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New forest helps save villages

By Tessa Salazar
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:36:00 11/02/2009

Filed Under: Good news, Forest and forest management, Conservation, Environmental Issues, Biodiversity, Pepeng, Corporate social responsibility

MANILA, Philippines?Over the past month, typhoons ?Pepeng? and ?Ramil? lashed northern Luzon, but residents of a town in Cagayan province are thanking their young trees for sparing their place from killer landslides that buried villages in other mountainside communities.

A 2,500-hectare reforestation project in Peablanca town has absorbed excess rainwater and trapped soil sediments, preventing soil runoff and erosion, the prerequisites to landslides, according to the local government and conservationists.

A once barren mountainside is now dotted with more than 18,000 mango trees and 680,000 other indigenous forest trees.

Though almost all of the trees are still barely above seven feet high, conservationists say they are already big and numerous enough to help hold rain water and trap sediments.

More than P141 million

The two-year-old project is funded by Toyota Motor Corp. at $3 million (more than P141 million) for six years. Conservation International Philippines, the project implementing group, has tapped the municipal government of Peablanca to nurture and protect the area even beyond the six-year funding contract.

The project, the largest environment-related fund an automaker has provided the country, covers five out of the town?s 24 barangays: San Roque, Sisim, Bugatay, Cabasan and Manga.

Eduardo H. Angadol, protected area associate of the Sierra Madre Biodiversity Corridor of Conservation International Philippines, was in Peablanca, which rests at the foot of the Sierra Madre range, when Pepeng and Ramil hit the province.

Minimal runoff

Angadol observed that incidence of surface runoff and erosion coming from higher parts of the mountains was minimal. ?Most probably, the tall grasses and trees of the project helped keep the topsoil intact,? he said.

Angadol said springs in the project site were holding water at a much longer period, an indication that the young forest was keeping more water than before.

He nevertheless said it was too early to credit everything to the forest.

Third-party evaluation

Tito Mangantulao, protected area superintendent of the Peablanca Protected Landscape and Seascape, said a third-party representative from the Forest Alliance was due to evaluate the project on Nov. 1.

The result of the evaluation, a requirement for the awarding of a community, climate and biodiversity certificate, is critical for the next phase of the project.

?There were areas here that used to be barren due to slash-and-burn farming (kaingin), but now that there is vegetation and grass, the siltation in rivers and creeks has been avoided,? Mangantulao said.

He said that villages outside the protected area experienced more soil runoffs during the storms than the five communities covered by the forest.

Less muddy

Water from the nearby Arbin Creek used to be colored brown, and its levels rose rapidly due to the mud it carried whenever heavy rains arrived, the protected area superintendent said. Because of the project, the creek was no longer that muddy, and its water level rose gradually, according to Mangantulao.

Despite the typhoons? strength and duration (Pepeng lingered for days), he saw no major damage to the forest.

Forest rangers from the environment and natural resources department also observed that the project helped regulate floodwaters flowing down from the surrounding Sierra Madre mountains into the rice-growing Cagayan Valley.

Wind breakers

Aside from the Sierra Madre, a buffer against typhoons, trees of the project served as ?wind breakers? for smaller plants.

?Reforestation always mitigates flooding and landslides,? said Dr. Kelvin S. Rodolfo, a geological scientist and awardee of the Department of Science and Technology Balik Scientist Program.

Rodolfo said ?trees absorb much of the runoff and transpire it back to the atmosphere, and their roots hold the soil.?

But during extreme events, landslides will still occur, carrying down everything?trees, as well as soils?even in an area that has been reforested for only two years, he said.

Still fragile

Angadol acknowledged that the reforestation project was still in its infancy, and was still too fragile to withstand repeated extreme weather events.

He said 22,000 more mango trees would be planted in the area.

To help protect the project, livestock has also been restricted from grazing in the area to give vegetation ample time to regenerate.

The reforestation project covers a strategic portion of the 204,000-hectare Peablanca Protected Landscape and Seascape in the northern part of Cagayan and adjoins the primary forest of the Sierra Madre.

Peablanca, 24 kilometers from the capital city of Tuguegarao, encompasses part of the headwaters of the mighty Cagayan River. The river supports the country?s largest rice-growing region, but deforestation in the area has contributed to flood and drought downstream.

Reforestation cannot only mitigate soil erosion but also ?recharge? the Cagayan River, according to Conservation International Philippines.

Philippine Eagle

The reforestation project started on Sept. 13, 2007, and is now on the second of three phases. The project covers 1,330 hectares of reforestation, 470 hectares of enhancement planting (for open areas), and 700 hectares of agroforestry (primarily of mango trees).

Peablanca is home to many natural attractions, such as the ancient Callao Caves (with a chapel built inside its cavernous mouth) and the Cagayan River. Up to 178 species of flora and fauna (birds, reptiles, bats and owls) are found here, including the endangered Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi).

Rice-hull stoves

Reforestation provides a sustainable alternative to the kaingin practices of native dwellers which has contributed significantly to soil erosion on the mountainsides.

To discourage people from cutting trees for firewood, project members have educated and encouraged them to plant fast-growing ipil ipil trees in designated areas for firewood. Toyota and Conservation International will also provide rice-hull stoves for 900 families in the area.

Reforestation efforts entail spending P90,000 to P150,000 a week on seedlings and seedling production, and providing daily allowances to more than 200 farmers and 20 watchmen for each of the five barangays.

Allowances

A farmer involved in the project receives P1,050 to P2,000 a week.

Plaridel Danguilan, barangay chair of Sisiin, said his 20 tanod (guards) were receiving P150 a day for watching their areas. The fund is due for replenishment during the second phase of the project.

Isidro D. Pagalilauan, barangay chair of San Roque, said that each of his 12 tanod was also getting P1,000 a month from the barangay as honorarium.

Reforestation fund

To help the project become sustainable even after the six-year term, 10 percent of the income from the mango harvest will go back to a reforestation fund.

The project also aims to expand the growth of rambutan, pomelo, langka (jack fruit), cacao and other trees endemic to the area.

Due to the renewed vegetation, sightings of wild pigs, deer and other wild animals in and around the project area have become more frequent, prompting some residents to hunt these animals for food, according to Angadol, forest ranger team leader Vito A. Aquino and the barangay chairs.

Aquino reiterated, however, that these wild animals were protected and hunting them was illegal.

Peablanca has 118,781 ha of forest and marine areas. It is connected to the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, which, in turn, covers 476,588 ha of marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Toyota, in its funding package, has deployed specialists, provided tree-planting techniques and equipment to monitor weather changes, and a 4WD Toyota Hi-Lux for Conservation International staff use.

China?s Hebel province

The Peablanca project is similar to a 2,500-ha reforestation undertaking in China?s Hebel province, also by Toyota Motor Corp.

Peablanca isn?t the only reforestation-environment project Toyota maintains in the country. There is also the 11.4-ha Toyota Forest at the Sta. Rosa Plant, a wastewater treatment facility capable of treating 850 cubic meters of industrial and sanitary wastewater a day and a solar-powered parking lot.

The Philippines has been plagued by deforestation, caused primarily by rampant illegal logging and slash-and-burn farming. Its total forest cover has been reduced from 70 percent to 20 percent in the past 100 years.



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