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Demand for tobacco harming Ilocos forests?

By Purple S. Romero

Demand for tobacco harming Ilocos forests?

Flawed gov’t monitoring of fuel wood consumption for tobacco curing allows for unhampered tree-cutting


BATAC, Ilocos Norte—
For 16 years, Ilocandia has been keeping up with
a yearly quota for Virginia tobacco production as a condition for
receiving government subsidy.

Republic Act 7171 requires the
provinces of La Union, Ilocos Sur, Ilocos Norte, and Abra to each
produce around one million kilos of Virginia tobacco per crop season,
or once a year. In exchange, they get 15 percent of the tobacco excise
tax collected by the national government.

Based on available data
from government agencies since1996, these provinces had exceeded the
minimum average volume required by law. Some sectors are concerned,
however, that meeting market demands is taking its toll on the region’s
forest cover. Virginia tobacco is the most common, but also the most
expensive, variety of tobacco grown in northern Philippines.

To
cure one million kilos of tobacco leaves, farmers would consume 13,734
cubic meters of fuel wood, based on the National Tobacco Administration
(NTA) data on Ilocos Norte in the 2004-2005 season. That volume of fuel
wood was equivalent to 170,000 trees.

Producing a total of 109
million kilos of Virginia tobacco from 1996 to 2001, the four Ilocos
provinces could have easily consumed 1.5 million cubic meters of fuel
wood—the equivalent of around 18.53 million trees felled. If these
trees were planted two meters apart, according to estimates by the
Forest Management Bureau (FMB), then they covered 7,412 hectares, or
almost 3 percent of the four provinces’ total forest cover of 254,234
hectares. (Click here for “Estimates on fuel wood consumption for tobacco curing, by province”)

There’s a link

Despite
its volume, Ilocos’s production meets only almost half of the market
demand. Philip Morris Philippines Manufacturing Inc., for example,
bought anywhere from 3 million to 11 million kilos every year from 2003
to 2008. Last year, only 42 percent of these purchases were Virginia
tobacco, says PMPMI public and communications officer Dave Gomez.

Imagine
then if Virginia tobacco farmers were to cure and produce as much as
the market demands—fuel wood consumption would double.

However,
the continued cutting of trees for fuel wood can result in floods,
drought, and increased temperature, according to Santiago Baconguis,
chief and science research specialist of the Ecosystems Research and
Development Bureau. The Ilocos region is especially vulnerable to these
environmental disturbances given its location. Last year, Ilocos Sur,
Ilocos Norte, and La Union were swamped following the rage of typhoon
Karen, affecting over 40,000 families. In 2007, the four provinces lost
P10 million worth of agricultural crops because of drought. 

Neria
Andin, assistant director of the FMB, acknowledges that the link
between the fuel wood consumption and the decrease in forest cover is
not far-fetched. “Even if the trees are taken from private lands, it
could still affect the total forest cover of an area,” she says.

Still,
she’s cautious not to make conclusions. The reason: the FMB wants to be
sure about the sources of trees for fuel wood. Unless they are able to
identify all the sources, says Andin, they won’t be able to determine
the exact volume consumed, and therefore won’t be able to say if
tobacco-related tree-cutting is largely behind the region’s
deforestation.

Not enough foresters

The problem is,
the FMB doesn’t have a way of finding out. The bureau is mandated to
oversee the “effective protection, development, occupancy management,
and conservation of forest lands and watersheds,” but it has to depend
on the Department for Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) for
regional data. The DENR, in turn, issues permits for tree-cutting only
when the affected trees belong to species whose cutting is regulated,
or are planted in areas classified as public forests or covered by the
reforestation projects of local government units.

But most of the
trees for fuel wood are planted in private lands, and cutting trees
from these areas doesn’t require permits from the DENR. Private lands
include tree fallows, which are located at the base of hills or
mountains and owned by absentee landlords, and woodlots, which are
sometimes owned by tobacco farmers themselves.

Juan Reyes
Juan Reyes

According to Juan
Reyes, provincial environment officer of Ilocos Norte, private
landowners are only required to acquire a certificate of ownership.
They present this to DENR authorities whenever they transport wood.

Ideally,
the DENR should issue the certificates only upon inspection of the
lands, but this is not what happens on the ground. Rustico de Guzman,
chief of the forest management division of the Community Environment
and Natural Resources Office of Laoag City, says the local DENR issues
the certificate as long as landowners can submit land titles as proof
of ownership.

De Guzman admits that they do not monitor fuel wood
consumption and trading. With 17 foresters assigned to cover 90,000
hectares of forests, this is close to impossible, he said.

Decades-old practice

Irma
Acebedo, a science research specialist from the Mariano Marcos State
University (MMSU), notes that when she and associate professor Rudy
Bareng studied fuelwood consumption in 1996, they found out that DENR
verified land ownership only after the fuelwood had been cut. Hence,
“There is no way of telling if the fuelwood really all came from titled
lands or some public forests,” she told Newsbreak in an interview.

The
local environment offices of Ilocos Norte and Laoag City are only
starting to put together a database, says Reyes. So far, they don’t
have records of certificates of lands where species for fuelwood, such
as ipil-ipil or madre de cacao, are grown.

To be sure, millions
more of trees have been cut for tobacco curing. The more than 18
million trees were estimated by Newsbreak from fuel wood consumption
for only six years since after RA 7171’s quota was imposed on the
tobacco-producing provinces. The fact, however, is that these provinces
have been curing tobacco for more than 30 years before that law was
passed.

Oliveros and Mendoza said that these numbers could be
smaller, as agricultural wastes are also utilized for fuelwood. In
reality, however, farmers are averse to this and other alternative
sources of fuel wood for flue curing tobacco. Farmers interviewed by
Newsbreak attested that the farmers stick to fruit trees for fuel wood
because these easily emit the right temperature for curing tobacco
leaves. Well “cooked” leaves, of course, would bring them more money. 

Mendoza
said that it is also possible that only the branches of the trees could
have been used for curing. Acebedo disputed this, however. “They
(farmers) prefer wood with bigger diameter. They really kill the
trees,” she said.

Cutting neighbors’ trees

In the 1970s, tobacco farmers cut the trees themselves from forests.

“I
got the fuelwood myself from the balay (mountain) in Similla,” Johnny
Cristobal, a 62-year-old farmer from San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte, says.
Similla, which is around 29 kilometers northwest of San Nicolas, is an
area that local census has not even reached. He says he cut trees
without seeking a permit from the local DENR or local officials because
he didn’t touch endangered species, anyway, such as mahogany or molave.

Artemio Asuncion, 67, does not choose the species he cut for
fuelwood. “Whatever kind, as long as it fit in the barn, I would get
it,” he says.

When the trees started “disappearing” in the
mountains, the farmers said, they started buying fuel wood from
traders. The traders that cater to the tobacco farmers come from Paoay,
the municipality next to Batac. Acebedo and Bareng said that traders
identify the area of extraction, avail the necessary documents for
transporting the fuel wood, and deliver the “product.” They purportedly
cut the trees themselves when they get it from private lands.

Traders
look for various woodlots and tree fallows in order to meet the
farmers’ demands. Foresters say, however, that if trees for fuel wood
would be taken from random private lands, and not just from designated
plantations in each province, it’s possible that a province is already
getting its fuel wood from another province—in short, cutting another
province’s trees to cure tobacco leaves.

Failed plantations

Demand for tobacco harming Ilocos forests?Mendoza
notes that even if the demand for fuel wood is huge, there have been no
resolute efforts to start fuel wood plantations in the Ilocos region to
make tree-cutting for fuel wood sustainable.

Almost two decades
ago, the government took that direction. In September 1980, President
Ferdinand Marcos issued Executive Order 623, instructing the Virginia
Tobacco Fuelwood Corporation (VTFCO) to “establish nurseries and
plantations primarily in the Virginia tobacco producing areas.”

The
DENR established such plantations under the Giant Ipil-ipil Project.
With funding from the World Bank, it was a loan program where
landowners, even slash-and-burn farmers, were provided seedlings to
grow trees that would supply the Ilocos region with its annual fuel
wood requirement of 360,000 solid cubic meters on a “sustained” yield
basis.   

The project failed. “The giant ipil-ipil never grew.
It was called the bonsai ipil-ipil instead,” says Mayumi Quintos
Natividad, another forester from FMB. The seedlings were planted in
soil riddled with limestone, and not in land suitable to the ipil-ipil
tree’s development.

In 2006, the PMPMI  and the Jaime V. Ongpin
Foundation Inc. started the Tobacco Farmers’ Cooperative Organizing and
Capability Building Program, which would work on a similar idea.
Cooperatives with around 400 tobacco farmers in Santol and Sudipen in
La Union, and San Juan and San Emilio in Ilocos Sur, will plant the
trees for their fuel wood.

Alternatives needed

Demand for tobacco harming Ilocos forests?The
program hopes to accomplish two things: reduce the costs of getting
fuel wood and prevent fuel wood scarcity. If the farmers could get the
fuel wood that they need from their own plantation, they could stop
buying from traders, and there will be no “demand” to cut trees in
other areas provinces.

The DENR, for its, part, has stopped
issuing permits for cutting trees for fuel wood use from public forests
since the 1980s, Acosta said.

Prior to EO 623, Marcos issued EO
1142, which mandated the Philippine Virginia Tobacco Production
Administration to develop alternative means of curing fuel wood. “The
indiscriminate use of firewood in the curing of Virginia leaf tobacco
is hereby discouraged, and the adoption of curing methods employing
non-conventional heat resources, particularly solar energy, natural and
bio-gas generation, geothermal and coal, shall be initiated by the
government through the Philippine Virginia Tobacco Administration,” the
order reads.
In the early 1990s, the NTA conducted research on the use of solar
energy in tobacco curing. The idea fizzled out because of the huge cost
that the technology required. One unit of solar panels, which would be
used to cure five hectares of tobacco leaves, costs P800,000.

The
government then introduced coal briquettes to the farmers in Ilocos
Norte. Coal briquettes are blocks of coal which could be burnt to
produce fuel. A piece of coal cost P2 in the 1990s, and has since
increased to P5. Farmers need 40 pieces of coal briquettes per curing.
At P5 per coal briquette, farmers would spend P1,700 on it every season
(once a year).

Fuel wood curing is more expensive, but farmers
prefer this because it gives the desired results. Farmers still have to
mix coal briquettes with fuel wood in order to cure the tobacco leaves
well.

Bareng and Acebedo recommend that farmers look for
alternative sources of fuel, while increasing the areas of fuel wood
plantations to sustain the supply. They are pushing for policy
interventions that would help farmers switch to coal briquettes and
liquefied petroleum gas. They also encourage the establishment of
210-hectare fuel wood plantations, 300-hectare community-based forest
management areas, and 570-hectare woodlots to produce over 300,000 tons
of fuel wood which they believed would be enough for Ilocos Norte until
2016.

The practice would need to be adopted by the three other
provinces, however, since the region shows no sign of ceasing to be a
tobacco country. (Newsbreak)

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