DENR must stop destroying our forests

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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.

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9 Comments

  1. There is what we call in our biodive subject and evolution class “INVASIVE SPECIES” which is a term regarding any organism (plant or animal) that is introduced in a geographical location it is not endemic. Planting foreign trees will possibly reap more bad than good. For one, our native animal species do not recognize the plant species and will probably just shy away from these. Two, remember Germelina? DENR once promoted the plantation of this invasive species without even looking at its toxic nature. If you could observe, no birds or critters nest and live in its trunk, branches, canopy and usually no grasses grow beneath it. Seriously, DENR, get your stuff together.

    Dipterocarps are actually good reforestation materials since, by their name alone (which means two wings), their seeds primarily depend on wind to be dispersed, they are sturdy and root deeply. Balete is also a good tree to plant since mythology revolves around it. Most people are even afraid to approach one, much less to cut it. Think DENR. THINK!

  2. Michael Agbayani Calaramo on

    Ecological Restoration for protected forests and critical ecosystems are a must, IF WE want to showcase a real Philippine ecotourism. One must understand the floristic profile of our forest and that will be the basis in choosing the appropriate species…..ECOLOGICAL TOURISM (ecotourism) must showcase the Philippine tropical forest and other ecological aspects of our country and should exhibit our 3,600 Native tree species, the herbacious plants, lianas, and shurbs summing up 11,262 native species. Our Natural landscapes should be conserved because it is where our wildlife thrives and also gives balance to the ecosystem.

    I am saddened when a lot of Plant experts and conservation scientist expressed their sentiment regarding forest restoration in the philippines. that most reforestation are “plantation concept of reforestation” a mono culture type or a so called single species planting establishment. There is the RainForest Restoration Initiative, there is also Philippine Tropical Forest Conservation Foundation aside from the initial investigation on the adverse allophytic effect of Mahoganies in the Philippine vegetation setting. Not to fail to mention the Global Strategy on Plant Conservation. and one thing is common “conserve your local species”.

    Dipterocarps are first class timber… then the local may have higher profit out of it. Planting native species will also draws back our wildlife and draws more ecotourist, It will also conserve the forests that are the biodiversity backbone of a given locality and this diversity gives beauty and uniqueness of the place…. a unique forests that was once a sustainable source of food, shelter, medicine and clothing of our ancestors, the undeniable reason why we have vast cultural diversity – the unique signature of every place in our planet…..

    ……………..otherwise we have to practice the Bolivian and other south american dances!…..and its more fun in the New Bolivian/South American of Asia – the…

    • Michael Agbayani Calaramo on

      There are several organizations and groups who are now practicing RAINFORESTATION & ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION in the NGP program and I salute that…. but for those who are not, its your time to CHANGE.

  3. Obviously, the bashers of this piece by a knowledgeable gentleman are the ones who have not been in our forests long enough, and have so far learned very little. The article targets ignorance, and ironically, it is the same ignorance that dismisses it. One only needs to visit one of several DENR-run nurseries to see that many of their seedlings intended for reforestation are actually non-native species. One must also not forget that Sec. Paje is a forester, but why are there are howls of disapproval against him everywhere?

    Our lumber needs should not put more pressure on our already dwindling forest cover. Maintain and restore the forests for what they are- although unfortunately, to most Filipinos any land covered by vegetation is a ‘forest’, so technically for them even a mango orchard or banana or coconut plantation is ‘gubat’.

    Please take the time to see the big picture first, and maybe you can understand the tone of immediacy in Mr. LaFrankie’s words.

    By the way, narra is not a dipterocarp, and yes, there are dumb foresters in the same way as there are lying lawyers….

  4. James V. LaFrankie on

    If readers would care to inform themselves and reach their own opinions that might do best to go to the web site of the National Greening Program (http://ngp.denr.gov.ph/) where they will find hundreds or thousands of photographs of the on-going plantings. If you know about trees, forests and forestry then you will quickly form a sound opinion. You might wish to examine the history of Bolivian Mahogany in Mt. Makiling which was carefully reviewed by Baguinon, Quimado and Francisco for FAO (http://www.fao.org/docrep/008/ae944e/ae944e09.htm) and be certain to see the extensive literature on the highly successful efforts conducted in Leyte on growing forest with native species. (http://www.rainforestation.ph/resources/publications.html).

    • An FAO report is not a peer reviewed article, so were the 6 or 7 undergraduate students exercises on the same plantation site in Mt Makiling on which the paper was based on. Isn’t it?

      The wide planting of Swietenia macrophylla should not be viewed as negative — a one-sided view. Why not take advantage of the highly successful species as a resource? With global shortage of this prime timber, people can generate good economic benefit out of the species with proper management.

      No argument about the success by local people in planting endemic species. It supports conservation and restoration efforts. However, we have yet to see real significant economic returns from such planting… something the people also need a lot. Pushing R&D to domesticate and improve a very long list of endemic species to create economically viable plantations will spread thinly the very limited capital investment available.

      Could the NGP be another missed opportunity for the Philippines?

  5. This article is too biased and could use more incisive thinking. Philippine Foresters are not that dumb!

    It is true that the whole-of-government approach to reforestation does not give credit to the capability of a high number of highly educated Foresters.

    The lack and denial, by public opinion, to develop active plantation-based wood industry — exotic or not — aggravate the country’s ability to meet the growing needs of a 100M national population for wood products balanced with the need to restore its native forests and improve the environment.

    • I wish to correct some information written in the Manila Times Article cited:
      The large-leaf mahogany or Swietenia macrophylla grows in Central America from Yucatan southwards and into South America, extending as far as Peru, Bolivia and extreme western Brazil. In the 20th century various botanists attempted to further define S. macrophylla in South America as a new species, such as S. candollei Pittier and S. tessmannii Harms., but many authorities consider these spurious. All of the mahogany of continental North and South America can be considered as one botanical species, Swietenia macrophylla King.
      The large-leaf mahogany we are planting for forest plantation species is this South American species known for being fast growing and its premium timber exported worldwide until its trading was banned from the source due to illegal harvesting and trade, category II under CITES. With the present log ban on natural forests, plantations from exotic species are the legal sources of our timber primarily mahogany, falcate, and gmelina, and eucalyptus. But these are planted in production forests under tenure with the private sector and CBFM holders. The largest mahogany plantations are now mature and over mature in Bohol and being used for ecotourism rather than timber harvesting. These fast growing exotic species are not planted in protected forests so as not to compete with native and endemic species. Our remaining production forests produce the exotic mahogany etc. plantation species for local use and export as finished products.
      The Philippine mahogany is a trade name for our dipterocarps and narra and premium species in the export market. There is no native Philippine mahogany species. Mahogany is the trade name for South American species S. macrophylla
      and two others.
      Most foresters and botanists in the country are aware of these basic information on large-leaf mahogany and Philippine mahogany and the commodity targets for suitable areas for forest plantations…

  6. Anima A. Agrava on

    Yes, for the sake of our children’s future Philippine archipelago and Filipino nation, please DENR chief and other officials, stop the spread of Bolivian mahogany at once.

    The trouble is maybe the same criminals who logged our forests to death are the ones who are partners with DENR in reforesting our mountains with the killer Bolivian mahogany trees because these grow faster than our lauan, apitong etc. and they can make money from them sooner. Also Bolivian, Peruvian and other South American mahogany could be harder woods than our own mahogany which are diptecarps.