Tree of Life

By Lorraine LorenzoOctober 1, 2017

‘Living museum’ imparts the importance of planting native trees

AT THE BEGINNING of this writer’s interview with Imelda Sarmiento, advocate and information curator on Philippine native trees, she raised a simple question: Can you name at least five native trees of the Philippines?

The question proved to be more difficult than it sounded. Apart from narra, most of us who were there to take a tour of the Rex Living Library of Trees in Tarlac, a living catalogue of some of the country’s native trees, couldn’t get past one or two species to name.

And herein lies the problem: The Filipinos’ lack of knowledge on the country’s native trees reflects our low attention when it comes to efforts to rehabilitate and maintain the ecological balance of our ecosystem which includes the mountains, forests, and watersheds.


‘Alien’ danger

“It’s a very sad fact. The Philippines’ real treasure lies in our natural heritage!  We have 3,600 native tree species and yet they are in danger of physical extinction. We know so little of our native trees that forests affected by deforestation and practices like kaingin, are being replaced by tree species that are not native to the country. This will eventually prove to be damaging to our environment in the long run,” she said.  Sarmiento is a former tourism attaché and who once spearheaded the Clean & Green project during the term of President Fidel V. Ramos.

To prove her point, Sarmiento cited the Bilar Manmade Forest in Bohol as example. The beautiful forest with a two-kilometer stretch of mahogany trees, actually has a dark secret. It is called a ‘silent forest’ because no other living organisms can thrive where the trees grow.

Mahogany, which is not a native tree species of the Philippines, is described by Sarmiento as an invasive species. Small animals like birds, bees, and butterflies cannot thrive with these alien trees and no other plant can grow beneath the canopy of the 50-year old trees because dead leaves tend to poison the soil with toxic chemicals. The forest was planted 50 years ago as a way to rehabilitate the area which was damaged by kaingin.  Hence, this area is also a biologically dead zone.

Imelda Sarmiento, advocate and information curator on Philippine native trees.

“The mahogany forest almost wiped out the population of tarsiers in Bohol because the mahogany trees killed the insects which the tarsiers feed on,” she explained.

Yet in Florida, where mahogany is a native species, the mahogany trees are harmless. The same can be said with tuai, a native tree species of the Philippines that somehow found its way to the US.  Whereas tuai grows harmlessly in our land, it creates a similar havoc as mahogany in Bohol.

This type of effect doesn’t just happen in Philippine flora alone. Even animals accidentally transported to other nations have been known to drastically create chaos in foreign ecosystems.

Shortly after World War II, in the 1950s, the brown tree snake, a known native serpent of the South Pacific (and is said to have originated from the Philippines), was accidentally brought to Guam via a cargo loaded in a Guam-bound aircraft.

Shortly after its arrival, there has been massive reports of declining population among Guam’s native birds, so much so that they had to create a special sanctuary where the birds were to be protected and studied to know more about the cause of its decline.

The first speculation is an unknown disease that’s causing the bird population to dwindle. Further studies however revealed that it’s actually the brown tree snake of the South Pacific, a nocturnal hunter with no known predator in Guam, that are killing the bird population. Its dire effects are still being addressed even up to this day.

This is the effect that Sarmiento aims to impart among government agencies, private groups, and environmentalists.

“It’s very important to know about native plant species in the Philippines, especially now that many private groups and corporations conduct tree planting as part of their corporate social responsibilities. It is easy to just pick a tree and plant it, but we all need to know that careful study should be done first before doing anything. This includes consideration of area topography, a tree’s effect on the soil, and of course, its role in the community’s ecosystem,” she said.  “Because trees are not created equal.”


Drastic deforestation

Awareness of native trees also zooms in on a continuing problem when it comes to the country’s biodiversity. Urbanization of natural habitats has become a primary agent for the loss of biodiversity.

Paving the way to a more modern Philippines meant an increasing vulnerability of plants and animals to harsher new living conditions, predation from other species, and scarcity or inaccessibility of resources required for survival. Endemic species for both flora and fauna (those that are found only in the country), now have to survive in a very restrictive geographic area, and deforestation remains to be the leading cause of habitat destruction.

There are many factors that contribute to this such as poorly controlled logging and mining activities that have damaged forest covers beyond rescue. Based on reports from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources–Forest Management Bureau, our country’s forest cover is only at an alarming 24 percent – a sharp drop from the 70 percent at the start of the 20th century.

Among those with high forest cover areas include Palawan, Isabela, Cagayan Valley, Agusan del Sur, and Quezon Province. While those in the bottom include Guimaras, Siquijor, Batanes, Metro Manila and Cavite.


Native alternatives

Alarming figures show that there is an urgent need to make Filipinos aware of our country’s native plant species (out of the 3,600 native trees, 67 percent are endemic to the country) as it will help aid in reviving devastated forest areas.

Native plants like legumes, for example, are known to nourish a soil infected with toxic chemicals, giving other plant species a chance to grow. In terms of lumber alternatives, Sarmiento shared that we have vast options that can serve just as well or even better than the usual foreign wood that we’ve come to know. The kalantas is a good alternative to mahogany.

When Japanese cherry blossoms were planted in June last year in Atok, Benguet, environmentalists suggested trees that have less environmental impact and are native to our soil, not to mention just as beautiful like bagawak-morado, siar, malabulak, molave, salingogon, balay lamok, bagras, to name a few, as well as rare endemics like the mangkono, yakal and pulang lauan.

“The lesson here is that what God has given us, we should learn to cherish and take care. I believe the late renowned botanist Leonard L. Co best frames this ideology: Love all trees, but plant only our native trees.”


Living Library

Sarmiento curated the information on native trees in a guidebook. The project was spearheaded by an NGO called Green Convergence for Safe Food, Healthy Environment and Sustainable Economy, and printed by Rex Publishing Company.  The publication is called “Rex Living Library of Native Trees, the guidebook” and it complements a 5,000-sqm “living museum” of trees found inside a five-hectare area developed by Rex Group.

Much like a guide book when visiting a museum, Sarmiento’s compilation of native trees classifies and organizes Philippine native trees according to their plant families, general groupings and the scientific names of individual species as visitors would see them on site.

Furthermore, it describes the practical applications of the featured native trees including their geographical and ecological distribution. Out of the 3,600 native tree species, the guidebook and living library covers a total of 246 indigenous and endemic species. The park was planted with trees two years ago and is located in Tarlac City.

The Rex Living Library of Native Trees is an important contribution of the Rex Group of Companies in the campaign to once more popularize the use of our native trees.  This is urgent as our native trees are facing extinction and are endangered: the first danger is the threat of physical extinction as we continue to sabotage their natural environments, and the second is the threat of their extinction from our collective memories as a people. Native trees are what God bestowed our country, our natural heritage and are part of our identity as Filipinos.  The sooner we know about them, the sooner we will love and conserve them. The dream is to see trees as “weeds” of our country in the not so distant future…readily available to benefit all of us for their many uses, functions and values.”