"Don't it always seem to go. That you don't know what you've got till it's gone" - "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell
There's green gold in Philippine forests.
The demand for high-quality hardwood products and furniture has driven native trees near the brink of extinction—propelling community stakeholders to look for ways to preserve them and the country's biodiversity, according to Richard Tantoco, president of the Energy Development Corporation (EDC).
"Economic value is the main driver for why the tree itself is threatened and dwindling," Tantoco said during the launch of conservation book "BINHI: Tree for the Future" last week.
The Philippines is currently fourth in a 2011 list of 10 most threatened forested hotspots in the world, according to green group Conservation International. The country only has seven percent of its original forest habitat remaining, after Indo-Burma (southern Asia), New Caledonia (Pacific Islands), and Sundaland (Indonesia/Malaysia).
Many of the Philippines' forested areas have been cleared to make way for houses, pastures, farms, and industrial and commercial centers, among others.
Native trees such as Narra and Kamagong are part of a list of 400 endangered Philippine trees that are considered critically endangered, with only several thousand left in the wild, according to studies done by University of the Philippines Los Baños.
"Hindi natin alam na iyong population [ng mga puno] sa wild ay paubos na ng paubos. Critically endangered na sila (We did not know that their population in the wild was dwindling. They are now critically endangered)," said Professor Pat Malabrigo of UP's College of Forestry and Natural Resources.
"Before, it was a major source of livelihood of upland farmers, kaya ang daming nawalang ng trabaho (that’s why a lot of them lost jobs)," added Dr. Willie Abasolo, dean of University of the Philippines (UP) Los Banos' College of Forestry and Natural Resources, in a separate interview.
The dwindling number of native trees in the wild has prompted concerned parties such as the EDC, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and non-government organizations to look for ways to preserve their existence.
The book "BINHI: Tree for the Future" lists 96 threatened indigenous species of trees that are being saved through the efforts of EDC.
One example is the Tindalo tree, one of which was planted by President Manuel L. Quezon on October 19, 1938 in Bacolod.
Instead of finding Tindalo seedlings in the mountains for a reforestation project, EDC foresters found what they needed at the Bacolod City Plaza.
"Can you imagine the irony? Wala na sa bundok (It’s no longer in the mountains), it’s in a city park!" forester Rei Medrano said in BINHI. This sentiment led to the late president’s tree becoming an inspiration for the BINHI Tree for the Future project.
Other threatened indigenous species chronicled in BINHI include the Tindalo, Kamagong, Narra, Molave, Ipil, Guijo, and Yakal.
PHILIPPINE RESIN USED BY LUXURY BRAND
Native trees are among the most coveted worldwide, for the diverse range of products that can be made from them. Hardy and versatile, they are used for many things from furniture to coffins, and even homegrown remedies for ailments.
Aside from lumber, other parts of native trees are valuable raw materials. Resin from the Piling liitan, exclusively found in the Philippines, was used by international luxury brand Chanel in skin care products.
The Pili tree, a vulnerable species, is known for its delicious nuts, while the critically endangered Bagauak morado, commonly used as an ornamental plant, is loved for its beautiful maroon leaves and flamboyant white flowers.
Some indigenous trees, meanwhile, are valuable more for their exclusivity. Some trees, such as the critically endangered Baguilumbang, are found only in the Philippines and nowhere else in the world, according to BINHI.
Other trees, such as the Manggis, an endangered tree, are favorites for the nests of rare Philippine birds including the Philippine cockatoo, Palawan hornbill, Philippine hill mynah (kiyaw), and the Philippine green parrot (pikoy). The Manggis is also beloved of giant honeybees, which use the tree as a source to produce an expensive type of honey.
FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS
However, some tree planting efforts in the Philippines which aim to save the country's forest cover do not often involve the planting of many these coveted trees, but of "exotic" varieties which, according to Tantoco, alter local biodiversity rather than enhance it.
Thus the EDC and its partners, as well as the DENR, pledged to rescue these species "with the greatest threat and highest economic value", which are primarily threatened by loggers aiming to sell them at a premium, he said.
The EDC also partnered with academic institutions such as the University of the Philippines, Philippine Science High School, University of St. La Salle-Bacolod, and University of Negros Occidental-Recolectos to find ways "to figure out how to pot" the tree wildings and spread them in schools, parks, and nature reserves across the country.
The DENR’s Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau also played a key role in providing technological assistance on preserving and conserving tree species.
Since BINHI project's inception in 2008, there are now over 100 planting locations across the country.
"The best time to rescue these species is now. Otherwise, we will deprive our youth of the natural beauty of what was once our country's pride," EDC Chairman Emeritus Dr. Oscar Lopez said.
BINHI chronicles how the EDC and its partners worked on search and rescue efforts to save endangered trees, develop and use technology such as the country’s first automated mist-irrigation system to grow the trees in a reproduction facility, and help preserve the country’s biodiversity.
"More than the trees and the [chronicling of their preservation through a] book, what’s important is…the legacy that you want to give the future," said environment Secretary Gina Lopez.
Lopez said she and the DENR are "determined...on a personal level" to bring about the growth of more indigenous trees around the country.