Logging was a profitable business at the end of the 1980s. Actual forested land was estimated to be about 6.5 million hectares--more than 21.5 percent of Philippine territory--and much of that was in higher elevations and on steep slopes. The government facilitated the exploitation of the country's forest resources for the first three decades after independence by allocating the bulk of unclassified land as public forest land eligible to be licensed for logging, and by implementing policies of low forest charges and export taxes. Logs were a major foreign-exchange earner. By 1977, 8.3 million hectares of forest area were licensed for logging. In the late 1970s, the government became aware of the dangers of deforestation and began to impose restrictions. The amount of forested land and the volume of forest exports declined. By 1988, 120 licensed loggers, operating on a total area of 4.74 million hectares, cut an estimated 4.2 millon cubic meters of logs and exported 644 million board feet. The contribution of logs and lumber to total Philippine exports declined from 25 percent in 1969 to 2 percent in 1988.
In addition to the officially sanctioned logging industry, there has been considerable illegal logging. The full extent of this activity was difficult to determine, but the discrepancy between Philippine and Japanese statistics on log exports from the Philippines to Japan provided one source of information. From 1955 through 1986, log imports from the Philippines, according to Japanese statistics, averaged about 50 percent more than log exports to Japan according to Philippines statistics. In 1987 and 1988, the discrepancy was considerably reduced, perhaps an indication of the Aquino government's stricter enforcement policy.
Another cause of deforestation was swidden agriculture, called kaingin in the Philippines. The method involves burning a portion of forest area to produce a fertilizing effect, planting a series of crops for two or three years, and then, after the soil has become depleted of nutrients, moving on to another location to allow the burned out area to rejuvenate. Often referred to as slash-and-burn agriculture, swidden as practiced by upland Filipino groups was ecologically sound as long as land was relatively plentiful. But since the 1960s, increased use of land for logging and migration of landless peasants from lowland areas has caused a scarcity of land. Burned-over areas were not allowed to lay fallow for a sufficient period, and the new migrants often had no knowledge of sound swidden practice. As a result, new growth was not allowed to mature before being burned over again; extensive erosion occurred, and once-forested areas were transformed into grasslands.
The widespread deforestation caused massive ecological destruction. Beginning in the early 1980s, the government instituted reforestation programs to stem the destruction. In 1981 Marcos made the granting of timber concessions conditional on the concessionaire's reforesting. After his ouster, however, the new secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported that 90 percent of the 170 logging companies with concessions had failed to implement reforestation activities. The Aquino administration also launched a reforestation program to replant 100,000 hectares per year, but it too met with limited success. In 1988, two years into the program, the government reforested 32,000 hectares and awarded reforestation contracts for another 4,500 hectares. Other initiatives included a program to employ upland dwellers in reforestation, limiting the extent of timber concessions, and controlling exports of forest products. Nongovernment, environmental organizations also became involved in forest preservation efforts. One official noted that with more than 5 million hectares of forests already denuded, and with a deforestation rate of 119,000 hectares per year, the country would be facing a timber famine within a decade. Second-growth forests were too young to cut, so timber requirements for the near term would have to be met from the remaining old-forest stands, leaving inadequate reserves for the medium term.
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