(STAR) STAR SCIENCE By Raul Kamantigue Suarez - [“…the Philippines is nothing more than a real Spoliarium with all its horrors.” Graciano Lopez Jaena (1884)]

Filipinos worldwide are shocked and saddened by recent devastating floods and landslides, by the death, suffering, and economic problems brought upon their countrymen by recent typhoons. Distant memories of the roar of chainsaws and the crashing of trees resurface in my mind. It was the summer of 1973. We heard these while camped for a month on Mt. Apo in an area designated as a National Park.

Forests are supposed to help prevent floods and soil erosion. So these recent events should not just horrify and sadden. Among other things, they should cause people to wonder how much forest the Philippines once had and how much remains. Although there is a large body of literature concerning deforestation in the Philippines, data from all the years before 1946 have been difficult to find. Apparently, Spanish forestry records in Manila got burned in a fire in 1897 and American records were destroyed during the fighting in 1945. Thanks to a recent article by Greg Bankoff (Journal of Historical Geography 33: 314-334, 2007), the following picture emerges:

During the early phase of Spanish colonization in the 16th century, 90 percent of the total land area was said to be forested and the population consisted of less than a million people. In 1903, there were 7.6 million inhabitants and 70 percent of forest cover remained. By 1950, the population had risen to 20 million and forest cover had gone down to 50 percent. So the islands lost 20 percent of forest cover during three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, lost another 20 percent during the half-century of American and Japanese occupation, leaving 50 percent cover for the newly independent, postwar Republic.

Since independence from the Americans, the population has grown almost five times to more than 90 million Filipinos. Forest cover is down to about 20 percent or less of total land area. Given how little remains, the Philippines competes with countries such as Burundi, Togo, Honduras and Nigeria for the title of ‘world’s highest rate of percent loss of forest cover.’

If the current rate of deforestation is maintained, no forest cover is expected to remain within the next decade. More than 10 million hectares of virgin forest, present at the time of independence, will have been completely lost.

What processes led to postwar deforestation in the Philippines? One might think that habitat loss and its consequences are purely scientific questions or issues that can be addressed by using only the tools and approaches of the ‘natural’ sciences. However, certain questions, such as those posed in this article, cannot be answered by the natural sciences alone.

In addition, many of the problems confronting Filipinos — as well as the rest of humanity — cannot be solved by technology (the application of natural science) alone. To answer the question why the new Republic cut down its forests at such a high rate, to explore the consequences, and to determine what can be done about the problem has required the combined application of the natural and the social sciences by researchers in the Philippines and abroad. History, economics, sociology, and political science provide, along with the natural sciences, the colors required to paint the canvas of Philippine deforestation. The picture that emerges is as dark, violent and disturbing as Juan Luna’s masterpiece, the Spoliarium.

Perhaps the earliest written record of a change in Filipino attitudes toward forests is cited by Bankoff who states that whereas “previously old trees were revered as sacred and a person would ask pardon before felling one,” by the late 1800s, Sebastian Vidal y Soler, a Spanish forester, recounts how “there is no lack of those [here] who see the tree as the enemy of man.” As a child in the 1950s, I became conscious of such attitudes among those in older generations who considered forests and grasslands to be the unsightly and unpleasant vestiges of a primitive past. If there was money available, people thought backyards, grasslands and forests should all be paved over to construct courtyards, roads and buildings.

These would show progress and modernity; land that was not “put to good use” was said to be “wasted.” Attitudes concerning nature, progress and land use are likely to be at the root of the “War Against Nature” and “Engineering without Understanding” that Francis de los Reyes discusses in his timely article concerning the flooding of Manila and suburbs (Philippine Star, Oct. 15, 2009). But people’s attitudes toward trees, forests, progress and modernity are but one color on the national Spoliarium.

What can be said of the process of deforestation itself? A valuable source of information is David M. Kummer’s book entitled “Deforestation in the Postwar Philippines (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991). Although published almost two decades ago, it is likely that the essential features of the process remain unchanged. In the book, Kummer carefully documents his numerous sources of information. When appropriate, he tests alternative hypotheses by performing statistical analyses of quantitative data. He is careful to identify shortcomings of both data and analyses. Those motivated to read the book would be struck by how thoroughly the author analyzes the process of deforestation and how he does so in the context of socioeconomic conditions and politics in the country.

That economic growth in the Philippines has not benefited the majority of its citizens has been well characterized by Filipino as well as foreign researchers. As the population grew after the Second World War, so did the gap between the rich and the poor. Political power, economic wealth and access to resources became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a minority elite. The highly valued Dipterocarp trees that accounted for much of the 50 percent forest cover remaining in 1950 were in great demand overseas.

The largest landowner in the country, the Philippine government, established a system wherein logging by the rich and powerful was considered legal, while logging by the poor was not. With this system in place, the government granted the right to log primary forests to a limited number of wealthy forest concessionaires. In effect, this gave the right to use a public resource for private gain to a limited number of individuals.

On top of this, government regulation of logging by the concessionaires was plagued by corruption and inefficiency. So, in addition to legally conducted logging, there was rampant illegal logging, improper logging practices, and the smuggling of logs for export. Thus, access to primary forests became virtually unregulated. After logging roads were constructed and Dipterocarp tress harvested, the poor migrated into the secondary forests left behind. There they settled, cut down secondary growth, harvested wood for fuel and practiced agriculture. Such migration into degraded forests was encouraged to make unnecessary much needed socioeconomic reform. Forestry data were deliberately manipulated to give Filipinos (and foreign researchers) a misleading picture of what was occurring; this gave the opportunity to focus blame on the poor.

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Raul Kamantigue Suarez is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, California and an editor of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Cambridge, UK. E-mail him at

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