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Increasing forest covers and wildlife conservation glitches
by Jane Cadalig

The Cordillera region recorded an impressive accomplishment in the country’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), particularly Goal 7, which dwells on ensuring environmental sustainability.

Among the indicators that a region is faring well in the achievement of Goal 7 is the proportion of land area covered by forest and the ratio of area protected to maintain biological diversity.

Amidst problems on land conversion, the region has consistently, although ironically, pinned a positive progress in expanding its forests.

A 2010 report entitled, “State of the Forest” by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources showed Cordillera’s forest covers increased to 864,811 hectares in 2010 from 796,655 hectares and 727,831 hectares in 2003 and 1987, respectively.

According to the National Statistical Coordination Board, the proportion of land area covered by forests in the region was 4.4 percent in 1990. This increased to 7.6 percent in 2009. In the same baseline year, the ratio of area protected to maintain biodiversity is 7.7 percent. This has gone up to 10.5 percent in 2010.

At the national level, the proportion of land covered by forests is 20.5 percent in 1990 and 23.9 percent in 2003 while the ratio of area protected to maintain biodiversity is 8.5 and 13.6 in 1990 and 2012, respectively.

The NSCB is in charge of compiling the country’s accomplishment in each of the MDGs and indicates whether or not it is able to achieve the target for each goal.

Counting the trees

How the region managed to increase its forest covers despite problems on the conversion of wooded lands into agricultural, residential, and industrial uses, DENR-Forest Management Services Regional Technical Director Augusto Lagon explains it this way: The inventory of trees does not only stop in natural forests.

Aside from the forest lands, the DENR also accounts for trees grown in alienable and disposal (A and D) lands, trees in mineral lands, and trees planted in ancestral domain areas, which explains the increasing trend in forest cover.

Based on the DENR State of the Forest report, about 29,641.86 hectares of the region’s A and D lands are covered by trees while out of the estimated 15,872.73 hec-tares of mineral lands, about 7,060.23 hectares or 45 percent is planted with trees.

Out of the 497,909.73 hectares of land covered by certificate of ancestral domain certificate, 285,837.41 hectares are covered by trees while 350,584.30 hectares of areas with certificate of ancestral domain title are planted with trees.

All the region’s 306 hectares covered by certificate of ancestral land title are planted with trees.

Conversion and natural regeneration

Lagon said when they presented the report to various stakeholders, the findings, particularly the increasing trend of forest covers, raised some eyebrows.

He said a local government official observed the DENR findings contradict the obvious – forest lands are diminishing due to their wanton conversion into farmlands and other uses.

But Lagon said focusing only on forest land conversion will not help one appreciate how the region managed to improve its forest covers.

He said natural regeneration, reforestation, and the sustainable ways of various tribes in the region in using resources helped the agency post a positive achievement in its target.

He said while wooded lands are indeed converted into gardens, residential areas, and other uses, nature has also its own way of healing itself.

“Let us look beyond the agricultural lands. There are areas that naturally regenerate. As long as we do not convert them into gardens, trees will grow in them over time,” he said. Natural regeneration usually occurs in degraded or sparsely forested areas.

Since 1987, the DENR said the estimated area covered with trees as a result of natural regeneration is 3,152 hectares per year.

Aside from natural regeneration, past reforestation efforts are also attributed to the region’s vegetation. The areas that have been the subjects of regreening initiatives in the past have grown into full forest plantations, according to the DENR.

Tree planting conducted by private land owners also complemented government reforestation efforts.

From 1987 to 2010, an average of 4,729 hectares of public forests and private lands were reforested every year.

Above all, Lagon said it helped that the Cordillera is dominated by indigenous peoples who manage their forest resources in a sustainable manner.

“We owe (the region’s lush forests) to our culture. The traditional system of managing our forests shows that as long as we employ sustainable practices, our resour-ces will remain,” Lagon said.

The DENR, in partnership with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, is currently compiling the various indigenous forest management practices in the region. Practices certified to be sustainable will be used as basis in coming up with policies or regulations on environmental management.

Forest loss and degradation

But while the Cordillera boasts of its considerably thick vegetation and its consistently improving progress in reforestation, the threat of forest loss and degradation remains.

The same DENR report showed the region is losing 500 hectares of forest lands yearly. About 106 hectares are lost and 394 hectares are degraded.

At a national scale, the annual forest cover loss is 46,954 hectares between 2003 and 2010 alone.

Forest loss happens when the area is converted to a farm, residential area, road, or other uses that will no longer allow it to revert to its original state.

Meanwhile, a forest is degraded when it is hit by a fire and other causes such as pest infestation or timber poaching. Forest degradation can be salvaged by reforestation and natural regeneration.

Lagon said forest threats will remain due to the increasing population but the key to maintain them is sustainable management and use. This must involve the help of all stakeholders such as the local government units, which are expected to come up with sound land use policies and strictly enforce them.

Wildlife conservation woes

The seemingly easy job of increasing forest covers does not automatically translate to a successful wildlife protection.

The existence of wild flora and fauna does not depend on human intervention. A wild animal that became extinct, for example, cannot be replaced, just as easily as a dead tree. They depend on human’s ability to protect them – from hunting and other forms of illegal gathering.

This is why the government identified various areas in the country and declared them as protected areas. In the Cordillera, there are four national parks: the Cassamata Hill in Abra, Balbalasang National Park in Kalinga, Mt. Pulag National Park in Benguet, and the Mt. Data National Park in Mountain Province.

These declared reservations boast of diverse wildlife including orchids, tree ferns, wild pig, cloud rat, and wild pig, among other species.

But mere declaration of these areas as national parks does not end there. Neither will it guarantee their protection from human exploitation.

The NIPAS Act

DENR’s Protected Areas, Wildlife, and Coastal Zone Management Services (PAWCZMS) Chief Joel Behis said the region’s four national parks are merely initial protected area components, which are yet to be established under Republic Act 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act of 1992.

The NIPAS Act provides the legal framework for the establishment and management of protected areas in the Philippines. It defines protected areas as portions of land and/or water set aside because of their unique physical and biological significance, managed to enhance biological diversity, and protected against destructive human exploitations.

Behis said all national parks must be declared under the NIPAS. “Their proclamation as forest reservations must come with a Congress legislation. They need laws in order to be included under the NIPAS Act,” he said.

According to the Philippine Clearing House Mechanism website, the NIPAS Act identified 202 initial components comprising of proclaimed national parks, game refuge and wildlife sanctuaries, nature reserves, wilderness areas, mangrove reserves, watershed reservations, fish sanctuaries, protected landscapes, and seascapes.

These initial components are the areas that were proclaimed before the effectivity of the NIPAS Act. The four national parks in the Cordillera are among the initial components.

Out of the 202, 13 already have specific laws governing their establishment under the NIPAS, the Philippine Clearing House Mechanism added.

These are Batanes Island Protected Landscape and Seascape and Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park (Region 2); Mts. Banahaw-San Cristobal Protected Landscape (Region 4-A); Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (Region 4-B); Mt. Kanla-on Natural Park (Region 6); Sagay Marine Reserve (Region 6), Central Cebu Protected Landscape (Region 7); Mimbilisan Protected Landscape, Mt. Kitanglad Range Protected Area, and Mt. Malindang Natural Park (Region 10); Mt. Apo Natural Park and Mt. Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary (Region 11); and Bangan Hill Natural Park-R2.

Not one of the region’s national parks is included in the 13 components that already have defined policies.

Several protected areas in the country have also been designated as World Heritage Sites in recognition of their importance as biodiversity spots. These are Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance also called the Ramsar Convention, recognized the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, Naujan Lake National Park, and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.

The Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary in Tawi-Tawi were declared as Transboundary Protected Areas and the Mt. Apo Natural Park, Mts. Iglit-Baco National Park, and Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park were declared as among the ASEAN Heritage Parks.

Again, not one of Cordillera’s declared protected areas is included in the list of internationally-recognized wildlife sanctua-ries, nature, or watershed reserves despite citations, not only by the locals, but also by various researchers, of the region’s rich biodiversity resources.

Complications

“Our problem is, our national parks are covered by ancestral land claims, which means consultation with them is a must. They have a say on how these protected areas are delineated,” Behis said.

Consulting the IPs is not a problem. Like the forests and wildlife, there are also laws that protect the IPs from exploitation, foremost of which is the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997.

Problems arise when indigenous cultural communities and government agencies cannot reconcile their differences in terms of how the protected areas should be delineated and managed. Most often, the IPs are apprehensive their domains would be taken from them.

Behis cited as an example the ongoing boundary delineation of Mt. Pulag. Among the three towns bordering the reservation (Buguias and Kabayan, Benguet and Tinoc, Ifugao), the DENR is having a hard time negotiating with the villages in Kabayan.

“We do not have a problem talking with the municipal officials as to how the boundary delineation should go. The problem is at the village level where the communities want to dictate the boundaries. Most want their farms or gardens to be excluded from the reservation. That is not practical,” Behis said.

He said at the moment, the most workable thing to do is to keep encouraging the communities to help protect and conserve their areas, which they claim to be parts of their ancestral domains.

Lagon, for his part, is counting on the continuing efforts of government agencies to reconcile the differences in the laws on environment protection and those that uphold the rights of IPs.
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