Agriculture News Analysis

Tree farming – a root and branch solution

Despite 68 years of investing in rural infrastructure, Filipino farming families remain among the poorest in the country. Yet the Philippines has the land and the potential to create a thriving agricultural sub-sector that could compete with the best in the region – and that root and branch solution might be in farming trees.

That’s the belief of Jose Reno Gayo, PhD, Dean of the Management Farm Institute’s Farm Business School. More particularly, he believes that afforestation could provide the catalyst for a transformation of rural enterprise – a theme he explores in his book, 4Es: Pathways Out of Poverty, [University of Asia and the Pacific, 2013]. The “4Es” refer to education, entrepreneurship, education and enablers.

With the proper investment policy and the right programmes in place, says Gayo, forestry could become a major industry – generating millions of jobs, especially in the impoverished uplands – and be a huge export earner. Afforestation’s other benefit would be through water retention which would assist crop irrigation, not least in the troubled rice sector (see: Philippine rice – pipe dream vs reality).

Currently, 53% of Philippine land is classified as forest – whether there are any trees on it or not. Much of it is grassland and much of that is unproductive and untendered. Production forests are virtually non-existent and real forest cover has barely increased since the 1980s. Although the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, along with foreign aid agencies, have thrown billions of pesos into “greening programmes,” over the decades, there has been little payback in terms of productivity performance. As a sector, forestry’s contribution to the economy is negligible.

Lack of political will has been the main stumbling block to increasing forest development for commercial benefit. Successive governments’ conservation policies and the more-recent logging ban have highly politicising all aspects of forestry in the Philippines. Certainly, conservation is vital: forest cover in the archipelago has declined from 70% of total land area in 1900 to less than 18% today. But there has been little balancing of environmental considerations with market opportunities. Consequently, the Philippines has gone from being a thriving exporter of lumber and wood products to a net timber importer.

In the 1970s and 1980s industrial tree plantations, attended by saw mills and wood-processing units, sprang up in the Philippines, largely in Mindanao, using fast-growing tree species to feed overseas demand for the home-grown wood and wood products. Unfortunately, the sector turned into a corrupt and under-regulated scramble for timber profits.

Successful afforestation, however, is well within the grasp of the country’s foresters and tree planters: a good example of this is the man-made Bohol Forest in the Central Visayas region where a two-kilometre stretch of mahogany woodland borders the towns of Loboc and Bilar. The Philippines foresters know the land and have the skills. What they lack is the money and the political will in Manila to support commercial tree-farming projects.