Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
It all started with a Private Land Timber Permit (PLTP) issued to Ling-Ling Wu Lee on August 18, 2021.
What Lee wanted, according to some reports, was to cut 121 native trees – 22 agoho, 4 bagtikan, 14 lauaan, 44 tanguile, and 35 ulian – in Mounts Macabol-Alikoson Conservation Area (MMACA), which the Watershed Code of Davao City has classified as “environmentally critical area.”
What is even more alarming is that the area – which is located in sitio Falcata, Macabol, barangay Salaysay in Marilog District – is a reported nesting site of the endangered Philippine eagle.
When the regional office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) learned all these facts, it said that it would issue a suspension order to the issued PLTP.
“DENR 11 remains committed to render public service with utmost quality and integrity and shall always consider the welfare of the general public to be balanced with our wildlife conservation measures especially the Philippine eagles and the forest ecosystem functions as a whole,” said Bagani Fidel Evasco, DENR regional director.
“The office,” he added, “is also committed to implementing its mandate and priority programs guided by laws, rules, and regulations.”
When Mayor Sara Z. Duterte learned of the situation, she personally wrote a letter to Bagani about it.
“Please be informed that the City Government of Davao fully supports the request of both organizations,” Mayor Duterte said, referring to the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) and the Sustainable Davao Movement (SDM).
SDM was ecstatic with the support of the mayor. “Our efforts and calls, together with the people in barangay Salaysay and the thousands of those who supported our online signature campaign… did not fall on deaf ears,” it said in the social media account.
“The strong position of the City Government of Davao highlights the significant role of local government units in conservation efforts and the promotion of Local Autonomy, especially the management of its natural resources,” SDM added.
Dennis Joseph I. Salvador, in his Facebook account, was not contented with just the suspension order, but instead, he wanted the permit to be canceled.
“Perhaps you think that by just spending the cutting permit (of the trees), you could resume operations when we’ve turned our bucks?” asked the PEF executive director. “How hard is it to stand by your mandate?”
The brouhaha has brought three important issues: trees, biodiversity eagle, and watershed. All these were discussed by Mayor Duterte in her letter.
“As a biodiversity area, the MMACA is home to various vulnerable species of birds and other wildlife endemic to Mindanao,” she wrote. “It is also the nesting site of our national bird, the critically-endangered Philippine Eagle, which the Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEF) and other organizations have been continuously protecting for many years.”
Mayor Duterte also talked of it as a watershed area. “The forest area of the MMACA replenishes the aquifers of the Suawan-Kulafu-Sub-Watershed within the Davao City River Basin,” she pointed out.
Professor James W. Grier, when he “learned of the issuing of a permit to harvest old-growth trees for commercial purposes near a long-established, productive, and well-studied Philippine eagle nesting territory,” he wrote an open letter which was shared by Salvador.
“That area should be left in its natural state to the fullest extent possible, including leaving old and even fallen trees naturally in place,” said Prof. Grier of the Department of Biological Sciences at North Dakota State University.
Prof. Grier had first-hand experience with the Philippine eagle and was among the first to travel to and help study the nesting eagles at barangay Salaysay.
The Philippine eagle – known in the science world as Phithecophaga jefferyi and described by famed American aviator Charles Lindbergh as “the world’s noblest flier” – was declared by then-President Fidel V. Ramos as the national bird (thereby dislodging Maya as such).
The Philippine eagle is second only to the Madagascar sea eagle in rarity. In size, it beats the American bald eagle; it is the world’s second-biggest after the Harpy eagle of Central and South America.
The bird icon was being collected in the country as early as 1703, but it was not until 1896 that it was “discovered” in Samar by the English naturalist, John Whitehead, who called it the “Great Philippine eagle.”
Unlike most animals and humans, Philippine eagles are monogamous and bond for life. Once an eagle reaches sexual maturity – at around five years for females and seven years for males – it is bound for life with its mate. They can be seen soaring in pairs in the skies.
A pair of the Philippine eagles needs at least 7,000 to 13,000 hectares of forest as nesting territory, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Salvador said massive deforestation had turned the Philippine eagle into an endangered species. “Deforestation is terrible,” he deplored. “The Philippine eagle has become a critically endangered species because the loss of the forest has made it lose its natural habitat.”
When Ferdinand Magellan “rediscovered” the Philippines in 1521, forests blanketed 95% of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares. When the Ormoc City Leyte tragedy happened – which left 8,000 people dead – timber cover was only 18%.
“Where have all our forests gone?” Jethro P. Adang, the director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur, wondered.
As a result, biological diversity (biodiversity for short) is on the brink of extinction. More than 400 plant and animal species found in the country are currently threatened with extinction, including the Philippine eagle.
Of all the global problems that confront us, biodiversity loss will have the most serious consequences. “Extinction is forever,” FAO declared.
“The one process that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats,” explained Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. “This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”
Deforestation has also destroyed watersheds, which constitute about 75% of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares. “We cannot talk of providing sustainable water to the people unless we protect the sources of the commodity – the watersheds,” said Elisea Gozun, the former environment secretary.
“A watershed needs trees in order to absorb rainwater when it channels into streams, rivers and eventually dams where human communities source fresh water,” Rappler’s Pia Ranada wrote.
“A typical tree breathes out 250 to 400 gallons of water per day through its leaves, humidifying the air,” Ranada explained. “This process, called evapotranspiration, is responsible for most of the rain that falls inland, far from oceans. Thus, without trees, there is no rain and it is rain that supplies much of the freshwater humans need to live.”
It’s just a matter of time until the country will experience a water crisis as its watersheds continue to be destroyed. “A watershed is a watershed is a watershed,” said the late Paz L. Lopez when she was the DENR head.
A DENR report said that 90% of the 99 watershed areas in the country are “hydrologically critical” due to their degraded physical condition.
Massive destruction of the once-productive forested watersheds by illegal loggers and uncontrolled land use from mining, overgrazing, agricultural expansion, and industrial utilization have contributed to water depletion.