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P1 billion fund for mangrove rehab 'misguided,' scientists warn

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources' (DENR's) P1 billion fund allotted for mangrove and beach forest reforestation across the country—most of which is set to be spent on Yolanda-affected areas—is misguided and “even risky”, scientists said.

The DENR allotted P1 billion for the "massive reforestation of mangrove and beach forest across the country." Eastern Visayas would get a "sizeable chunk" of the project budget, according to a DENR report. President Benigno Aquino III also sent a directive in November last year to restore the mangroves to serve as a buffer against future storms.

But in a recent survey, local scientists discovered that mangroves in Leyte and Eastern Samar were hardly damaged by super typhoon Yolanda. This is not to say that the mangroves are not in need of protection, they said, but are in a more sustainable state than warrants such a massive influx of funds —especially considering the lives that still need to be rebuilt in the aftermath of the storm.

Mangroves still alive

The mangroves may not have leaves, their stems may be broken, they could even be completely fallen and lying down, but if their roots are still attached to the ground, they're not dead yet, Dr. Jurgenne Primavera, one of the scientists who conducted the survey, explained in a phone interview with GMA News Online on Friday. She is the Chief Mangrove Scientific Advisor of the Zoological Society of London.

It will only take six months for damaged mangroves to recover, she explained.

"After all, mangroves (and beach forests) are Nature's coastal bioshields, therefore damage and subsequent (natural) recovery are part of their course," Primavera said in an email to GMA News Online on Friday.

“Our findings of partial to minimal to no damage at all, and recovery, from Typhoon Yolanda to the E. Samar-Leyte mangroves are not new,” she added.

Primavera cited Eric Buduan of the Philippine Tropical Forest Conservation Foundation who said: "In October 1998, Supertyphoon Ilyang with maximum wind strength of 240 kph and gustiness of 250 kph, hit coastal Isabela (Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park). The mangroves were significantly damaged, however, there was no cleaning or human intervention undertaken. The mangroves just regenerated naturally, as long as these were protected from human destruction."

Where to spend the money for Leyte, Eastern Samar

Since is no need to spend so much on mangrove planting in Leyte and Eastern Samar, Primavera suggests spending more on protecting the mangroves through the following methods:
  1. Impose strict guidelines on what to cut during cash-for-work and other mangrove cleaning programs. To the untrained eye, recovering mangroves may look like dead even when they're not. "This is risky because the recipients (cash-starved survivors) could easily clear remaining viable and recovering but inconspicuous mangrove stands (with slow-growing shoots, small seedlings) -- just to show some work done and avail of the Cash for Work scheme!" Primavera said in an email sent to the media on Thursday.
  2. Include mangroves in Comprehensive Land Use Plans (CLUPs). Villagers and fisherfolk encroaching mangrove areas should first be relocated to sturdy houses with main services (roads, water, power), amenities (markets, schools, clinics, church) and accessible jobs available.
  3. Old growth forests should be developed as ecoparks for ecotoursim by the local government units and provincial offices.

Satellite imagery vs. on-the-ground observations

Before the conducted on-the-ground surveys in January and March 2014, satellite imagery showed that 28,000 hectares or almost 12% of the total hectarage of mangroves in the Philippines are 'likely affected' by the typhoon.

"This is precisely why we need eyes on the ground to validate these data," said Primavera who in 2008 was listed as one of Time Magazine's "Heroes of the Environment" for her work on mangroves.

After surveying five municipalities and two cities in Leyte, and seven sites in six municipalities in Eastern Samar, a conservative estimate of 200 hectares were said to be totally damaged.

Primavera, together with the Philippine Tropical Forest Conservation Foundation, recently conducted a briefing with the Department of Budget and Management on upland reforestation and mangrove damage in Leyte and Samar. — TJD/VC, GMA News