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Hope for deforestation breakthrough

  • 12 December 2007
My interest in ecology stems from my experience of working with the T'boli people in the southern Philippines, from 1980 to 1991. Within a few months of arriving in Lake Sebu, where the T'bolis live, I was convinced that protecting what remained of the tropical forest in the area was vital for the wellbeing of the T'boli and the settlers who lived in the lowlands.

Tropical deforestation has taken a huge toll on the Philippines. When the Spaniards left at the end of the 19th century almost 75 per cent of the tropical forests were still intact. The onslaught began in earnest after World War II. Companies were given permission to clear-cut large tracts of forests. The local tribal peoples were never asked for permission to destroy their habitats, which they had managed for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years. A few people made enormous fortunes, while the majority of the Filipinos and the environment suffer.

Today, less than 10 per cent of the Philippines is covered with tropical forests. Sustainable agriculture in a tropical archipelago like the Philippines demands about 50 per cent forest cover. Without it soil erosion will increase dramatically and expensive irrigation systems will become useless, because the forests will not secrete water slowly into the rivers to sustain the flow during the dry season.

The legacy of that plunder is now evident every time a typhoon causes flooding, massive landslides and terrible loss of life, especially among the poor. Filipinos could have managed our forests in a sustainable way and, in doing so, secured long-term employment for hundreds of thousands of Filipino families.

What happened in the Philippines is mirrored world wide. Between 2000 and 2005 tropical forests disappeared at approximately 10.4 million hectares each year. These forests contain about 70 per cent of the world's biodiversity, and about 60 million people, many of whom are among the poorest on the planet.

A last minute reprieve for tropical forests may emerge in discussions around the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bali. IPCC scientists reckon 20 per cent of greenhouse emissions globally come from forest destruction. So stablising greenhouse gas emissions at safe levels requires significant reduction in the current rate of deforestation.

One initative which is being pursued is REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). REDD has a number of priorities. It aims at preserving forests that contain