We’ve all been aware of the huge economic impact brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many establishments had opted to close shop because business owners can hardly pay rent and their employees.
Luckily for a bunch of people, their saving grace has been their green thumb—or at least their eye for beautiful plants.
Meet restaurateur-turned-plant merchant Marvin Braceros. The Batangas born Braceros, a former OFW, had to close down his Yum Milano branch at Century City Mall, a Filipino restaurant he had started when he was still in Milan, Italy. The restaurant, which opened last year, was just taking off business-wise when COVID-19 crippled the restaurant industry.
“I spoke with the management and told them that I will just close my restaurant,” he shares. But since he has an existing contract with the mall, he was offered to open another business concept instead. Something that can “help bring back life to the mall.”
A plantito since his early 20s, he thought of putting up a plant business instead. Greens, after all, are known to immediately enliven a space. Braceros named his plant shop Respira, an Italian word meaning “to breathe.”
“The reception has been overwhelming,” he shares to ANCX. Asked how much he earns from his business, he says “Enough to survive the pandemic.”
You have to know the size of Braceros’ business to imagine just how much is “enough.” Apart from the Century City Mall store, he has a branch at the Makati Cinema Square and Greenheights Village in Parañaque. He says he is scheduled to open a new store once a week in the coming weeks. “Up to 10 stores ang naka-line-up namin—four in SM Malls, three in Robinsons Galleria, one in Megaworld, two in Ayala Malls,” he says.
He’s also glad to provide a source of income for other resellers. “I don’t sell online, so I don’t compete with them,” he says.
Fast growing industry
The growth of the plant industry in the Philippines has been unbelievably fast—and the rates of the plants are shooting up in much the same speed. One potted plant these days could sell for as high as P80,000.
Braceros thinks the main contributing factor to the huge demand is social media. “The plantitos and plantitas are posting their plants on social media and how it had helped them. There are stories being shared about its health benefits—some plants help you sleep well, gives you good oxygen,” the entrepreneur says.
Some have also started the “10-day post your plant” challenge, wherein one nominates another hobbyist to post a plant from their collection. And when the celebrities and popular personalities joined the bandwagon, posting their photographs with their own plant collections, the industry boomed even more.
To keep up with the demand, Braceros has gone to as far as Mount Banahaw, and all the way to Mount Makiling to look for plants to grow and sell. “Ang tawag na nga sa akin ay si Tarzan,” he shares with a laugh. “Nagha-house-to-house kami, naghahanap kung ano ang mga halaman na pwedeng bilhin sa mga backyards,” he says.
He says the big gardens tend to sell their plants at steep rates so he resorts to this method of sourcing—or hunting, as he puts it. “Continuous hunting, talagang walang tigil every day. Kasi pag tumigil ka, mapupunta sa ibang seller ang market mo—kasi kaya din nilang mag-hunt at mag-source,” he says. His connections grow through referrals.
Braceros also has his hunters, which help him look for specific plants that are in demand. “Dadalhin nila ako sa lugar kung saan sila nakakita ng halaman, then I give them a referral fee. Mas gusto nila ang mag-refer kasi wala naman silang puhunan para bumili ng mamamahaling halaman,” he says.
The 39-year-old also sources plants from as far as Thailand, Australia, and Africa. He admits that his small farm in Padre Garcia, Batangas cannot supply the huge demand, hence the need to source out. But he’s also planning to start a farm—a bigger one (about two hectares)—in the near future, so he can propagate especially the rare species.
Meanwhile, the high demand for rare plant species gave rise to plant poaching—or the illegal removal of rare and endangered plants from their natural habitats.
Braceros says he can’t blame the plant poachers. “Kailangan nilang mag-survive. Sa panahon kasi ng pandemic, wala silang means e. Ngayon, pag nakita nila sa bundok ang halaman, tingin nila pera na yun e. Hindi rin natin maiiwasan yun kasi merong demand,” he says.
Anson M. Tagtag, chief of the Wildlife Conservation Section of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB), says poaching incidents are more prevalent in the Banahaw area in Aurora, Quezon. “Essentially forest areas near Metro Manila,” he notes.
The City Environment and Parks Management Office in Baguio also reported that some plants in its parks have gone missing. These include the monstera plants in Mines View Park and Burnham Park, succulents at the City Hall Park, and rubber trees at Upper Session Road.
Tagtag cites some of the wild plants that are commonly/illegally collected—orchids, pitcher plant, hoya, ferns (eagle's nest, staghorn fern, tree fern) alocassia, medinilla, agarwood (aquilaria), and bantigue.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Zamboanga Peninsula also posted an announcement on its Facebook page naming plants that are critically endangered—the Giant staghorn fern or Capa de Leon (Platycerium grande), Staghorn fern (Platycerium coronarium) and the Waling-waling (Vanda sanderiana). Examples of other threatened species are the Green Velvet Alocasia (Alocasia micholitziana), Kris plant (Alocasia sanderiana), and the Zebra Plant (Alocasia zebrina). For a complete list, you may download DENR DAO 2017-11 at http://bit.ly/DENRThreatenedPHPlants.
According to Tagtag, the Bureau has stepped up its efforts to monitor plant poachers online. “Karamihan naman sa mga nakikita namin online, ordinary ornamental plants lang. Unfortunately, meron talagang ang interest ay plants na galing sa wild,” he says.
He says these incidences happen once in a while even before the pandemic, “kasi nandyan pa din ang demand for exotic, uncommon plants na hinahanap ng mga hobbyists.”
Tagtag notes that there is a law in place that governs the regulations and utilization of wildlife resources, including plants and animals—the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act (RA 9147).
The law states that those caught collecting wild plants classified as critically endangered can face imprisonment from 6 to 12 years and fined P100,000 to P1 million.
“Ang punishment ay nakadepende sa conservation status ng wildlife,” he explains.
Tagtag says that in the Philippines, the general policy when it comes to trading wildlife is that they should come from farms. “Kaya meron tayong application for wildlife farming. In other words, the plants from the wild should be propagated. Pwede kang mag-apply ng wildlife farm permit, so that you have proof that your plants are not collected from the wild.”
There are also existing Wildlife Traffic Monitoring Units in our airport at seaport to intercept any illegally collected wildlife. At the community level, there are deputized wildlife enforcement officers helping the DENR in policing any clandestine activities in our wildlife resources.
“Ang malaking portion naman ng natitirang forest ay nasa loob ng tinatawag nating protected areas—Mount Apo, Aurora National Park, Angat Watershed, Northern Sierra Madre. So merong ground patrolling sa mga lugar na ito,” he notes.
He adds that we should all be aware of the dangers of plant poaching. “Kapag hindi ito ma-regulate, our rare plant species can be decimated—mauubos ang population, yun ang ayaw nating mangyari. Like yung mga orchids natin, before 1990s it can be collected freely in the forest until even the collectors themselves realized, ubos na,” he says. “Ito kasing mga plants, may limit din yung rate of reproduction nila to cope with any form of collection. So kung ang collection is so high, talagang mauubos sila—that’s what we are trying to avoid.”
Tagtag stresses that with all the environmental problems we’ve been experiencing, and the effects of climate change, it’s very important to retain the natural areas that we have, most importantly our forests and watersheds. These are considered finite resources—“may hangganan.”
It’s hard to identify the plants that are poached, Tagtag admits. “One must be familiar with the different kinds of plants to differentiate the ordinary ones from the critically endangered.” But plant collectors can help the government by buying from legitimate sources—nurseries with wildlife control permit, business permit, and are accredited by the local government.
“Itong mga legitimate plant sellers at nurseries, binibisita din yan ng DENR from time to time to check na walang nahahalong wild plants,” he says.
On the part of the sellers, Braceros says that most of them are aware of the situation, and are finding ways to regulate it. “Pag nakikita nilang kakaunti na ang isang particular specie, nagii-stop sila ng selling,” says Braceros. “Kami mismo ang nagko-control kung paano namin ire-release ang mga halaman. Kasi not all buyers marunong mag-alaga ng halaman.” He says it takes time before a new set of plants are released to the market. “Kailangang maparami muna namin bago kami mag-sell ng next batch.” But the poachers are a different lot, adds the plant merchant. “Mahirap silang pigilan. Titigil lang sila kung hindi bibili sa kanila ang mga gardeners.”