"Now we reap the wages of our criminal neglect."
In the week just past, I visited Chiayi in the western part of Taiwan, which is bounded by the South China Sea and by the high central mountains of the island. The other day, I was in Hualien, in the opposite side of those central mountains, bounded on the east by the huge Pacific Ocean where the waters connect to the Sea of Japan.
Any visitor, and most especially those of us who have resided here for years, never ceases to wonder in amazement how the Taiwanese have managed to keep their mountains so very green and their forests pristine. Many of these are actually second-generation forests, because the original hardwood and conifer trees had been cut by colonizers from the Portuguese to the Dutch to the Japanese, especially at the height of the camphor trade.
Taiwan is mostly mountainous terrain, and the land used for agricultural cultivation and habitation by its 23.4 million is concentrated quite densely in the seaside plains. Even in the capital Taipei, the upland areas, mostly low mountains and hills, are heavily replanted with trees, with very sparse human habitats.
In Chiayi, we had a very pleasant lunch in an old restaurant nestled in the hills, surrounded by mountains, and overlooking a man-made water reservoir whose watershed is as pristine as could ever be. To the east of the restaurant, one could see the cloud-draped Alishan mountain range where on an earlier visit, I saw 800-to-a-thousand-year old hardwood trees whose circumference would require some four people to embrace. Alishan’s height must have spared that area from the axes and chainsaws of loggers past.
Driving up to Alishan, and on another occasion to Qingjing in Nantou, one could see thousands and thousands of upland areas planted to bamboo and pinglang (betel nut) trees both of which provide livelihood opportunities and hold much water in their roots, preventing massive flooding in the lowlands during heavy rainfall. Less steep mountainsides had become terraced fruit farms and tea plantations, high-value domestic and export crops.
Driving to the Davao provinces from Agusan and Surigao in comparison would almost make you weep. In my boyhood days, when it took us almost an entire day to travel from Butuan City to Davao City, sometimes getting trapped in mudflows, I saw how massive logging destroyed once forests primeval. In my last land trip from Davao to Butuan, I was impressed by how the concrete highway has been widened and improved, the bald mountainsides rip-rapped thus preventing further landslides, thanks to Davao and Agusan’s native son, now President Duterte. But the bald patches of once covered forests remain, and the hills are converted through kaingin into marginally-productive corn fields. That is at least utilitarian, but take note as well of talahib-covered hectarage throughout.
I have also been travelling by car from Metro Manila to the north and south of Luzon since I learned how to drive. Two decades back, I brought my family to Banawe for a two-night stay, and from there travelled the long stretch across Nueva Vizcaya, Isabela, Cagayan and to the Ilocos region, bounded on the east by the Sierra Madre and on its west by the Cordillera. The long highway is astride the longest river in the country, the once-mighty Cagayan River.
The same landscape that one sees from Butuan to Davao, a distance of some 280 kilometers is even more depressingly devoid of forests in the longer stretch of the Cagayan Valley. To one’s left and right, one sees palay and corn fields, occasionally tobacco and even in the stretch from Kalinga to Tuguegarao has not been spared by decades of tree-cutting with little reforestation.
Three years ago, I visited Sta. Ana in the northernmost tip of the province, impressed by a newly-built Lal-lo airport which to this day remains unused. Our plane landed in Tuguegarao, and thence proceeded to Iguig to visit a rubber tree plantation nursery being carved out of hectares and hectares of talahib brushland, and proceeded via the highway beside the snaking Cagayan river, through Santa Teresita, Alcala, Gattaran, Lal-lo, Buguey, Gonzaga (hometown of Juan Ponce Enrile, one of the most powerful Filipino politicians ever).
I asked my hosts, one of whom was scion to a political family, how feasible rubber trees would be in typhoon-wracked Northeastern Luzon, and he said the Sierra Madre would act as buffer to powerful storms. I hope his assurance held water despite the onslaught of Ulysses. He told me that he could assemble as much as 20,000 hectares of relatively idle land for Taiwanese investors, which I found quite amazing.
Yet a year after, when I asked about the possibilities of getting 300 hectares for a proposed stainless steel plant for which I was then trying to entice a giant steel company in Taiwan, after they closed negotiations over a similar land area in Mindanao after the Marawi terrorist attack, the CEZA could not come up with a contiguous flatland for it. To this day, CEZA is basically just an online gaming capital catering to mainland Chinese, despite promising possibilities for tourism and industry, with a port that could be developed into a deep harbor for commercial shipping, and the potentials of a nearby international airport in Lal-lo.
What is the point of this article?
Reading the news in the aftermath of Ulysses’ destruction, we get more of the same after every calamity, from politicians demanding investigations about the release of dam water, about the lack of preparation, or wondering whatever happened to reforestation efforts, or illegal logging and mining, ad nauseam.
As usual, expect more and more talk, but until the next strong typhoon happens and lives and livelihoods sacrificed upon the altar of neglect and indecision, we will just get more words, words, and words.
Let’s get back to the Taiwan comparison. The recovery and reforestation of its forests began only in the late sixties through the seventies, and are assiduously maintained till the present by both government and the private sector.
The dense population of 23.4 million live in high and medium-rise buildings instead of single-storey dwellings that take up much land which they dedicate to high-tech agriculture, using greenhouses to make vegetable, fruit and flower produce most productive without taking up much land. The result: food is plentiful and affordable.
In 1986, we rejected authoritarianism and a long era of national politicians who allowed the wanton destruction of our forests by giving logging concessions to the most irresponsible breed of forest despoilers. In 1987, we inaugurated a new bicameral Congress after passing a hastily-written Constitution. That Constitution, unlike previous fundamental laws, even elevated the protection of the environment as a national policy.
One of the first bills filed in the Senate called for a National Land Use Policy. It has never gone beyond committee level, especially in the HoR. Congress after Congress sees the bill re-filed, but no law has been enacted. In his last SONA, President Duterte mentioned its passage as one of national priority.
Now we reap the wages of our criminal neglect. Yolanda has come and so has Ulysses gone. Years from now, we will be facing more of these calamities. And we will hear the same talk from our legislators and politicians. More and more talk.
It would seem that is all we are good at. Talk.