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MAPping the Future

A CSR project for protecting the Bataan National Park

The project was started after the Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA) and the Manila North Tollways Corp. (MNTC) signed a business and operations agreement on the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTex). In order to insure payment of the debt service obligations of BCDA for its construction, MNTC must promote the use of SCTex to motorists. But as traffic volume increases, so does carbon emission. As owner and operator of the expressway, BCDA and MNTC felt an obligation to offset the effects of the additional emission (the rule of thumb says it takes 12 trees to soak up the carbon spewed out from a motor vehicle). Thus, if the volume increases by 10,000 vehicles, they must plant 120,000 trees.

The problem, however, extends beyond planting additional trees. The existing forest of the Bataan-Zambales Mountain Ranges, or whatever remains of them, is seriously threatened and must be protected. The Subic-Clark segment of the SCTex and the Gapan-San Fernando-Olongapo highway cut through the midpoint of these ranges, which now serve as the carbon sink for the emission of vehicles that ply through these roads. The slopes of the Bataan National Park, one of the National Integrated Protected Areas (NIPAs) created by law in the 1990s, and of Mt. Pinatubo have been severely degraded. Grass, rather than trees, and landslides appear as raw wounds on the vertical terrain greet motorists’ eyes. Mt. Natib, the highest peak in the Bataan National Park, has a caldera wider than that of Mt. Pinatubo. It means that its explosion thousands of years ago was a bigger bang than that of Mt. Pinatubo. Viewed from the peak, the caldera is covered with thick forest, which hides its rivers and waterfalls, and is home to its rich wildlife. The park is the center of biodiversity in the region so that the late botanist, Leonard Co, spent weeks doing a field survey of its flora.

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But the view from above is deceiving. Trekkers recounted that as they went down the caldera, the temperature suddenly felt 3 degrees warmer. A five-hectare swath of felled and burnt trees greeted their eyes, ending a  forest garden trail of trees, plants, birds, butterflies, flowers and clear streams. It was one thing to be resigned to the upward encroachment of lowland population but the destruction of the thick foliage of the caldera would be heart-breaking. Cutting down its forest would lead to reduced evapotranspiration that in turn would result in less precipitation. Losing the watershed that feeds the river systems of the seven towns surrounding the Bataan National Park would mean the drying up of the croplands of lowland communities. But when the monsoon rains come, there would be no forest canopy to shield the barren earth. The fertile humus would slide down as thick mud into rivers, silting streams and rivers, irrigation dams and canals. Dwellers in coastal villages and along river banks may, hopefully, not meet the same fate as the victims of Sendong but they will not be spared suffering hunger from alternating floods and draught.

Satellite imagery

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The BCDA-MNTC CSR Project will make use of satellite images, just like the Amazon Indians who use Google Earth, global positioning (GPS) and other technologies in protecting the rainforests by keeping tabs on loggers and miners. The images will be as close to real time as possible, unlike the 1989, 2002, and 2006 LandSat ETM images of the Bataan National Park available at NAMRIA. The time interval between the images was too long to be of any practical use.

A concerned group of executives from Wideout Technical Services Inc. volunteered their services to develop a mobile phone app that can be distributed to the public to allow them to contribute to save the Bataan National Park. The app features will enable users like residents, Bantay Kalikasan groups, mountaineers and trekkers to take and upload pictures of places where illegal logging and clearing are conducted, and store locations via GPS. They can geo-locate pictures through Google Maps, share photos and comments in social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google +. More eyes watching equals less crimes. The app will be promoted to target users by posting in expressway toll gates the QR code that will lead them to the site where they can download the app. If successful, this can be replicated in other NIPAS.

Governments make lousy conservationists

It is generally recognized that most governments make lousy forest conservationists. The Economist reports that worldwide, deforestation accounts for most historic man-made emissions. It still contributes 15 to 17 percent of total, more than the share of the world’s ships, cars and planes.

The record for the Philippines is no different. In 1900, the country had 21 million hectares of forest, or 70 percent of total land area. In 1988, the forest area was down to 900,000 hectares with another 1.2 million hectares of mossy forests.

The case of the Bataan National Park is a story that is probably repeated in other NIPAs in the country. It was not the forest rangers that discovered the illegal clearing inside Mt. Natib’s caldera. (It was the trekkers, and if the clearing had not been on their path, they could have easily missed it.) There are only six forest rangers, each one having responsibility for 10,000 hectares of forests. There is no way they can cover the vast areas. While we have powerful technologies available, we do not use them.

A rethink of the strategies in saving our forests is definitely needed. From antagonists, locals must be turned into co-operators. Honey, rattan, and game are worth so little that ways must be found to make standing forests more valuable than razing them. For example, where locals get tourism revenues, the forest is thick with trees. We must also learn from the indigenous people who live in harmony with nature because of their deep understanding of the forest ecosystem. They were there long before the forests were included as protected areas.

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And finally, we can take a cue from an international endeavor known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which is based on the “idea that rich countries should pay poorer ones not to cut down trees.” Our reforestation program pays wages for people to plant trees in denuded areas. But they leave the saplings to wither for lack of water, or be overgrown by weeds or razed, sometimes deliberately, by fire. Why? So that they can be hired to plant again with the next reforestation budget.

Wouldn’t it be more effective if payment is based on survival rate monitored by satellite images? And for a change, why not pay the local people to guard and keep the forest standing instead? Tap REDD as funding source? (REDD, with an initial funding of $4.5 billion from Norway and Great Britain, will pay Indonesia for not turning its forest into palm oil plantations.) Or get a company with a green advocacy to adopt a forest. Or include the project among those supported by the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) program of DSWD. Inclusion errors will be almost nil because the project is self-selecting. There is no doubt that upland dwellers in our forests’ fringes are among the poorest of our peoples.

(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is chairman of Bases Conversion and Development Authority and former member of the House of Representatives, representing the 1st district of Bataan. Feedback at [email protected] For previous articles, visit www.map.org.ph.)

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TAGS: Bataan National Park, Bataan-Zambales Mountain Ranges, Environmental Issues, Philippines, Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway
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