Thursday, May 25, 2017

[Second Opinion] (Un)protected areas

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The Philippines is so rich in biodiversity that many species have not yet been discovered or documented. I realized this when, after blogging about my hike up Mount Mantalingajan in Palawan, a French scientist contacted me about one of the photos in my write-up. When I asked what’s so special about the picture, she told me it was one of the very few that existed of an orchid, which was so “new” it didn’t even have a scientific name!

Years later, when I was planning to climb Mount Victoria—also in Palawan—I was told by my birdwatcher-friends to be on the lookout for the Palawan striped-babbler, a bird found only on the island’s high mountains. Being a novice, I failed to spot it on our first day.

But the next day, just as we were ascending to the summit, a bird approached me: It was my friends’ prized find, with its distinctive yellow and gray stripes! I was dumbfounded as it came to within a meter of me, as if curious at the sight of a strange animal wearing a backpack. It lingered for a while, even following me for a short distance, until it flew away.

I was delighted at having seen the Palawan striped-babbler for the first time, but a greater sense of awe came to me when I realized the significance of the bird coming that close to me. Could it be that it had not yet learned to fear humans, and the place I was visiting was so remote that harmony still reigned between man and nature?

Sadly, most other species have very bad experiences with humans. Proof of this is the ever-dwindling number of Philippine eagles, whose lives have been a great escape from hunters and lost habitats.
We need more protected areas—a designation that will provide resources to safeguard endangered species and protect whatever habitats they have left from destructive activities like logging and mining. According to Dr. Mundita Lim, director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Biodiversity Management Bureau, only 93 of the Philippines’ 228 “key biodiversity areas” enjoy some legal protection.

The case of Cleopatra’s Needle in Palawan is an example of just how difficult the process can be: It took several years and painstaking work initiated by the Center for Sustainability, a local NGO, to have it designed as a “critical habitat.” Unsurprisingly, many land developers and politicians get in the way. On this note, I am heartened that the Senate just passed the expanded Nipas bill authored by Sen. Loren Legarda; I hope the House will follow suit.

But legislation is just the first step. Many areas, like Ipo Watershed near Metro Manila, have been declared “protected” but encroachment continues. Forest rangers are outnumbered and underpaid, not to mention vulnerable: In 2011, Jojo Malinao, a ranger who fought illegal logging on Mount Makiling, was shot dead by an unidentified man. Alas, it is just not the biodiversity areas that need protecting but also those whose job is to protect them.

President Duterte and Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu can prove their commitment to the environment by pushing for more protected areas and giving teeth to the many laws that exist. As for individual Filipinos, the least we can do is to develop an appreciation for our protected areas by actually visiting them—and demanding that our leaders do more to protect them.

In our age where pragmatism seems to trump long-held principles, perhaps some will dismiss my call as naive. But isn’t the naivete on their part? The bird I saw in Palawan is not just alive, it also gives life: It participates in the ecosystem of the forest. The forests, in turn, sustain us by maintaining water stores, preventing floods, sequestering carbon emissions, providing livelihoods, among others. When Nueva Ecija was flooded by Typhoon “Lando,” farmers pointed at the scarred mountains of the Sierra Madre. One of them told me: “If only they didn’t destroy the mountains, our rice fields would not have been devastated.”

His message, like that of our scientists, is clear: Our mountains, our forests, our mangroves and our coral reefs—they have long been protecting us. But they can only continue to do so if we protect them, too.

This essay was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on May 25, 2017:

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