A foray into urban forests

Our neighborhood at the very fringe of Baguio is particularly lucky for being situated a stone’s throw away, quite in a literal sense, from a small pine grove. This grove, in turn, was originally an extension of a much bigger privately owned forest, but now separated from it by a couple of concrete alleys, a growing cluster of houses, and eroded slopes of coarse runo grass.

I ask Kabsat Kandu if he knows this. “Yes, of course, I grew up here!” he replies with just a touch of righteous pride. My streetwise friend, who sowed his wild oats in these parts, tells the truth. This still-forested part of Baguio actually serves as a hideaway, not so much for rich weekend vacationers from Metro Manila, but for locals with other goals in mind—often, doing stuff not to be proud about. (More about this at some other time.)

Pine groves of Baguio City
A pine grove in the fringes of Baguio City is shrouded in midday fog

In fact, not just our neighborhood but much of the Cordillera region remains lucky for having preserved a fairly high percentage of its natural forest cover. While the entire country’s forest cover rapidly shrunk from a high 17 million hectares in 1934 (56 percent of total land area) to a mere 7 million in 2003 (23 percent), the Cordillera retained a high forest cover of 85 percent.

Even Baguio and the fast urbanizing adjacent towns have retained extensive patches of original pine forest, despite massive deforestation. Of Baguio’s total land area of 5,751 ha, only 8.1 percent still has old growths of pine while 19.8 percent has production pine stands; 2.1 percent is brushland. In comparison, Metro Manila with its 64,000-ha land area shows a drastic reduction of forest lands and parks from a high of 25.1 percent in 1938 to an extremely low 1 percent in 1994. This supposedly increased to 4.4 percent (2,820 ha) by 2010, but still remains very low.Other regions of the country, which are still predominantly rural, have retained substantial forest cover. Aside from natural forests, there are also agro-forests and quite extensive lands planted to fruit trees such as coconut, citrus, mango, lanzones, and coffee. All these somehow preserve some remnants of the original forest ecosystem, although in a much-degraded state. Coffee groves in Kalinga and mango orchards in Abra, for example, are known to support various honey bee colonies and small-animal communities, including monkeys, the famous mutit or musang, and fruit bats, which in turn become food for big predatory birds on the endangered list.

Alas, all these tree-based ecosystems have mostly vanished in many urban areas, through government neglect and the mindless capitalist obsession to prioritize high-rise office buildings and condominiums, highways, shopping malls and parking-lots. In the worst cases, the trees that remain are now mere décor, isolated centerpieces for plasticine landscapes to be enjoyed by shoppers and strollers.

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In any case, we must realize this: every tree that dies is a loss to the local ecosystem, whether in rural or urban areas. Every tree matters, because even just one creates space for life. A talisay tree standing alone in a huge Makati parking lot, for example, is still able to promote its own micro-ecosystem of birds, lizards, insects, tiny moss and molds—which in turn enrich the surrounding soil and thus encourage more natural growth, if only in the interstices of the harsh urban jungle.

Wherever there are two or more adjacent trees, a synergy is created. Trees support each other and affect the immediate vicinity in obvious as well as subtle ways, which help moderate micro-climates, enhance micro-ecosystem stability and biodiversity, and provide added benefits to human communities. And, of course, the more trees congregate into groves, galleries and forests, the micro- turns macro-, and thus, the bigger the advantages.

Bikers and joggers in Metro Manila know this, when they unfailingly experience a sudden change of environment—that welcome whiff of fresh air in the cool shade—the moment they enter one of those rare Metro Manila tree sanctuaries like UP Diliman or the La Mesa Watershed Nature Reserve.

In fairness, capitalism even at its greediest has its own urban planning. At least in theory, capitalist urban planning gives some value to trees—not just to individual trees and beautiful tree-lined boulevards, but to urban community forests and forest parks. In fact, some of the densest but better-planned and managed metropolitan areas of the world are able to boast of such forests. Let us look at just two examples:

New York City, despite its reputation as the city of high-rise steel-and-concrete building behemoths, has a total of 5.2 million trees, which cover 19.5 percent of the city’s 121,400-ha land area. This vast foliage generates a 21-percent urban tree canopy. Apart from the world-famous 341-ha. Central Park (the most-visited urban park in the US) with 25,000 trees and seven lakes, NYC also has eight community forests on city-owned land, which are covered by their respective management plans. In addition, there are urban forests on privately owned land.

NYC’s Department of Parks and Recreation has also been undertaking a census of the city’s street trees every 10 years. This effort aims to map and catalogue every street tree on every block in the city’s five boroughs, not including trees located in the city’s urban forests.

Its 2005-06 census had counted over 590,000 street trees of 168 different species—which represent a 19-percent increase over its tree census count of 1995. (Its 2015 “Trees Count” census is still ongoing.) Interestingly, a web developer in Brooklyn used the census data to create a visualization of where each of these 590,000 trees are situated.

The NYC government’s target is for the city to plant and care for one million trees in the 2008-2017 period, with the help of tree stewards and neighborhood volunteer groups. Just this November 2015, NYC’s Million-Tree Initiative celebrated the planting of the one millionth tree, thus exceeding its planting target two years ahead of schedule.

Consider also the city of Berlin, which has a total land area of 89,000 ha. A whooping one third is composed of forests, parks, gardens, rivers and lakes, with a total count of 400,000 trees. Of this, some 16,000 ha., or 18 percent of the city’s land area, are classified as woodland, and protected by Berlin Forest Act of 1996. These include the 3,000-ha. Grunewald—a large and contiguous thickly forested area the size of Las Pinas City in Metro Manila. (The Berlin-Brandenburg urban region boasts of a still denser forest cover, at 35 percent.)

(For a broader survey of urban greening movements and expanding city forests in Europe, see Timothy Beatley’s Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities, Island Press, 1999, 512pp.)

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Baguio and adjacent towns would compare favorably with Berlin and NYC in terms of number of trees per unit of land area, while Metro Manila would fare very low. But measuring mere tree density won’t get us far. While the Philippines has much potential in reforestation, our efforts are burdened by complex problems especially in the urban areas.

Such problems range from a neoliberal model that encourages giant corporations to gobble up urban land for profitable real estate business, to a government mindset that allows DENR officials to sacrifice trees at the altar of big business. We are hobbled by a semi-feudal economy that forces landless peasants to become informal settlers in national parks, and urban neighborhoods that would choose wider roads and parking lots over more trees out of a false sense of convenience.

At first glance, the Philippine government seems to have finally awakened to the urgent need to reforest the entire country. In February 2011, President Benigno Aquino III issued E.O. No. 26 to implement the National Greening Program (NGP), with a target to plant 1.5 billion trees on 1.5 million hectares from 2011 to 2016. But, as it turns out, the NGP was just another opportunity for graft and corruption through pork-barrel mechanisms.

In a 2013 audit report, the Commission on Audit (COA) declared that the 5.9-billion-peso NGP was unsuccessful because the DENR undertook the tree-planting program without an efficient and effective system of project implementation and monitoring. The agency did not conduct mapping and planning, leading to ridiculous situations such as non-plantable areas being identified as tree-planting sites, seedlings being planted just when the dry season started, and lack of local partner organizations to help monitor the reforested areas. (http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/687426/coa-p7b-tree-planting-project-of-denr-a-failure)

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On a long term view, regreening programs must be framed by a wider social reform agenda, with proper government leadership. We must tackle on a nationwide scale all these social problems that aggravate the shrinkage of forests. There are hundreds of obstacles ahead that must be met as inter-connected challenges, as local regreening movements must certainly realize by now.

But at the same time we must pursue local action—if only by engaging schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces to plant and care for more trees. Schools and neighborhood associations would do well to serve as stewards of street trees and community forests. Full and sustained community support is crucial, so that do-good NGO initiatives are not stuck in a rut of technical and financial difficulties and political in-fighting, which tie the hands of even the most dedicated environmental organizations.

Centuries of biological science and decades of mass environmentalism already provide us more than enough knowledge and educational material on the benefit of trees, not only to the whole of humanity in a generalized and long-term sense, but in the most direct sense to the individual person. This, every schoolchild who learned by heart Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” must instinctively realize.

In a scientific paper published just a few days ago in the Scientific Reports journal, (http://www.nature.com/articles/srep11610), a team of researchers offered credible evidence that thick foliage in urban neighborhoods improve its residents’ physical health in very measurable ways. The researchers identified specific factors such as fresher air through oxygenation and pollution removal, the well-documented relaxing impact of greenery, and even the subtle encouragement to exercise by walking or jogging under the trees.

In this age of climate change, we should not tire of reminding ourselves that each tree can remove up to 12 kilos of carbon every year—the equivalent of 18,000 km’s worth of vehicle CO2 emissions. Trees improve urban air quality in the most direct and localized way by sucking into their leaves not just CO2 but also particulates and other pollutants.

Urban forests and tree galleries, when properly managed, also provide windbreaks against typhoon gusts, help absorb surface runoff of rainwater, and provide enough shade to buildings and pavements to reduce urban heating. They also serve as sanctuaries for urban wildlife.

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Kabsat Kandu, depressed by the treeless horizon, lightens up on this last point. “I’ve certainly had my share of using the neighborhood forest for my urban wildlife forays,” he quips, with a naughty wink.

I know what he means. It’s just another proof that we benefit from urban forests and its wildlife biodiversity in a thousand ways.

If only for that, we must not tire of fighting for forests, hectare by hectare, street by street. We must plant and nurture tree after tree after tree, and dare to defend them against monsters with chainsaws and power shovels, if it comes to that. #

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