Blame Forest Fires On The Poor!

MANILA: 2014 March 21: Above, you are looking at the tragic majesty of a forest fire, that of Mt Banahaw burning, from ANN (author not named, Manila Bulletin, mb.com.ph). One holy place, so many hectares burned. Now comes the El Niño year, 2016.

2016 January 22: "Fire continues to ravage 'sleeping beauty mountain' in Lanao del Sur" (Ali G Macabalang, Manila Bulletin, mb.com.ph). The fire was "affecting vast swatch of tropical rainforests in the watershed areas of Lanao del Sur," raging since Thursday. The most affected areas were the forest covers of Mt Pyagayongan and Mt Mapantao. Why the name? "Forest covers in both mountains look (have) the shape of a 'giant lady sleeping' (when seen) at dawn."

2016 March 28: Mt Apo is burning (Gideon Lasco, Pinoy Mountaineer, pinoymountaineer.com). On March 26, the massive fire had already burned the summit.

2016 April 01: "Firebreaks, Education can save Philippine Mountains" (WWF, undated, wwf.org). "Mt Apo, the country's highest, Mt Kanlaon, tallest of all Visayan peaks, and Bud Bongao, the holy mountain of Tawi-Tawi, are up in flames." Losses: Mt Apo 350 ha, Mt Kanlaon 400 ha.

2016 April 04: "Mt Kitanglad blaze under control; US sending choppers to Mt Apo" (Mike U Crismundo & Alexander D Lopez, Manila Bulletin, mb.com.ph). Kitanglad is in Bukidnon.

2016 April 07: "Bush fires in 200 hectares of South Cotabato's Mt Matutum, Lake Holon now under control" (ANN, Interaksyon, interaksyon.com).

No figures given for Bud Bongao and Mt Kitanglad. Bush fires in Mt Matutum. Burning mountains are symptoms of forest decay and human degeneration. Magnificent. All forest fires represent magnificent failure, magnificent neglect, magnificent abuse, magnificent lack of management. El Niño is a good excuse for all that.

"The Philippine government has adopted new strategies and drawn up preventive and remedial measures against forest fires as the high fire risk season of summer comes, a senior government official said Tuesday" – ANN (author not named, 27 March 2016, Xinhua, globaltimes.cn). According to Secretary Ramon Paje of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), "In an effort to address the issue, the DENR has invested in comprehensive training programs to equip its forestry workers with the needed skills to fight forest fires effectively." That is welcome news, but those are simply skills to control the fire and remedy the aftermath, not prevent it. We want to prevent forest fires in the first place. As climate change tactics have been showing us, adaptation is better than mitigation.

ANN further said, "Paje also ordered the DENR field officials to give higher priority on the strict monitoring of protected areas, which also function as habitat for endangered species of plants and animals, and to ensure sufficient water supply in communities." You can not have sufficient water supply in communities just like that – you have to have watersheds, that is, forested areas, but since we have abused our forests, cut down much of the trees and undergrowth, what water supply are we talking about here? Not even a Presidential Decree can bring back the forest once it's gone.

When it comes to the forests barely existing or struggling or burning, the many poor we shall always have with us – to blame:

(1)     Poor UP Los Baños! It's the communicators.

I'm referring specifically to the development communicators, the devcom people. They have not changed to speaking for the good of the environment. They have remained independent of development projects, not engaged in conservation efforts, because they have actually divorced themselves from development, have not been automatically supportive of any initiatives for growth or protection and management of, say, Philippine forests and forestlands. The devcom people have not said anything about forest conservation even as the College of Development Communication (CDC) sits at the campus of UP Los Baños, where the College of Forestry & Natural Resources is also found. If the devcom people do not understand the jargon of forest conservation, the foresters have always been only one kilometer away!

In the last 40 years, the devcom people have not come up with a single program or project aimed at conserving the forests. None. How do I know? From 1975 to 1981, I worked for 6 years in a forest research agency based within the campus of UP Los Baños, as head of the information section of the Forest Research Institute (FORI), and I have never really been out of UP Los Baños campus – so I know what's going on in there. If the devcom people think FORI's work is enough, they have not been paying attention. FORI has since changed to ERDB (Ecosystems Research & Development Bureau) while devcom has only changed from Department to College. I can't blame Information at ERDB because it is only a section; at UPLB, it's a whole College!

It's not devcom apathy. It's the paradigm that development communication operates outside of development programs and projects. The devcom people need to wake up from their Rip Van Winkle sleep of 40 years and make a paradigm shift towards engagement. (For more on this, see my previous essay, "Communicating What?" 05 April 2016, A Magazine Called Love, blogspot.com).

Now then, how about the College of Development Communication of UPLB working with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources? And no, it's not only doing something about preventing forest fires. The CDC can start with this report: "From 2000 to 2010, the DENR recorded a total of 34,921 hectares (that) were affected by forest fires, with 19,607 hectares located inside natural forest, (with) the other 15,314 hectares inside plantation areas" according to ANN (cited). Or start anywhere, just start! At this time of climate change, development communicators cannot be complacent! How about a P10 million national project to be funded by DENR, running on the marketing beauty called AIDA: Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action? (I have written about AIDA several times; try my essay "My AIDA, Your iPOD: Inclusive Profit-Oriented Development," 15 October 2010, A Magazine Called Love. blogspot.com.)

(2)     Poor loggers, big & small

The big loggers have decimated Philippine forests more than the DENR will admit, more than our eyes can see. From 1975 and on, when I was Chief Information Officer of the Forest Research Institute (FORI), "Selective Logging" was bandied about as the key to forest conservation; in fact, the Father of Selective Logging, Martin Reyes, was even the Assistant Director of FORI. Selective logging was supposed to be the working guide so that only the "mature" trees would be cut down, leaving the young ones to grow and provide adequate wood for the next cutting cycle. Either that was a bad idea, or the loggers were bad.

And the small loggers, collectors of driftwood and charcoal makers have not stopped extracting what they can cut out of the forestland left behind by loggers. That is why we now find totally decimated forest areas. The charcoal makers will tell you, "We have to make a living. This is better than stealing." Ah, but they are stealing from us and from the future!

(3)     Poor farmers, hillside and off-site

Everyone may have forgotten the kaingineros or slash-and-burn farmers, but I haven't. The kaingineros are the tillers who clear the hillsides of any living matter, burn logs and leaves if necessary, so that they can cultivate the soil in clean culture and plant their crops. Clean culture is a natural enemy of farms and forests: it removes the organic matter that otherwise enriches the soil. When the loggers leave, the kaingineros cannot be far behind. They complete the forest destruction that the unscrupulous loggers have begun.

(4)     Poor woodcraft makers, here and there

Up to now, I see woodcraft coming out of roadside setups, in Pampanga, Pangasinan, La Union – where are all the wood pieces coming from? From the remaining timber in the remaining forestlands, no place else. That is because people are still buying. This is the fault of those who love furniture made of prime species of wood that are now endangered. Some of the endangered trees are dao, almaciga, kalantas, akle, and Philippine teak, according to Rudy Fernandez (14 March 2004, "RP forest tree species endangered," Philippine Star, philstar.com). Add to the tree list apitong, bagtikan, yakal, and mayapis, according to ANN (author not named, 07 November 2014, "20 most endangered species in the Philippines," hubpages.com). Our molave was "the best that can be found in the universe" (Marites Danguilan-Vitug, undated, "Power From The Forest," pcij.org). Was. The lovers of wooden furniture are to blame; we have yet to learn from the WWF: "When the buying stops, the selling will too."

(5)     Poor DENR, rangers and managers

If we have decimated our forests, that can only mean that the public guardians of the woodlands, the forest rangers and their public forest managers have failed in their sworn duties.

On 01 February 2011, President Noynoy Aquino issued Executive Order 23, which "declares a moratorium on the cutting and harvesting of timber in the natural and residual forests of the entire country" (Lorelei L Bendijo, undated, "EO 23: Renewing hopes for sustainable forestry in the Philippines," DENR, denr.gov.ph). That means that in the decades before, including the founding of FORI in 1975, forest conservation had failed miserably.

On 25 March 2016, Secretary Paje "ordered all field officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)  to adopt new strategies and draw up preventive and remedial measures against forest fires" (ANN, "DENR readies for forest fires," denr.gov.ph). Note: The new strategies call for "preventive and remedial measures" – this is merely reactive, not proactive. The best way to treat a forest is to use it wisely, not abuse it.

When you abuse a forest, eventually you leave a few struggling trees and much brushland, and the whole place is tinder, easily combustible. The so-called "forest fires" are fires that consume the much ravaged forest, no longer virgin! So now you know what it really means when they say there is a Mt Banahaw forest fire, or a Mt Apo forest fire, or a Mt Mayon forest fire, or a Mt Matutum forest fire, or some such animal.

As it turns out, the DENR has failed even with a gargantuan budget of P7 Billion just for implementing its own National Greening Project (NGP), according to the Commission on Audit's (CoA) audit report (Mart D Sambalud, 06 April 2016, Davao Today, davaotoday.com). CoA says the NGP was "unsuccessful." To quote Sambalud:

The CoA said that NGP program which was appropriated with P7.2-billion did not reach its goals. It said that DENR was actually remiss in its duties to put up measures that will ensure viability of the NGP. Aside from this, DENR, according to (the) CoA, did not conduct a thorough mapping and planning (that contributed) to the total failure of the government’s greening program.

So, poor us!

So, everyone is to blame for forest fires, from all the users who are abusers of natural resources to the managers who are misusers of financial resources.

Where does that leave us? I'm looking at the Development Communication people in UP Los Baños to do their job of communicating for development, communicating for the saving and renewing of our forests. As it is, the devcom people have their job cut out for them, unless they insist on their Rip Van Winkle beauty sleep!



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