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Relocation and forest restoration (last of two parts)

No doubt that forest restoration, both terrestrial and coastal, is badly needed if we want to prevent or even just to mitigate the impacts of strong typhoons and other natural hazards and risks.

With the changing climatic conditions and given that the Philippines has been identified as among the vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to the impacts of climate change, then it is only necessary to aggressively and vigorously pursue forest restoration in various parts of the country.

A large part of the classified forestland, roughly more than 50 percent is already devoid of forest cover.

The reforestation program has long been initiated since after EDSA Revolution in 1986. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources during the term of the late President Corazon Aquino had launched a massive contract reforestation program, but it was besieged with numerous issues and to date, we could hardly see traces of those reforested sites.

One of the concerns raised about the program was the widespread use of exotic species and having contractors with no track record at all in reforestation.

The success of the program was more in establishing tree plantations that were suitable for immediate harvesting. Many planted sites were left abandoned after the contracts terminated, while fires razed some growing trees in other areas.

The DENR made a big comeback when it bannered the National Greening Program when another Aquino, Benigno Simeon III, became the president in 2010.

The program once again embarked on large-scale reforestation all throughout the country. In fairness, I know several success stories of the program in reforesting denuded mountains, some of which are here in Negros Occidental, but how I wish they were all planted with native and indigenous trees.

Most of the planted seedlings are still exotic species, meaning not native to the country, and they just turned out as tree plantations and not entirely forest restoration initiatives. However, the DENR also started to introduce native species to a few sites.

A number of successful reforestation projects under the NGP, which has been labeled as Enhanced National Greening Program under President Rodrigo Duterte, were mangrove reforestation.

I think the DENR has difficulty in finding suitable areas for mangrove restoration since some sites are covered seagrass beds and mudflats that are feeding and resting grounds of water and migratory birds. Much of formerly mangrove areas have been converted into fishponds. Seagrass bed is a natural ecosystem by itself and where mangroves don’t naturally occur.

Converting seagrass and mudflat areas to mangrove forests is also a habitat conversion. I believe there is a purity of intention but the intention is not helpful for the environment, in general.

There was a thorough evaluation of the NGP and some recommendations were laid down to make it more effective and responsive as real forest restoration.

Most of the success stories in the NGP involved communities that are settled in adjacent sites or within forestlands. Some narratives of the program tell that aside from successful tree plantation establishment and maintenance, it also provided additional income and benefits to program participants.

Learning from the insights and lessons in the experiences, the DENR is in the position to make sure that the NGP is really an enhanced program to restore more denuded forestlands of the country.

Community-based approaches should be pursued as well as engaging more LGUs, civil society groups, and other interested parties, including the business sector, especially those benefitting from the ecosystem services provided by our forests.

On the other hand, because of the impacts of typhoon Odette that lashed some islands in Mindanao, Visayas, and Palawan last December, the idea of relocating settlements in areas identified as hazardous once again surfaced.

This has long been overdue, especially after typhoon Yolanda. This is actually challenging as many settlements are found along the coastline, smaller islands, riverbanks, and landslide-prone areas, which are susceptible to natural hazards and risks. Most residents near the coastline and smaller islands are fisherfolk, and relocating them somewhere else would also mean dislocating from their livelihood and sources of income.

Each local government unit in the country has long been required to prepare a disaster risk reduction management plan. In addition, climate change adaption measures are similarly integrated into the LGU’s comprehensive land and water use plan as well as in other local development plans.

Some local governments also prepared forestland use plans. In spite of all these plans, it seems that we are again back to square one every time a calamity happens. When will all these plans shall be implemented seriously and urgently?*

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