Admittedly, being an environmentalist can make a killjoy out of you. In the same way that I can’t understand my vegetarian friends and sometimes make fun of them (“But cows are vegetarian, you should be able to eat them, right?”), my friends sometimes can’t really relate to how I refused to eat at McDonald’s for months because I heard that they refused to minimize their styrofoam use (courtesy of that email circulated by Gary Granada), or how I’d rather plan a nature trip to Batanes or Bohol than go on a shopping trip to Bangkok. Just the other day my sister, an Air Force pilot who’s currently stationed in Palawan, sent me an SMS telling me that my mother – my mother – has been repeatedly asking her to bring back a myna from Palawan. Bring back as in smuggle, you see. Smuggle back a threatened species that’s been captured from the forests and keep it caged in our backyard, in hopes that it would speak. Sheesh. “Ang kulit. Kausapin mo nga” (She’s so persistent. You talk to her), my sister told me. So now the next time I go home to Bulacan I have to sit my mother down and explain to her just how the practice of capturing birds from the wild to serve as pets is ecologically destructive, inhumane, illegal, and totally not amusing, especially to her environmentalist daughter.
Another instance of environmental killjoy happened to me last month, during a trip to Siquijor with similarly environmental-leaning friends. Driving around the island, the roadside was lined in some places by trees, clusters of healthy-looking trees that admittedly looked quite pretty. I pointed them out to my companions, except that one of them was not impressed.
“Mahogany naman,” she huffed.
“Oh. Really?” I said, crestfallen, looking back at the lovely trees.
Now why would my friend, a staunch conservation worker, not be pleased to see trees?
Because she knew what kind of trees they were. Mahogany is a tree species that is not indigenous to the country, which makes it ecologically unsuitable to be planted in these soils. However, it is a fast-growing and commercially viable species, which would explain why it’s a popular choice in tree-planting or reforestation activities. In the late 80s and 90s, thousands of hectares of denuded forests were planted with mahogany and other exotic fast-growing species, such as gmelina and eucalyptus. There are formerly-denuded areas that are now sporting greenery courtesy of these tree-planting efforts, but a closer look would reveal that these are basically just tree farms, not forests. They offer wood, but not ecological services.
“Since exotic species are planted beyond their native range, they often lack the fruits, flowers, or insects required by local wildlife. With the inhibited growth of native plants, many native/endemic animals are displaced.
Fast growing exotic species are also poor substitutes to our native/indigenous species whose timbers are highly valued. The establishment of monocultures of fast-growing species does little to discourage harvesting timber from the old-growth forests.”
– Ruth Condeno, How to bring back Philippine Forests
It makes perfect sense, actually. If you really want to restore our denuded forests, you have to bring back the trees that were there in the first place, not introduce an entirely different type that might mess around with the ecological balance you were trying to restore. There have been studies and campaigns pointing out the counter-productive effects of planting exotic trees in our denuded forests, but sadly, even today a lot of well-meaning tree-planting efforts still use species like mahogany or gmelina, ignoring native varieties such as lauan, yakal, guijo and apitong.
It can be a lonely, frustrating journey, this being an environmentalist thing. But we’re not out to be killjoys, really. It’s really just about taking a closer look at things, being able to look beyond the short-term and adopt a more long-term, sustainable viewpoint. Do me a favor: the next time somebody tells you of a tree-planting campaign, don’t just nod politely and say “That’s nice.” Be a challenger and ask what trees they’re planting.