By Jim McMahon
The Philippine eagle population has declined from an estimated total of 500 in 1981 to just 63 today. The eagles’ natural habitat has been depleted by the economic needs of the millions of Filipinos who sell forest products or farm using slash and burn techniques.
A private group, The Philippine Eagle Foundation (PEFI), has developed a program which has improved the economic life of the local residents while preserving the habitat of the eagles. Their efforts illuminate the importance of maintaining biodiversity if natural ecosystems are to flourish.
PEFI found that the soil in the rainforests were nutrient poor and unable to support growing crops on a sustainable basis. The locals, after depleting the nutrients in a section of land, would resort to cutting down forested land in order to create a new plot of ground, unintentionally destroying the habitat of the eagles.
PEFI has trained the local population in organic farming techniques, which provides a continual nutrient input, and insures that a plot of land can be farmed continuously. Income levels have risen 400% after just two crops, and eagle habitat has been preserved, as the human need for slash and burn farming has been reduced.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing man today is how to resolve the conflict between the needs of people and preservation of natural environmental systems. Historically, man has simply invaded and settled natural areas as our population grew or expanded. This ever increasing encroachment on natural areas has resulted in the extermination of numerous species as populations and habitat were eliminated. The challenge of the 90s is to find ways for natural and human communities to coexist.
In the Philippines, the privately funded Philippine Eagle Foundation, Inc. has implemented a program aimed directly at this conflict between man and ecosystems. PEFI’s goal is to save the endangered Philippine eagle, Pithecophaga Jefferyi. The Philippine eagle is one of the largest eagles in the world, with a wing span approaching two meters. Some sixty-three birds are estimated to remain. Of these, eighteen are held in captivity by PEFI with two individuals having resulted from PEFI’s breeding program. Only seventeen of the birds have been associated with wild nests throughout the country.
Past efforts to save the eagle have all failed. The eagle population has declined from an estimated 300 to 500 individuals in 1981. The problem which directly threatens the eagle is that there are over seventeen million Filipino people now living in the uplands. These people are eking out a meager living by selling forest products or by slash and burn farming.
The economic reality of the Philippine uplands is that these seventeen million Filipinos place enormous pressure on the old growth rainforest. The eagle depends upon the rainforest ecosystem for its survival. The Filipinos depend upon cutting the forest for their survival. The conflict could not be more direct.
It is also clear that in such a conflict the needs of humans will take precedence. The government is hardly in a position to take strong steps to save the eagle when these steps will increase the hardships on an already struggling human population. It is also unlikely that individuals and families can be convinced to discontinue their efforts to survive in order to achieve an objective such as saving the last of the eagles.
Recognizing this dilemma, the Philippine Eagle Foundation sought to create a solution which addressed the real issues preventing recovery of the eagle population. This required finding, or creating, an alternative livelihood for the human populations encroaching on the rainforest. PEFI started with a pilot project in Salaysay, Marilog District in Davao City. The area was remote, lacked government services, and experienced both extreme poverty and severe habitat degradation.
The project was designed in cooperation with the community and based upon the people’s perceived needs. PEFI found that the indigenous people of Salaysay were aware that preservation of the forest ecosystem was good for them, in a cultural sense. In fact, their roots lie in a more compatible relationship with a natural forest economy. Population growth and the replacement of their traditional economy with modern lowland agricultural practices had placed them in conflict with the forest.
While the people of Salaysay were amenable to a more compatible relationship with the natural environment which supported them, they were forced by economic constraints to act shortsightedly in order simply to survive. This required that they harvest forest products such as timber and that they produce agricultural commodities.
The problem with agriculture lay in the forest soils themselves. These soils are nutrient poor. Therefore they will not support growing crops on a sustained basis. Once the nutrients present in the soil are used up, the people cut down a patch of trees, sell the timber, burn the slash, and farm the new plot of ground. This results in a continual incursion into old growth rainforest in search of new soils, or, more precisely, in search of nutrients.
By identifying the problem and gaining the confidence of the community, PEFI was able to provide viable alternatives. Identifying the real issue as a lack of soil nutrients led PEFI to explore organic farming as a possible solution. Once suitable models were found on different farms in southern Mindanao, PEFI was able to design the pilot project.
First, a facilitator was assigned to the project. Next, the community was educated in conservation, sloping agricultural technology, organic farming, crop production, cooperatives and cooperative management, and business principles. Participants visited the farms in southern Mindanao where organic farming techniques are used.
PEFI developed a loan program to provide the components necessary for the community to manage the transition to a new economy. This included tools, seed, draught animals, and seed capital for a community cooperative store. All of this support was provided on loan. Repayment was expected at a rate of six percent of cropping. This shared risk approach further demonstrated PEFI’s commitment to the outcome of creating a sustainable agricultural community.
During the first growing season, the community planted corn as a monocrop. Corn had two immediate advantages in that it was familiar to the project participants and has a relatively short growing season. Participants were provided with food during the 90 to 105 day growing season as a part of their loan package. Corn also served as a cash crop and could raise the participants income over preproject levels.
During the second season, mixed cropping replaced corn and organic materials and biological pest control replaced fertilizers and pesticides. The organics provide a continual nutrient input, allowing a plot of land to be farmed year after year. The increase in income level allows the community to afford to build the quality of the soil while enjoying an improved lifestyle. A cooperative store was established to provide for basic community commodity needs.
In return for PEFI’s assistance, the community obliged itself to initiate a reforestation project. Nurseries were established to grow dipterocarp species for planting in the forest clearings and fruit trees along the farm plots.
The community began regular forest patrols which resulted in their driving off individuals bent on clearing local old growth. The project proved successful on all fronts. Invasion of the old growth canopy was halted and the well being of the human community was increased dramatically.
During the first cropping, incomes rose by 30%. By the end of the second cropping, incomes had increased fourfold, from $14 to $56 per month. The loan repayment rate stood at 80%. The cooperative store flourished with capital increasing by 400%. (Salvador)
PEFI has phased out of the project at Salaysay, but stays in contact. The community continues to build their new economy on its own. And, unseen since 1988, a Philippine eagle was spotted in the area during September 1991. The human community has been rooted in place with a sustainable economy. Eagle habitat has been preserved. Both the people and the birds are better off than they were.
PEFI has initiated four similar projects in other communities, using the same approach. They hope to expand upon their early success by demonstrating that the model can be applied across the board to communities throughout the uplands.
How do PEFI’s efforts relate to the overwhelming problem of habitat destruction in the Philippines? Some 700,000 hectares of old growth rainforest were estimated to remain in 1989. (USAID) Logging rates were estimated at 190,000 hectares per year in 1987. (Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources) This puts total destruction of the rainforest as occurring within the immediate future.
Logging has been slowed due to government bans on the cutting of old growth forests. But the reality is that it continues due to economic necessity for the same reasons cited previously. The Filipinos are forced to log in order to survive. The government is forced into inaction by the practical realities of the situation.
Reforestation efforts are positive, but achieving replication of the old growth forests will take seventy to one hundred years. Land has been set aside in national parks, but the same sort of human intrusion, logging, and slash and burn farming is occurring within the boundaries of the parks. Ambiguous government policy and a lack of enforcement leave the problem unresolved throughout the country.
The Importance of Biodiversity
At issue in the Philippines, as in other human versus the environment conflicts, is the matter of the importance of “biodiversity.” What does it matter that species like the eagle are lost for all time? Does this not matter little in light of human survival? Does it matter at all? This is a difficult issue to argue without relying almost entirely on emotional sentiments. Obviously, it is critical says the one camp. Species die all the time, says the other.
According to biologist E.O. Wilson, as stated in his book The Diversity of Life, “Biological diversity is the key to the maintenance of the world as we know it …. Diversity is that property that makes resilience possible” in natural ecosystems. The point being made by Wilson, in light of the Philippine problem being discussed, is not that the human communities cannot survive without the eagle. The eagle represents the health of the natural ecosystems of the Philippines. And the health of these natural systems determines the ability of the land to recover from any impositions placed upon it.
Like the health of the human communities, the natural systems depend upon diversity. As the people of the Philippines came to rely upon single economies to survive, they worsened their economic and social condition. Communities’ incomes were lowered by their reliance on nonsutainable agriculture. Their social structure and tradition was uprooted by the need to continually find new soils.
Once the community could be rooted in place it was able to flourish. The same is true of the forest systems of the Philippines. The old growth forest is a community which relies upon each of its components to flourish. And it is this diversity which enables it to recover from the damage imposed by man or natural disasters.
Once this diversity is eliminated by reducing the forest to remnant stands, it will no longer be able to recover. Individual species critical to the success of the community will have been eliminated forever. Herein lies the importance of maintaining diversity within the natural communities of the Philippines.
What Must Be Done?
The efforts by PEFI pale in comparison to the pace at which the problem escalates. There simply is no time left in which to ponder the issue. An all out effort is required to transform the fate of the seventeen million Filipinos living in the uplands.
In order to achieve this both the Philippine government and the international community must support the effort to transform the rural economy. This type of effort can be implemented now or it can wait until the old growth forest is entirely removed. At that point, habitat for the eagle will have been eliminated as will the current income source for the Filipinos themselves.
Again, E.O. Wilson says, “The top carnivores, including eagles … are predestined by their perch at the apex of the food web to be big in size and sparse in numbers. They live on such a small portion of life’s available energy as always to skirt the edge of extinction, and they are the first to suffer when the ecosystem around them starts to erode …. The larger organisms of the earth … owe their existence to biological diversity.”
Clearly, in the Philippines, in order to save the eagle, the remaining old growth forests must be preserved. And in order to save the forests, the people must be provided with a sustainable economy. The two are inextricably linked. The challenge is not small and while it may prove insurmountable, the private Philippine Eagle Foundation has shown the way.
To contact PEFI, write: 2F UCPB Building, Magsaysay St., Davao City, Philippines.
Copyright 1997 – Independence Institute
INDEPENDENCE INSTITUTE is a nonprofit, nonpartisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy focuses on economic growth, education reform, crime control, government effectiveness, and equal opportunity.
TOM TANCREDO is President of the Independence Institute.
PERMISSION TO REPRINT this paper in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given to the Independence Institute.
JIM MCMAHON is an ecologist who writes on natural resource issues throughout the world.
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