects of deforestation. We are beginning to realize that the forest is a “focal ecosystem” whose destruction would necessarily affect all other ecosystems.

The “ecosystem services” of the forests are necessary for the maintenance of water, land, living species, and climate – among others. Let us try to account some ecologically destructive effects of the present state of degraded natural forests.

The crisis of fresh water. In its Philippines Profile 2002, the IBON Philippines reported that our country is naturally gifted with inland waters composed of over 421 river basins equivalent to 31,000 hectares, roughly 72 natural lakes equivalent to 200,000 hectares, and more than 106,328 hectares of freshwater swamplands. In terms of groundwater storage, it was estimated that the country enjoyed 261,775 million cubic meters. With these abundant water resources, the country is theoretically assured of enough water needs.

But water and forests are intimately linked because forests actually serve as efficient watersheds. Thus, with the severe deforestation in the upland, the watersheds are also expected to be degraded, and this means an eventual drop in the levels of water sources, as well as shortage of water supply in the lowland communities. It has been reported by the DENR in 2000 that, among the country’s major rivers, not one of them may be considered safe for drinking in their flowing state and that about 50 of them are already considered “biologically dead” – that is, the aquatic life has ceased to exist due to heavy chemical pollution and siltation problems. If this trend of ecological damage continues, there will be a severe freshwater crisis in the Philippines, as only 82 out of its 421 rivers are declared to be qualified (at least after certain chemical treatment) for public water supply. Obviously, the whole community of life is at stake here.

The degradation of the soil. The fact that 46 percent of the Philippines’ total land area comprises about 18-30 percent slopes (or equivalent to 10° angle elevation) is a natural disadvantage for the farmers, as the soil in the tropics tends to be thin resulting in low agricultural productivity. For this reason, the Philippine islands have to ideally maintain a forest cover of at least 54 per cent of their total land area to prevent possible ecological problems. As we have highlighted, the Philippine islands do not anymore possess this ideal area of forest cover after 1950. And because today’s remaining forest cover of the archipelago is no longer sufficient to contain and absorb the amount of water brought about by typhoons and monsoon rains, the Philippines is highly susceptible to soil-related disasters.

With the absence of a sufficient forest cover, the incidence of annual typhoons and heavy monsoon rains in the Philippines always means serious soil erosion, flash floods, and disastrous landslides. Arguably, most of these land-related disasters are generally traceable to forest denudation which deteriorates the capacity of the soil to hold water. Actually, logging-induced soil erosion does not only affect the fertility of the soil but also leads to siltation of many rivers and dams. According to a World Bank study in 1989, soil erosion is “silent” yet it is considered to be “the most serious environmental problem in the Philippines.” Thus, soil depletion due to soil erosion reduces the productivity and stability of agricultural land. Since no amount of soil fertilizers can possibly restore the metabolism and healthy condition of the land, this disadvantage in terms of agricultural productivity has a big impact on the Philippine economic poverty.

The loss of natural species. The intimate connection between the tropical rainforest and biological diversity is a well-established scientific fact. The American biologist John Terborgh claims that “a single tree in a tropical forest may support 150 species of beetle and a single hectare of trees may contain 41 thousand species of insect.” Accordingly, the crown of a single large tree yielded 54 species of ants. In this regard, Filipinos are proud to claim that their tropical forests host one of the world’s richest plant and animal species area. As reported by Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) in 1990, the Philippine rainforests are estimated to harbor about 8,120 species of flowering plants, 3,500 species of indigenous trees, 33 species of gymnosperms, 640 species of mosses, 2,400 species and sub-species of fish, around 240 species and sub-species of mammals. It has also been claimed that there are 3,000 species of plants which are endemic to the Philippines.

Unfortunately, the survival of these living species is severely affected by the loss of forests – their natural habitat and niche. Ecologists remind us that these plant and animal species are intrinsically valuable, as they perform “ecosystem services” which include: purification of air and water; decomposition, detoxification, and sequestering of wastes; regeneration of soil nutrients; pollination; controlling pest; dispersal of seed and nutrient, and many more. Since only the very small areas of the original Philippine forests have survived, one can safely infer that the loss of our forest cover also means enormous loss of wildlife species, as well as disruptive vacancies of their corresponding natural niches. In fact, many of the wild species in the Philippines are already on the verge of extinction. In effect, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had identified the country as a biodiversity “hotspot.” Expectedly, the first to be greatly affected by this loss of wildlife and its ecosystem services are the millions of indigenous peoples who consider the forests as their irreplaceable home.

The warming of the climate. According to the prevailing theory, a suitable climate largely depends on the equilibrium of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the thin layer of atmosphere, which keep the planet in an average temperature. Accordingly, if the delicate layer of atmosphere is thickened by abnormal build-up of anthropogenic GHGs, it traps the heat and makes the Earth abnormally warm. Being situated in a tropical region, the Philippine islands have the average yearly temperature of 26.5°C. This range of temperature has proved to be beneficial to the history of life in the country. Recently, however, a group of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists unequivocally declared that the earth’s climate system has warmed by over 0.7 degrees Celsius in the last 100 years – enough to melt the ice of Greenland and Antarctica and to dangerously expand the ocean water.

It is an established scientific fact that forests and vegetation cover are “not passive areas on a map with fixed climate properties but are live actors in the climate system” (James Lovelock). Forests serve as a sink of carbon dioxide (CO2), which accounts for 80 percent of total GHG emissions in the atmosphere. It has been proposed that one hectare of forests can trap a ton of CO2 every year. Aside from this absorbing function, forests also have a “buffering effect” on climate. As the Jesuit Filipino scientist Jesus Ramon Villarin has claimed, “The buffering they do is crucial by way of maintaining a micro-climate on the surface and helps to mitigate the subsequent degradation that results from changes in the climate and the environment…” With our critically denuded forests, many of our Filipino scientists warn that we are highly vulnerable to ecological disasters associated with the climate change phenomenon, including the frequent formation of stronger typhoons in the Pacific Ocean, accelerated sea level rise (ASLR), and increasing warmth of both land and sea surface temperature (SST).

Signs of hope

The good news is that we are beginning to realize that our poverty and ecological crisis have human causes. I hope that we should not just resiliently adapt the effects of ecological disasters that perpetuate our suffering; we should also courageously struggle to mitigate – if not to totally overcome – the human-induced causes of our poverty and ecological crisis. In the face of the rampant ecological disasters, we should do more than doing humanitarian charity to the victims. I believe it is not enough for us to become Good Samaritans to them; we are also challenged to serve as God’s militant prophets who work to prevent the same tragedy from happening in the future. We cannot simply tolerate and adapt what we religiously consider as a deviation from God’s plan for creation and as a denial to the historic realization of God’s Kingdom.

[Reynaldo D. Raluto is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Malaybalay. He holds a doctor’s degree in theology from the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium). His doctoral dissertation is on ecological theology of liberation in the Philippine context. He is currently assigned as a teacher of systematic theology in the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, Cagayan de Oro City.]