WE got an email from former UP-Diliman professor James V. LaFrankie, who holds a Harvard Ph.D in Biology. He has authored, co-authored and co-researched with other UP scientists several books. He is the author of Trees of Tropical Asia and co-author of the 2013 National Book Award winner Shades of Majesty: 88 Native Philippine Trees.
The urgent matter he wrote us about is the destruction of our forests by the Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR). It happened rather unwittingly. In that government agency’s effort to solve our serious ecological problem of deforestation, it decided to use a species of fast-growing tree–the so-called Bolivian mahogany–which has caused grave ecological damage to our country and will continue to do so if DENR does not desist spreading this enemy of our forests.
The matter is better explained by Dr. LaFrankie himself in the article below.
Can a name change save the Philippine forests?
By James V. LaFrankie, Ph.D
One hundred years ago the Philippines exported vast volumes of timber under the name Philippine mahogany. That name was used in a broad sense to include trees such as lauan, palosapis, apitong and mangachapoi, trees that all belong to a family known to botanists as the dipterocarps. As a result, everyone knows the word mahogany. They often picture it in the form of a mahogany table.
Today we read that the DENR through its National Greening Program has planted the country with millions of seedlings of mahogany. That may sound like a good thing, but it is not. In fact, it is about the worst thing that the DENR could do because the saplings that are being planted are not Philippine mahogany, but Bolivian mahogany.
What is Bolivian mahogany? Botanists call it Swietenia macrophylla and it is in a family of plants entirely unrelated to Philippine mahogany. It is native to Bolivia in South America and is not without virtues. Seeds are gathered in abundance and can be potted for as little as two pesos apiece. It grows well in the Philippines and quickly produces a serviceable timber under varied conditions of soil and climate. However, those virtues are a result of its defects: it has no ecological business in the Philippines. It has no pests and no friends. Nothing eats the leaves, no insect visits the flower, no animal will eat the fruit. Not even soil fungi will tolerate the roots. The dry winged seeds fly deep within any forest where they quickly germinate and spread.
In sum, the Bolivian mahogany is a pestilent invasive species that drives out native species of all forms. This is readily seen in the lower reaches of Mt. Makiling where it has slowly replaced the native forest. One hectare of Bolivian mahogany may produce a marketable timber and it can be grown for that purpose. But one-hectare of Bolivian mahogany is a biodiversity dead zone and should never be part of natural forest restoration.
Part of the problem stems from the use of the name mahogany. Many people, including DENR staff, believe they are planting a Philippine tree. They are not. It might help if we start by calling the tree what it is. It is not mahogany, it is Bolivian mahogany and it does not belong in the Philippines.
In Kabigan Falls in Ilocos Norte, Bolivian mahogany was planted along the trail leading to the famed falls. The people who planted it were perhaps well-intentioned and thought they were doing good. They were not. To put Bolivian mahogany within that Philippine forest is an act of ecological vandalism.
In a land blessed with more than five thousand kinds of native trees there is no need to pollute the forest with foreign invasive species. We can do better. The first step is to know what we are doing and we can start by calling our trees by an appropriate name.