We’re planting the wrong trees and it’s making typhoon damage worse
We previously covered what happens to trees after they’ve been uprooted or destroyed by a typhoon. We also reported that in the spirit of recovery, the MMDA has offered free trees to anyone who lost a tree. It got us thinking though, do we even have the right trees in the first place? With so much damage coming from fallen trees, is there a way to better prepare for future typhoons? Turns out, there is.
For that, we reached out to two experts in their fields for answers: Dr. Jurgenne Primavera, a retired aquaculturist and the Chief Mangrove Scientific Advisor for the Zoological Society of London-Philippines, and Ulysses Ferreras, a botanist for the Philippine Native Plant Conservation Society.
At the heart of the issue is the damage from all the fallen trees and branches.
“Majority of the trees that can be found throughout Metro Manila are not native to the Philippines,” said Ferreras.
“The mango trees come from Burma or India, the acacia is from South America. They’ve been around so long we assume them as Filipino, but they’re not. And because they’re not native, they are not naturally resistant to typhoons.”
An interesting wrinkle in the discussion of native vs. exotic trees is that the Philippines has an abundance of alternatives to choose from. Dr. Primavera said there are 3,600 species of trees that are native to the Philippines. Not all of them are suited for typhoons, of course, but there are more than enough to choose from.
“Among native species, there are also categories: in particular, the beachfront trees. There are misconceptions about them too. They are called beachfront trees, but that’s because they only started in the beach. They can actually survive anywhere between zero and 200 meters above sea level, and they don’t need saltwater to survive. Beachfront trees are particularly resistant to typhoons because they are suited for strong winds—they’re evolved to withstand winds coming from the ocean.
“There are about 70 to 80 species of beach front trees to choose from, and we’re actually quite familiar with some of their names. Talisay, dita, bani—these are just some of the species we can choose from. It’s interesting because we have so many towns named after these trees, too. The towns are still there, but for most places, the trees are not anymore.”
Take a quick look at our highways, parks, and even inside urban developments like villages and small city complexes, and you’ll often see exotic trees dotted everywhere. That’s not a coincidence though. A history of underfunded research into our native species of trees means that when compared to exotic trees like mahogany, eucalyptus, or gemalina, we really don’t know too much about them.
Dr. Primavera explains:
“Exotic trees are the easy way out. The technology and knowledge is there. It is extensively used for commercial forestry—they are fast-growing, and we know exactly how to profit from it. There really isn’t anything wrong with using them for commercial plantations. The problems arise when they are applied to public places. Using them in parks, highways, and cities—that is wrong.
“We also have native fast-growing trees that are easy to germinate, but are more resistant to typhoons. If we had invested in research into our own trees, we might have better alternatives.”
There are efforts to promote the planting of local trees, but even then, there is still a disconnect between what is ideal and what is at hand. Ferreras, the botanist, explained that some local governments have been pushing for planting of native species, but then the lack of supply comes into play.
“Majority of the nurseries in the Philippines rely on exotic trees. So even if we wanted to plant more native trees, are there enough available seedlings?” said Ferreras.
Among the native species that Dr. Primavera and Ferreras would like to see more of are talisay, dau, pili, and molave.
“The dau is such a beautiful tree!” said Dr. Primavera. “We really should plant more of that. There are towns named Dau, but we rarely see the tree.”
For his part, Ferreras cites the pili and molave as his personal favorites for replacing exotic trees.
“The pili is a native tree from the Bicol region. Bicol is always visited by storms. Why don’t we plant more pili trees?” said Ferreras.
“President Quezon even had a speech about the molave tree!”
The MMDA’s fire trees
You don’t need to look to far to see evidence of how much better native trees are in withstanding storms. Whenever a typhoon strikes, the ones that survive are often the native ones.
While Ferreras is all for replacing trees uprooted during the storm, he has a problem when the trees that will replace them are still of the wrong variety.
“We’re perpetuating the same thing. The fire tree that the MMDA wants to give out? Yes, it’s very pretty. It turns red. But it’s still exotic, and the characteristic of that tree is such that it easily rots. It may be fast-growing, but it is soft,” said Ferreras.
For her part, Dr. Primavera believes that the lack of education plays a significant role in the perpetuation of the cycle.
“I get different answers on why we keep going for exotics. But since many DENR field staff are engineers, they are not ecologically-oriented. In terms of education, colleges of forestry focus on plantation species, which are primarily exotics,” said Primavera.
No easy solution
So what are we supposed to do? There are no easy alternatives. Trees still take years to grow, even the fast-growing types. Dr. Primavera cites one way in which we can slowly change the status quo.
“There’s a professor at the UP Marine Science Institute, and what he’s done is he plants native trees between the exotics. Eventually as they get bigger, you can cut the exotics. It’s not a quick solution, but it’s a way to slowly change it.”
Storms can also speed up the process, since a lot of exotic trees are damaged or destroyed, as Ferreras explained.
“Each storm is an opportunity. The trees are destroyed anyway, and usually exotic, so you won’t be taking away a perfectly good tree. The important thing is that you plant a native tree in its place. Don’t make the same mistake,” said Ferreras.