A Case of Seeing the Trees but Not the Forests
One of the most important considerations in the study of ecological issues is the trans-boundary character of most, if not all environmental issues. The trans-boundary nature of environmental issues states that the proper way to look at problems about the environment is to look at it from a holistic and integrated perspective, such that political and institutional boundaries made by human beings are temporarily set aside to give anyone looking at an environmental problem with a multi-dimensional point-of-view of the issue on-hand. The statement given by the group called Sound Environmental Governance Inc. (SEGI) that “landslides and floods are triggered when rain becomes excessive beyond a threshold limit; deforestation and logging being tagged the main cause after every massive flooding is without firm scientific basis” in the context of the most recent flooding that occurred in the cities of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro in Northern Mindanao goes against the logic of the trans-boundary nature of environmental problems. SEGI’s statement blurs out the connection of the depletion of natural resources, forests in this case, with the occurrence of natural disasters specifically flooding and landslide.
Forests are the first line of defence against flooding and landslide. When forests are intact, there is enough holding capacity and the flow of water is controlled, not directly hitting the soil thus reducing the impact of surface run-off. This is in response to SEGI’s belief that “the forest soil becomes saturated and water no longer filters into the soil but instead runs off along the soil surface.” Such statement leads to their conclusion that “landslides and floods are triggered when rain becomes excessive beyond a threshold limit.” This belief ignores the impact of deforestation on the ability of the soil to absorb rainwater. This scenario is further aggravated by eroded soils, which again is one of the scientifically established effects of deforestation. Rainwater evaporation becomes more rapid with the lack of vegetation. It is clear then that SEGI’s belief about excessive and prolonged rain going beyond the threshold limit and causing flooding and landslide can actually be linked to deforestation.
The smaller the forest cover, the smaller the water holding capacity of an area. Forest vegetation plays an important role in water holding capacity and water absorption. Decrease in forest vegetation puts many communities at risk of different hydro-meteorological hazards because our country’s location is very close to the Pacific Ocean and any increase in sea surface temperature as a result of climate change could affect the weather condition. If the forest cover is small, there will be small amount of rainfall that will be directly intercepted by trees and other vegetation to be stored in the aquifers. Surface run-off occurs mostly in deforested/ cleared areas, resulting to erosion and siltation of the rivers, creeks, and other tributaries. This, in turn, leads to the clogging of the waterways and causes flooding. Forest cover plays an important role in the hydrological cycle. The smaller the forest cover, the greater surface run-off will occur. If there is enough forest cover, great amounts of rainwater will be intercepted and stored in the aquifers. This is also means that there will be a healthy recharge of ground water for household consumption in the areas that greatly depend on the forests.
There is enough holding capacity and the flow of water is controlled when a forest is intact. SEGI claims that “forests have only a limited influence on major downstream flooding, especially large-scale events. It is correct that on a local scale forests and forest soils are capable of reducing runoff, generally as the result of enhanced infiltration and storage capacities. But this holds true only for small-scale rainfall events, which are not responsible for severe flooding in downstream areas. During a major rainfall event, like those that resulted in massive flooding of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan Cities, especially after prolonged periods of preceding rainfall, the forest soil becomes saturated and water no longer filters into the soil but instead runs off along the soil surface.” However, we say: that when a forest is intact, there is enough holding capacity for the soil and the flow of water is controlled. Rainwater does not directly hit the soil as it goes through the canopy of the trees and through the vegetation, thus reducing the impact of surface run-off. This results to enhanced infiltration and storage capacities. Moreover, when a forest is no longer intact, meaning it has already been degraded and deforested, the rate of rainwater evaporation becomes faster due to lack of vegetation. But if a forest still enjoys a good cover and lush vegetation, there is a slower rate of rainwater evaporation. Instead of a surface run-off that only causes erosion, siltation, and flashfloods, there will be groundwater flow (the slow movement of water underground) as a result of slower evaporation. This groundwater flow is responsible for the filling of the aquifers, lakes, seas, and the oceans.
The upland forest ecosystem is the first line of defense before floods and landslides reach the lowlands. According to SEGI, “many studies have shown that most landslides and floods are triggered when rain becomes excessive beyond a threshold limit. For landslides this threshold varies with the slope gradient, depth of soil and antecedent soil moisture content. But the idea that deforestation caused flooding is deeply flawed. There is not a shred of scientific evidence to suggest that logging or deforestation play significant roles in massive floods. At the large scale, things like dams and drainage channels and how much water people consume are far more significant. Usually rainfall is fairly localized, but big floods tend to occur on those relatively rare occasions when it rains everywhere at the same time.” Again, we invoke the principle of the trans-boundary nature of environmental problems to counter this claim. As stated in the preceding paragraph, because there is not enough vegetation, water is not absorbed or deposited in the aquifers. This function is only done best by the trees and other woody vegetation. SEGI’s belief only considers factors like slope gradient, depth of soil, and antecedent soil moisture content in its view of soil-rainwater interaction. It ignores the role that forests play, especially forest vegetation, in rain water absorption and hydrological hazard risk reduction. What if there is not enough forest cover? While most rainfalls are fairly localized, the effects are not. From the perspective of a watershed continuum, or a ridge-to-river-to-reef approach, the upland forest ecosystem is the first line of defense before these hazards reach the lowlands. If we protect the uplands, detrimental effects on the lowlands can be significantly reduced.
Why compare apples and oranges? Another claim made by SEGI is that the case of the most recent floods in the country and the resulting landslides are “the consequences of climate change manifested in prolonged and excessive rain rather than logging per se. This is why even as the Philippines is reeling from the effects of such natural disasters, other countries that supposedly have more forests such as Australia, Brazil, China and Thailand also suffered from destructive inundations.” SEGI also claims that “deforestation is always the favorite whipping boy by uninformed officials and commentators during tragic disasters.” But what causes climate change? The statement above shows that climate change is always the favorite whipping boy by people who only see the trees for the forest. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) released in 2007 states that the forestry sector, which includes deforestation, ranks third (17.4%) in total anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2004 in terms of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-eq). This figure is next only to the industry sector (19.4%) and the energy supply sector (25.9%), the two top causes of anthropogenic global climate change. The comparison made by SEGI of the Philippine forest ecosystem to other forest ecosystems, like Australia’s and China’s temperate forests also bothers us. A temperate forest is different from a tropical forest. Furthermore, we are not intimately familiar with the conditions of the forests of other countries, including their disaster risk reduction governance systems. The management of Philippine forest ecosystems and their functions are governed by a host of economic, political, social, and cultural factors that give a picture of complexity that cannot and should not be reduced to climate change alone. The question that begs to be answered is: why compare?
Land use history is a key element. SEGI claims that investigative assessments done by a group of scientists in the Ormoc floods in 1990 and the 2004 floods and landslides in Quezon and Aurora revealed that the disasters were triggered by excessive rains. “Estimates done in these assessments also showed that even if the forests were intact, too much rains would have led just the same to floods and landslides. Further it was also reported (especially in Quezon) that more landslides occurred in areas with trees than in areas with grass and brushes consistent with the physical nature of landslides that the heavier the mass of soil the more predisposed to landslide an area becomes.” While this statement seems to be convincing at first glance and therefore has its merit, there is a caveat to this, however. The results of the investigation depend on the sampling and the assessment area where it was conducted. The study should also include land use history and not only be limited to the geological characteristics of the area. The area where the study was conducted may already have weathered materials as a result of logging activities in in the past. This may have then triggered the landslides because of the young condition of the soil in the study area.
We believe that land use plans for every municipality in the country should be correctly formulated, appropriately legislated, and properly enforced at all levels – local and national – to protect the welfare of the Filipino people. Forest restoration should also be included in the Disaster Risk Reduction Management Plans (DRRMP) of communities to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Concession logging is the immediate and primary cause of deforestation in the Philippines.
While we agree that the government also needs to focus on other major drivers of flooding brought about by heavy rains from typhoons, we disagree with SEGI’s claim that “deforestation or the total loss of forests leading to denudation, is caused mainly by land conversion to other uses primarily agricultural use and the unsustainable utilization by poor forest dwellers, such as “kaingin”, “carabao-logging”, and the more modern “motorcycle-logging.” SEGI also claims that “the current ban on harvesting natural and residual forests under EO 23 does not lead to significant reduction in illegal logging but rather increased the illicit practice by organized syndicates and impoverished forest dwellers in areas formerly occupied and managed by legitimate tenure holders such as CBFMAs, IFMAs, SIFMAs, CADTs that have become open access with the ban. Despite the ban the illegally cut logs stocked in the upper watersheds of the waterways leading to Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities were floated and pushed downstream by the floods causing more damage to the coastal settlement areas. Meantime, the good forest managers have been penalized to give way to the bad illegal loggers.”
This statement is anti-poor by putting the blame on the rural poor as the main destroyers of forests. It ignores the fact that large-scale deforestation in the country has been the product of logging concessions that operated in the countryside for many decades.
Upland dwellers are displaced because of the entry of logging concessions in the forests. They are displaced and pushed to the urban areas to seek employment from industries. But some of them go back to the uplands if they are unable to find jobs in the urban areas. This is only the time that many of them are forced to do activities like kaingin, wildlife hunting, and conversion of forests to agriculture areas in order to have decent livelihood. Unsustainable utilization by poor forest dwellers is not the main cause of forest deforestation. This is only secondary to concession logging done in many forested areas in the country. Land conversion occurs only after the damage has been done by logging concessionaires.
The destruction of upland ecosystems does not only affect the communities adjacent to the logging concessions. It also affects the marine ecosystem and other resources that can be found in the lowlands. If logging continues, what will now happen to the diminishing forests of the country? How can the Philippines survive as an archipelago without a healthy forest cover? How can the forest give its ecological functions if it is not in the right proportion to the society that needs it?
It is the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ enforcement of the law that is the problem. A strict enforcement of the environmental laws should be done to stop illegal logging in the country. Blaming the impoverished forest dwellers is not the solution. The key is to strictly enforce the law, whether the culprits are the rich or the poor. While it is important to be familiar with the technical details of the hydrologic cycle, the geological features of hazardous areas, and the socio-economic factors that impact on the relationship between deforestation, flooding and landslides, these things should be seen within the proper and bigger context. We must learn to see the forests and not just the trees.
The writer, Ben Muni, is Haribon’s new advocacy specialist. This article is Haribon’s review of a statement issued by SEGI.