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Deadly landslides prompt Philippine president to call for tree planting

Temporary shelters.

Temporary shelters and structures in Mindanao a few months after Typhoon Bopha in 2013. Image by Mathias Eick EU/ECHO via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • Typhoon Nalgae, which made five landfalls on Oct. 29, killed 123 people across the Philippines, including at least 61 who died in floods and landslides on the southern island of Mindanao.
  • After inspecting the damage wrought by the storm, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. blamed deforestation and climate change for the scale of the disaster, and called on flood control plans to include tree planting.
  • The Philippines already has an ambitious tree-planting program, but an audit found it has so far fallen short of its target.

MINDANAO, Philippines – In the wake of deadly floods and landslides caused by Typhoon Nalgae last month, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has ordered tree planting be included in flood control and disaster mitigation projects across the island nation.

The severe tropical storm, known locally as Paeng, made five landfalls on Oct. 29 and killed a confirmed 123 people across the country. The worst-hit area was the province of Maguindanao del Norte on the southern island of Mindanao, where at least 61 people were killed.

Located along the typhoon belt in the Western Pacific, the Philippines is struck by an average of 20 typhoons each year, which cause deadly flash floods and landslides.

On Nov. 1, Marcos flew by helicopter over Maguindanao to inspect the damage wrought by the storm, which affected more than half a million people in the area. In a briefing with national and local officials at a military camp in Maguindanao after the flight, the president blamed deforestation and climate change for the deadly disaster that hit the area.

“When I was in the helicopter with [the Maguindanao governor], I noticed that there were no trees in the area hit by the landslide — the mountain was bald. That’s the problem,” Marcos said.

“I was pointing out to the governor, the mountain with trees did not suffer landslides,” he added.

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is currently in a state of calamity after Typhoon Nalgae caused flooding and landslides that resulted in the loss of more than 60 lives in Maguindanao. Image courtesy of Office of the Press Secretary.

Landslides occurred in at least six villages in Maguindanao, the worst in Kusiong, where many victims were buried alive by mud and boulders.

Owing to the catastrophe, Marcos directed government offices to include tree planting as a major component of flood-control projects.

“That’s one thing that we need to do. We knew it and we have been hearing this over and over again, but still tree cutting persists. It is the culprit for landslides,” Marcos said.

Tree-planting initiatives

According to government data, forest cover in the Philippines declined from 21 million hectares (52 million acres), or 70% of the country’s total land area, in 1900, to about 6.5 million hectares (16 million acres), or 22%, by 2007.

In an effort to jump-start massive reforestation efforts, then-president Benigno Aquino III in 2011 created the National Greening Program (NGP), an ambitious project that sought to regain 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of forest lands by planting 1.5 billion trees between 2011 and 2016. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is implementing the NGP, which was extended to 2028.

The program’s aims include poverty reduction, conserving and protecting resources, and helping mitigate the effects of climate change by expanding forests that can serve as carbon sinks.

Typhoon Nalgae, known locally as Paeng, made five landfalls on Oct. 29 and killed a confirmed 123 people across the Philippines. Image courtesy of Office of the Press Secretary.

However, in a 2019 assessment, the country’s Commission on Audit did not give the NGP flying colors. It found forest cover in the country had increased by just 177,441 hectares (438,466 acres), or less than 12% of the 1.5-million-hectare target. “The environmental targets of the NGP is way beyond the absorptive capacity of the DENR; and forcing to meet these targets led to waste,” the commission’s report said.

Meanwhile, the Philippines faces increasingly frequent and severe storms as the climate changes, leading the Asian Development Bank to conclude the country faces “some of the highest disaster risk levels in the world.”

Are trees enough?

Preserving forests is important, and deforestation was certainly a factor in the recent tragedy in Maguindanao, according to Greenpeace Philippines campaigner Jefferson Chua. However, Marcos has been mouthing climate platitudes since assuming power in July, and is “unfortunately missing the big picture on the climate agenda that he purports to promote,” Chua tells Mongabay.

“Tree planting is getting a lot of attention as a nature-based solution to the climate crisis,” Chua says. “But tree planting is not a silver bullet. It needs to be part and parcel of a coherent climate action plan.”

Chua says trees planted now on the slopes where landslides occurred will take years, even a decade, to help with erosion control or carbon sequestration. And by then, other disasters may occur or intensify.

“We need a coherent plan from the government, one that urgently addresses both the sudden as well as slow onset impacts of the climate crisis, and takes into consideration ambitious mitigation actions as well community-centered adaptation strategies,” he adds.

Banner image: Temporary shelters and structures in Mindanao a few months after Typhoon Bopha in 2013. Image by Mathias Eick EU/ECHO via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Related reading:

Devastated by a typhoon, community foresters in the Philippines find little support

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