The adventures of an amateur tree planter
First field trip to Oslob hills
We left at 6:00am and collected PENRO (Provinvial Environment and National Resources Office) Chief Richard Abella and Monet the forestry expert and drove 2 hours South to Argao. Passing through the Spanish town of Car-Car we stopped at Jollibee, the Filipino’s answer to Macdo, for breakfast. This is the first step in my 5 year plan of planting 80,000 trees in Cebu. I had estimated the cost of planting and maintaining each seedling to full growth to fall somewhere between $1.00 to $2.00 per tree and I almost choked on my corned beef when the Chief casually stated that his estimate of bringing a seedling to full growth ran to US$6.00 a tree. “We’ll have to change our name to 20,000 trees” I muttered, feeling not a little apprehensive about my ability to fund a project that might require an estimated $160,000.00 over the course of the next 5 years.
Upon reaching Argao we collected Flor, the head of the Cenro (Community Environment and Natural Resources Office) Argao office and we drove an extra hour to Oslob, leaving the main road and ascending on a very steep switchback road to a stunningly beautiful area of denuded hills. The hills are the focus of a serious reforestation effort which seems to have started in earnest a year or two ago. Cenro have a target to replant 2,000 hectares in 2013. At 1,666 seedlings per hectare they have to plant 320,000 + seedlings. Cenro have set up a local tree planting People’s Organisation to carry this out. They have already grown the 320,000 seedlings (plus the required 20% extra to replace damaged seedlings) for which they will be paid approximately P10.00 per seedling. They will then receive an amount for planting the seedlings and another amount for maintaining them. This infuses cash into cash strapped areas and cultivates support for tree planting efforts among members of the same community that resort to slash-and-burn farming to meet their immediate poverty-stricken needs.
My “year-1-South” 5 hectare effort pales by comparison however the Chief and Regional Head are very excited about my initial effort and plan to use my project as the flagship not only as an example of a privately funded project embarking on a meaningful long-term tree planting effort but also for the whole 200,000 hectare area.
Here are some observations;
The current CENRO project seems to be oriented around numbers sometimes at the expense of long-term benefits / more meaningful goals. Getting those seedlings into the ground is the primary objective. The first area that we visited had been planted in November, too late to support the seedlings with rain from the seasonal rainy season, and 50-60% of the planted seedlings had died. Chief and Flor accepted that this was a likely outcome for such late planting – it appeared that the figures had to be met.
Only two species of trees are planted; Molave and Pangantoon. Chief seems to whole-heartedly approve of planting a broader spectrum of Indigenous trees however there seems to be little effort to propagate seedlings to support the idea.
Maintenance seems to be “iffy” at best. Admittedly the subsequent areas that we visited had a much better seedling survival rate (80-90%) however the seedlings were not pruned and many weeds were growing within the 1 metre perimeter of the seedling.
The Peoples Organisation take main responsibility for the program and what seems to be missing in my overly anal mind is basic academic planning – a site room perhaps with a big 1:10,000 map of the area with shaded portions indicating planted areas, dates, species and names of those responsible for the maintenance etc etc.
The Chief asked my driver to pull over in a small abandoned quarry that overlooked a near vertical drop into a picturesque valley the end of which seemed to drop 600 metres to the postcard perfect town of Oslob. “Here is your area Jim!”. I kicked around some stones at the edge of the precipice watching them nonchalantly bounce to the bottom of the slope with alarming speed wondering how I was going to persuade my volunteers to risk life and limb in our tree planting effort. I saw Myrna, who always looks on the bright side, catch my eye. She pointed to a small area above the quarry that would surely accommodate 20 seedlings “there’s a flat part up there Jim”. Ever the optimistic engineer I started to plan “ With thick 1 metre stakes with a welded ring on top hammered into the ground 3m apart we could rig static ropes and harness the planter for vertical access to the site and plant the seedlings in columns” “Soil erosion, Jim. The seedlings should not be planted in a column to avoid forming a path for rainfall to turn into a river”.
That put paid to the vertical access idea – I could imagine the harnessed planter swinging from side to side maintaining higgledy piggeldy columns of seedlings while the static rope decapitates every living thing in its path. I could not quite imagine Myrna hanging from the end of it though. How to involve volunteers in a highly technical endeavour where they would be more hindrance than help! Contour planting was recommended – planting a row of seedlings following the gradient, 3 metres apart, making sure that seedlings of adjacent rows are not following the same vertical line.
I decided to take the bull by the horns and jumped down the first 3 metres of slope hanging onto grasses as I went. “This is not so bad” I made as if to dig a hole. Myrna did not look convinced and the Chief was positively white-faced “The grass is not so strong Jim!” I asked Flor how we were going to do this? “Use locals”. Of course. The local folk brought up in the area were as steadfast as mountain goats when it came to wandering around the upland. “How about the maintenance?” “Locals”. Where, exactly, would all my volunteers fit into the program and how would we manage to support the project with the periodic monitoring which requires a certain degree of academic discipline that the locals would find challenging? I quickly saw the last couple of years of mind wanderings the result of which was my comfortable theoretical tree planting model go up in similar flames to those which periodically engulf areas of seedling plantations in the slash-and-burn practises of the locals. Compromise was the name of the game. “Chief, not meaning to sound ungrateful, would there be an alternative area that also has flat parts as well as death defying slopes? Then I could use my volunteers as well” He immediately saw my problem and directed Flor to take us to another area a couple of hundred metres on. By this time we had been joined by Tooting the head of the People’s Organisation, Ronel, a young forestry graduate who was heading the CENRO field monitoring team, and Flor’s husband who was assisting Cenro. Also nearby were 100 lunatic skate boarders with the current world champion (a friendly looking American lad) who was running a clinic for clinically insane youths bent on rolling their young bodies down the mountainside at breakneck speed with a singular disregard for the law of gravity and the large sharp volcanic rocks that bordered each switchback corner of the well-paved winding mountain road.
We stopped the car further on and Ronel indicated that this was the land. ROLLING HILLS! I could even see Myrna walking down this slope (although for the time being she was standing alongside the chief holding her umbrella to shield from the midday sun). I excitedly took coordinates of the boundary edges, walking with Ronel to the corners. It was perfect for our initial program – roughly 56,000 square metres (just over 5 hectares) of which 50% was undulating hill and the other 50% extreme slope. This would allow the more macho of my volunteers to take charge of the slope while the less adventurous handle the undulating slopes. Ronel explained that the local folk would assist with site preparation and planting for P140.00 allowance a day (roughly US$3.50) and could be expected to plant 100 seedlings each. Better still, a reformed Slash-And-Burn farmer called Pedro lives on the site who had recently been the cause of a fire that had wiped out a hectare of seedlings. We could hire Pedro giving him a monthly stipend to take care of our plantation.
– I will buy two books available in the Los Banos University of Philippines library called Small Holder Tree Growing for Rural Development and Environmental Services and the Revised Lexicon of Philippine Trees.
– Planting should only be undertaken from May to October (originally I had assumed that I would be planting 350 seedlings every weekend).
– I plan to, wherever possible, plant in rows of 50 seedlings, spaced 3m apart and embed an old rubber tyre at the end of the row, paint it white and mark it with the row number, the species of tree in the row, the name of the two planters and the date of planting
– I plan on planting 2 species of trees per row, 8 indigenous species in total which will include 3 fruit bearing trees. The final list will have to be fine-tuned with the DENR forestry experts.
– I noticed that the existing tree markers used by the People’s Organisation are very thin 5mmx5mm bamboo sticks. I will make thicker 3-4cm width bamboo sticks 150cm high and will tip the upper end in white enamel paint and number it with the tree number (1 – 80,000) and indicate 10cm graduations along the stem with marker pen to assist with the periodic growth readings
– Initially we will have to source expensive seedlings as DENR do not have the variety of seedlings available that we need. I plan on setting up a small germination chamber with a 500m seedling farm before 2014 planting season to provide the project with the variety that we need.
– I plan on building 4 teams based on a core of 1 team leader, 2 team monitors, 1 driver, 1 cook, 1 painter and 10 tree planters who would work alongside a local and take joint responsibility for each row.
– Once a month each of the 4 teams will take it in turns to give their Sunday to tree planting. They will leave at 3:00 o’clock on Saturday afternoon and arrive close to the site at dusk, set up their tents (provided by me) and barbecue their dinner (fresh fish, rice, corn on the cob) and prepare for the Sunday activity. Sunday will start at dawn and after a quick breakfast the team will start work, breaking for an hour or two over lunch. The truck will leave back to the city at 4:00.
– My cost calculations for the initial planting of the seedling is P15.00 for the seedling, P5.00 for the site preparation and planting, P4.00 for the markers, P0.50 for the chicken fertiliser and 2.00 for miscellaneous costs = P26.50 or around US$0.60 / seedling. This does not include the cost of setting up the website and hiring a local watchman. I do not know how the Chief came up with the US$6.00 estimate for the planting and maintenance of each seedling and will have to analyse the figures when I receive the Chief’s breakdown.
– The first year schedule, as far as I can see, would be 1) Plant the seedling, 2) Prune and weed after 2 months, 3) Prune, weed and apply inorganic fertiliser after 4 months – take measurements. 4) Visit the seedling after 8 months to take measurements 5) Visit after a year to take measurements. This would have to be firmed up with the DENR forestry experts.