Thursday, June 16, 2011

Philippines Diaries, Day 4, Part 2 - The Reforestation Charade

I was recently part of an International Fact Finding Mission to the Philippines. Our group investigated the impact of a biethanol project that uses sugarcane as its feedstock on the local environment, food security, land grabbing, and human rights. This diary covers the afternoon of June 1, when I visited a forest restoration area.

If you recall "Marco" from the landgrabbing post, well... the afternoon of June 1, we paid him a surprise visit. He was NOT happy to see us. Marco, if you'll recall, told us that a village official ("Pedro") was trying to steal his land. But he wouldn't tell us how much land he had. And he was college educated, not originally from this area, and spoke perfect English (all strange characteristics compared to the other peasants we interviewed).

The reason we paid Marco a visit was actually because of our interest in the SIFMA program, which stands for Socialized Industrial Forest Management Agreement. Marco has a SIFMA.

Basically, the rules of SIFMA are as follows: You make an agreement with the government to reforest a designated area for 25 years. This is an area that you don't own - no one owns it. You must cover a certain percent of the land with trees in the first year, and you must cover it all with trees in a relatively short timeframe. For the first few years, you can still grow annual crops like rice on a percent of the land. After the first several years, you have to start paying the government, because presumably you are profiting in some way from your forest (i.e. by growing fruit). The payments increase with time. If you do not follow the rules (i.e. you don't cover the land with trees or you stop paying), then you lose your right to the land.

This is one of several related programs for reforestation (Community-Based Forest Management (CBFM) and Integrated Forest Management Agreement (IFMA)) but it's the most relevant for explaining what I observed on my trip.

The Philippines once had 16 million hectares of forests, representing 52% of the total land area. Today, there are about 0.8 million ha of natural forests. Here's what that looks like:


For reference, if you look at the green stripe on the northeastern most part of the country in the 1999 picture, that's close to where we were. The reason that strip has not been deforested is because there's a mountain range making it inaccessible except by plane. We were just to the west of there, outside the green strip of forest.

So off we go to see Marco - just a few of us, including Simone, our forests expert, and Diony, our host, who has a SIFMA himself. He's got about 25 acres of SIFMA between his land and his children's land. He planted it with a diverse array of species, including many kinds of fruit trees. And that's significant, given that the rules of the SIFMA program, from what I was told (I have NOT fully researched this program - YET), allow exotic species and even monocultures. You can plant a huge area with Gmelina trees, a fast-growing type of tree used for paper. Or you can plant mahogany, which is exotic. While we did this, the rest of the group stayed behind in Del Pilar to interview farmers or went with another group to a barangay (village) called Libertad.

As I mentioned, Marco was not expecting us, nor was he very happy to see us. We sat down and began asking him questions about his SIFMA. Simone, our expert on forests, did the talking. Then she asked if he'd go on video to make a statement about his SIFMA. That's where he hesitated.

Then he told us: "I have a secret." He pretends he's poor, he said, but actually he's quite rich. He's got somewhere between 150 and 200 hectares of land (370 to 495 acres or so). He wasn't eager to go on video, because he doesn't want anyone scrutinizing his landholdings too closely.

Through talking to him, we found out that he doesn't plan to keep his land in forests necessarily. He figures that, as he ages, it would be best to put his land into rice instead of forests. But it would be an awful lot of work - not to mention money - to knock down all of his trees in order to plant rice. So, he says, he wants to sign the minimum contract with the bioethanol plant (3 years), and let them get rid of his trees and plant sugarcane. After 3 years, he'll cancel the contract, get rid of the sugarcane, and plant rice.

What? This certainly changed the story from the one we heard the day before. Marco was no poor peasant being victimized by the big mean corporation or the local landgrabber. True, he had problems with the local landgrabber, but he told us he had lawyers working on the issue for him. And he wanted to use the bioethanol plant to knock down his trees for him. That is significant because the carbon neutrality of bioethanol is based on the calculation that no land is deforested to grow the ethanol feedstocks.

At the end of the interview, he walked with us through his forest and to his rice paddies. Here are some photos.

Rice seedlings

Rice paddies

A section of the rice paddy that I believe they said had just been harvested

Water for irrigation


Marco's pigs

At some point during our interview, all of the Filipinos in our group wandered off. One went to a nearby brook for a bath. Others went to collect fiddleheads to take home with them. Ultimately, we all met back up at the truck and went home. We would have liked to visit Diony's SIFMA, but it was time to get back to the group and then we had a long drive back to San Mariano ahead of us.

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