He’s got green on his mind
Ida Anita Q. Del Mundo (The Philippine Star) - April 4, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Hailing from Guinobatan (which sounds uncannily like gubat, the Tagalog word for forest) in Albay, and graduating with a degree in Forestry from the University of the Philippines-Los Baños, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Ramon Paje was likely destined to take on the role he is playing now – spearheading the reforestation of hundreds of millions of hectares of Philippine land with the National Greening Program (NGP).

Going on to earn a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from UP-Diliman, a diploma in Human Resources from the Australian National University, a certificate on Environment Economics and Policy Analysis from Harvard and a doctorate in Public Administration from UP-Diliman, Paje rose through the ranks of the DENR, starting as a senior forester in charge of the Visayas, Mindanao and Central-Based projects section of the department’s Foreign-Assisted and Special Projects project coordination and monitoring division in the 1980s.

“Out of 15,868,412 hectares of forestland, only 23 percent, or 6.84 million hectares, are actually forested,” he says on the importance of the NGP. This dire loss of trees and vegetation is due to various causes that have piled up through years of neglect, including population growth that has caused permanent damage in the areas that were once forested, as well as massive cutting and logging done in the past.

Based on the department’s 50-year records, 1990 stands out as a lone good year for the reforestation effort of past administrations. This was under the regime of Cory Aquino, says Paje. “So P-Noy understands the importance of reforestation.”

Despite the one-year success in 1990, in the past 50 years (1961-2010), the total area reforested was only 1,939,749 hectares, or an annual average of 38,795 hectares. At an average of 38,000 hectares a year, it will take 210 years to reforest the 8 million hectares, says Paje.

But, generations of Filipinos need not live treeless, as Paje and his team have been working to cut down the hundred-year wait. In fact, with the National Greening Project ongoing since 2011, Paje aims to bridge the gap between the forested and unforested areas by the end of his term.

In 2011, the program’s initial year, the aim was to plant 100,000 hectares. The NGP accomplished 128,558 hectares. “We are on track because at the end of December 2014, we are 12 percent above target,” he says positively.

In fact, the NGP results show that in 2014, the total was at 7.92 million hectares of land vegetated. Though 7.88 million hectares remain denuded, this is already a far cry from the hectares of wasted land at the beginning of the NGP.

At the end of 2016, Paje expects to turn the statistics around, with the number of forested hectares outnumbering the deforested at 8.37 million and 7.43 million, respectively. He has even set his sights on reaching this number by the end of this year, not waiting for the end of his term to reach the goal.

The secretary sums up the project, “The National Greening Program will plant some 1.5 billion trees covering about 1.5 million hectares over a period of six years, from 2011-2016.”

The types of land across the country that are, little by little, turning green, include denuded forest land, protected areas, ancestral domains, civil and military reservations, urban areas and inactive or abandoned mine sites.

The DENR studies each area and decides on the appropriate species to be planted there, based on soil, climate and commercial demand. So far the NGP has planted timber, fuelwood, coffee, rubber, bamboo, rattan and various fruit trees.

“The great impact of the program is 60 percent of the money spent on the program goes to the people through jobs generated,” says Paje, noting that a large percentage of those given jobs are women. “From 2011 to 2014, some 251,557 people have been employed through the NGP, doing potting, watering, hole digging, planting and more.”

Many volunteers have also been mobilized through the program, the largest number gathered last year with the DENR’s Guinness World Record-breaking venture dubbed TreeVolution, wherein volunteers all over Mindanao planted 2,294,629 trees.

The DENR also manages clonal nurseries, which are run in partnership with state universities and colleges, so that they may continue growing and greening even beyond the secretary’s term.

This country is losing P800 billion as we speak, simply because we are not using our lands properly,” says Paje, computing how much one can gain financially if forested lands were not denuded.

Paje points out that environmental security finds itself only third on the list of missions that the NGP aims to accomplish.

First and foremost, he says, the NGP is a poverty reduction and food security program, empowering locals with a means of livelihood that is self-sustaining.

Computing the 10-year financial return on investment, Paje puts things into perspective: assuming only 10 percent of the 1.5 billion seedlings survive and each tree is sold as mere fuelwood, which would go for a standard P2,000 per cubic meter, this would result in P30 billion income – keeping in mind that this is the lowest possible outcome, since more than 10 percent will surely survive and many of the trees planted could be used as timber or its fruits sold commercially, yielding more than P2,000 per cubic meter.

Beyond reforestation, the NGP hopes to result in biodiversity conservation and lead eventually to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Following closely the progress of these missions, Paje says the NGP has also become a benchmark in transparency among the other departments with the use of geo-tagging and the active recording of results in all their project sites.

Going through some of the photos of the areas geo-tagged with time, date, coordinates and other pertinent information, Paje describes each kind of tree planted in the area, showing his vast knowledge of the project and its implementation. He knows the trees by name and age – two-year-old mangroves in La Union to four-year-old teak plantations in Isabella that look promising. There are coffee plantations in Cagayan and citrus plantations in Nueva Vizcaya that will soon bear fruit.

The secretary admits that since all the plantations are rainfed, the mortality rate is high, especially at first planting, where half of the seedlings may not survive. But once the trees survive, they are truly resilient and can survive in practically any environment.

He adds that we must not be deterred from planting by the difficulties of the environment and climate because the Philippines is actually ideal – “We have 365 days of rainfall and 365 days of sunshine” – but we just do not make use of its full potential. What takes 100 years to grow in countries with four seasons, it takes some ten years in the Philippines, Paje says. “If you plant a tree there, don’t expect to harvest its fruits – your children or grandchildren will do this. Here, you can still harvest up to four times in your lifetime.”

Those who have benefitted from the first harvests of the NGP have a sense of pride and ownership of their trees, says Paje. “These will last forever,” he adds on the sustainability of the livelihood – as long as they are not cut down, the trees will go on growing, greening and giving.

GREEN GANG (clockwise from above): Secretary Paje  shows everyone how it’s done by leading a tree planting ceremony as Senate President Franklin Drilon looks on. A young mangrove plantation in Bohol will protect the island from storm surges in the future. Volunteers in action. Mahogany, mango and rambutan trees planted in Nagtipun, Quirino. The pine plantation is starting to turn Benguet’s mountains green again. A coffee plantation in Bukidnon is flourishing after two years. Locals in Occidental Mindoro hauling seedlings. Three-year-old rubber trees are already growing tall in Davao del Norte.


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