The Dark Side of Bohol’s Bilar Manmade Forest + An Appeal to People Planting Trees

It was quiet, very quiet. All around me dark mahogany trees rose to the sky.  I basked in the silence as I walked around and admired thick trunks and roots flowing like tiny rivers. The occasional patches of sunlight breaking through the canopy made the silent forest all the more magical.

It was so beautiful that it was hard for me to imagine that this was not a forest made exclusively by nature. In fact, its name said it all – Bilar Manmade Forest.

I felt I was walking in a fairytale woodland, only to find out much later the chilling truth.

I have long since admired the forest and the hands that planted it. The two-kilometer forest was planted as part of a reforestation project started more than 50 years ago, to replace trees lost from widespread kaingin (slash-and-burn farming) in Bohol. During my two visits to the forest, I have always taken comfort in its silence.

No birds sing here. While the patches of sunlight like this one indeed make Bilar Forest look magical, this forest is a biodiversity-dead zone.

But a few days ago, that silence was forever shattered for me.

 A friend and avid birdwatcher shared some facts reportedly from the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society that mahogany forests are harmful, rather than helpful, to the Philippines’ environment. Mahogany, not being a native species to Philippine soil, is basically an alien, and thus, native organisms do not recognize those trees and do not thrive in such forests.

“Didn’t you notice there are no birds?” she told me. “It’s so pretty but it’s a silent and dead forest.”

No wonder Bilar Forest was so quiet.

While tree planting projects are fueled by good intentions, volunteering individuals and organizations would do well by planting only native trees.

University of the Philippines Plant Diversity Professor James LaFrankie talked about the danger of non-native trees in detail in his book “Philippine Native Trees 101: Up Close and Personal” released a few months ago. LaFrankie illustrated the difference between planting a Philippine native tree like molave versus planting an exotic tree like mahogany:

 “Molave, as a native species, has a relationship to the land, water, and other organisms that has developed over a million years. Certain fungi live with the roots, certain insects feed on the plant parts, while others pollinate the flower. Birds and mammals live along the branches and feed on the seeds. No such relationship exists for the newcomer. The result is ten hectares of mahogany in a biodiversity-dead zone. There are no birds, no insects, only a nearly dead soil due to the lethal chemicals that leak from the rotting leaves (emphasis mine). Native species are rarely found as seedlings beneath the canopy, and so, most significantly, there is no future for ten hectares of mahogany.”

 

Takip-asin, a native shrub planted in one successful manmade forest of native and endangered species, Liptong Woodland.

Of course, Bilar Forest remains beautiful to me, and I believe the good intentions that fueled the project, but I admit that I will never look at its silent beauty the same way again. Individuals and organizations now should go beyond good intentions and do their homework well before undertaking any tree planting activity. There are just so many tree planting activities in the country now, some of which are part of travel volunteerism, or voluntourism projects, and they have the potential to impact the environment for the good or bad.

I’m a fan of forests planted with the love and determination of individuals or communities, and forests, when planted right, can do so much good for the earth. One such example is Liptong Woodland, a forest singlehandedly planted by one remarkable man, and which I was lucky to visit during my adventure around Visayas.

So, to fellow travelers and individuals planning to join or organize a tree planting activity, I appeal to you to do your homework before planting a single seedling.

For more details on Philippine native plants, go to Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society. If you would like to know more about the project to reforest the Philippines with native species, go to the Rainforestation website.

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72 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Bohol’s Bilar Manmade Forest + An Appeal to People Planting Trees

  1. These are Facts! Prey en predator relationship, living things and foods, nature’s cycle of life and one form of life vs another are essential aspects of biodiversity. Thanks Paula and Claire for Sharing… Let us share and make this viral…

  2. This is indeed an eye-opener. Thank you for your entry. I’m actually looking forward to visit Bilar this November. I do hope the LGU can still do something about it.

  3. nice article..thanks for sharing….by the way, are there some scientific explanation why there are no birds there? or the trees are just so high that they cannot observe the birds. ive been there too, but i didnt notice it, my focus was on the trees…and the place. : )

    • Thanks, Joel! Professor LaFrankie, who I quoted verbatim in my post, already said it well in summary, I think. I’m sure there is more detailed literature – articles and books – that will shed light on the subject.

  4. Thank you for this, Claire! I’ve been to Bilar’s manmade forest too, and I did notice how eerily quiet it was. Kaya pala. If I didn’t read Paula’s post on Facebook and this, I wouldn’t have known about what planting non-native tree species are doing to our wildlife and biodiversity. People should know about this, especially those big companies who do wide-scale tree-planting activities for their CSR projects.

  5. This just reminded me of my childhood days…

    My uncle works for DENR before. As a kid, my cousins would always tell us about how lethal the seeds of Mahogany trees are.

  6. Speaking from an environmental specialist and not a traveler, I would say that I never enjoyed the man made forest in Bohol. A hundred or thousand of hectare of planted single species of trees is always considered as biologically dead. The benefits are minimal as the intrinsic value are limited to O2 production or generally serves as carbon sink in the area. and source of timber. But the ecological space/dimesion is actually damaged due to creation biodiversity patches creating a gap among organisms dwelling in the marginal side of the mahogany man made forest in which supposedly interacting with each other.

    • Thank you so much for this additional information, particularly the point on non-native trees having “minimal benefits” only. That made me think, though – should forests planted merely for timber be native or non-native trees? This is considering that they will be cut down anyway.

  7. It is better to have the the trees than nothing at all. Look around you. There are bare mountains all around us. Why don’t we fill these first before we bitch and moan about somewhere were somebody has ACTUALLY DONE something. Go to Surigao where there thousands of hectares of land planted only with one type of tree – falcata – which is only good to make paper. Yes it is good to quote biodiversity, but hey let us give Credit where credit is due. For every Human activity there are always two sides to a story ..But Kris sakes …Enough of Negativism.!!!..Let us see the GOOD side MORE !!!.

    • Thank you for your comment, Juan. I believe in seeing the bright side in things. I did mention in my blog post that I continue to appreciate Bilar Forest and the good intentions behind the project.

      However, now that we have the chance to plant forests that benefit our country more – not just the marginal benefits (e.g. providing oxygen), we need to go beyond those good intentions and keep ourselves informed. I appeal that you research more on the real impact of non-native trees versus native trees before seeing this as just a positivism versus negativism issue. To me, it is more than that.

      I am all for people planting trees. But if, in the future, people who read this become more discerning on what kind of trees to plant and not just plant trees because they know in general that it is good for the environment, then my objective for writing this post has been fulfilled. To me, good intentions + informed action = great results.

      • Hi. I actually appreciate the environmental awareness that your article has brought into surface. This is not to meddle between comments but I guess I know where Juan’s comment is coming from. Lovemindanao’s comment saying that he never enjoyed the manmade forest in Bohol was strikingly offensive. Just because the planting effort lacked research, he/she made it sound as if the whole intention of the project is diminished or belittled. Yes the forest is not biodiverse but is surely has benefited the people in many ways. It should not be looked down as a trash. Let’s not forget to be grateful for things that we have while continuing to set our eyes forward for improvement.

    • Super agree Juan/John. Co-existence is the rule of thumb in ecology. Where there are trees, there are animals. Im sorry to disagree that there are no birds and insects in that area. There are rare species of butterflies in that area like T.magellanus, P. daedallus, and many Polytes spp. Where there are butterflies, there are birds. Not to mention other insects like bugs, beetles, other arthropods like mellipeds and spiders. Ohhh be careful, there are poisonous snakes , phytons and big scorpions out there. Its our learning area for my Insect taxonomy and Insect Ecology Classes.
      Yes, monocropping (in this case mahogany) is ecologically not a perfect ecosystem. But that is a MAHOGANY ECOSYSTEM. That means, mahogany is the dominant specie. Sometimes we give meaning based on our perspective. its just a poetic expression when we say “biologically dead”. What is that in reality? under those mahogany trees are species of ferns, vines, palms, shrubs, mosses, and countless plant species that covers the soil with all the macro and micro decomposers in their endless ecological interactions. And they are ALIVE ! NOT DEAD.
      In fact my suggestion to the local officials of Bilar is to restore that landmark in the nursery area where there are names of people who started that reforestation project in the 60s and let us give due credit for what they have done. That for me is a great great achievement. That area is a WATERSHED and for all we know the ECOLOGICAL BENEFITS of an ecosystem cant be perceived by our naked eyes, especially the eyes of PASSERSBY. As a watershed that area has contributed so much SO MUCH for our ecology.

      As to DIVERSITY issue, YES…. we addressed it already. Our Bohol Biodiversity Complex at BISU Bilar has been producing native species and i know we dispersed thousands for treeplanting already. Many NGOs are promoting native tree planting. DENR is now promoting indigenous species. I suggest that instead we will refocus our attention to the northern part of Bohol where LGUs dont care about those grasslands where there is a real ecological/biodiversity issue.

      BTW, there is no such thing as man-made forest.

    • I agree with you Juan. My grandfather was involve in planting those trees. I guess during that time, the lack of information about Mahogany was behind it. The initiatives and pain that were poured in to make the forest is what is important. try to consider as well if the availability of other seedlings that time were also available.

      • My father also planted mahogany about a decade ago. He and others had good intentions, and they had lack of correct information back then. I still believe hectares of mahogany forest is still much better than grasslands. Today we should stop planting mahogany and start planting native trees, like narra and molave. For those who want to join tree planting, just google “haribon foundation”, they are currently reforesting Mount Banahaw.

  8. I just got back from Mt. Talamitam in Batangas and I was saddened to see all the mahogany seedlings there that just wilted because they were non-native to the area and couldn’t handle the type of climate there. A lot of money and effort just wasted… and all the while, the so-called local “citizens'” organization (which is just actually being controlled by 1 family and other locals are not allowed to benefit from it) are allowing the native century-old Dungon trees at the back of Mt. Talamitam and adjacent Mt. Matandang Gubat to be chopped indiscriminately by illegal loggers thanks to under-the-table bribes. Poor planning coupled with corruption is damaging nature severely there 😦

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  10. I am planning to visit Bohol this coming weekends and Bilar is one of the places I’d like to see. I’ll make sure to pay extra attention in case I come across any living creatures, just to observe how they behave in such environment.
    Thanks for sharing ate Claire! 🙂

  11. This is a nice article, totally opened my eyes on something while not harmful, should actually be watched out for. Now if only they had this info back when all the planning was done. Born and raised in Bohol, this is one place I brag about to my college friends when they visit, surely I did not notice the absence of birds in such a thick forest.

  12. love your article 🙂 Thanks for the emphasis on planting native trees during tree-planting projects 🙂 para di maulit ang na-overlook sa bilar manmade forest project 🙂

    • Mahogany started to be planted in the area at the time when research and information on biodiversity, allelopathy, etc. was not yet available. The good intention of the initiators is worthy of commendation no matter how negative monocropping of mahogany may appeal in current times.

  13. Pingback: Why your tree planting isn’t helping the Philippine environment | feeling environmentalist

  14. I remember reading this post a year ago because it made me curious enough to try and find out more about native trees. Now I’ve made my own post based on what I’ve learned from talking with other people from environmental groups in the Philippines! I linked your blog too since this is one of the things that motivated me to do it 🙂 http://www.feelingenvironmentalist.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/why-your-tree-planting-isnt-helping-the-philippine-environment/

  15. wev got plenty of trees in bohol. maybe u shud start the season by being more into the ” do” stuff instead, than ur time spent writing this nonsense. haha sorry ( van from bohol)

    • Yes Bohol is blessed with a very rich flora and fauna. But what the writer just pointed out is a matter of fact and it is non sense. Trees not endemic to us usually poses harm than do good to our eco system, no need for me to explain, just read the text again and again, it is not to malign Bohol. It is you who doesn’t make any sense.

  16. Hi! Perhaps you’d like to visit Naujan Lake National Park, it is one of our project sites in Oriental Mindoro. I work for a USAID funded project, and we are helping conserve biodiversity in our protected areas. Naujan Lake is one of the country’s Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance for threatened endemic and migratory birds. Let me know if you’re interested. 🙂

  17. I first visited the Philippines in 1962 to meet with Rev Quimada, founding minister of the Unitarian Univrsalist Church of the Philippines. Several visits followed, I hope to make one more visit sometime in the this year or next. I will remember the lesson about tree planting.

  18. This is the advocacy of the Bohol Biodiversity Complex, which since the late 90s has been propagating tree species native to the Philippines, and for the most part dipterocarps, for use in tree-planting and reforestation projects. Except perhaps for tree plantations for timber purposes, most reforestation efforts in Bohol since its establishment have been of saplings of native tree species propagated by the center.

  19. To the author and to the rest of the readers… How come you have ignored Jotrav’s comment? I want to know what you think… So I will quote

    “Co-existence is the rule of thumb in ecology. Where there are trees, there are animals. Im sorry to disagree that there are no birds and insects in that area. There are rare species of butterflies in that area like T.magellanus, P. daedallus, and many Polytes spp. Where there are butterflies, there are birds. Not to mention other insects like bugs, beetles, other arthropods like mellipeds and spiders. Ohhh be careful, there are poisonous snakes , phytons and big scorpions out there. Its our learning area for my Insect taxonomy and Insect Ecology Classes.
    Yes, monocropping (in this case mahogany) is ecologically not a perfect ecosystem. But that is a MAHOGANY ECOSYSTEM. That means, mahogany is the dominant specie. Sometimes we give meaning based on our perspective. its just a poetic expression when we say “biologically dead”. What is that in reality? under those mahogany trees are species of ferns, vines, palms, shrubs, mosses, and countless plant species that covers the soil with all the macro and micro decomposers in their endless ecological interactions. And they are ALIVE ! NOT DEAD.
    In fact my suggestion to the local officials of Bilar is to restore that landmark in the nursery area where there are names of people who started that reforestation project in the 60s and let us give due credit for what they have done. That for me is a great great achievement. That area is a WATERSHED and for all we know the ECOLOGICAL BENEFITS of an ecosystem cant be perceived by our naked eyes, especially the eyes of PASSERSBY. As a watershed that area has contributed so much SO MUCH for our ecology.

    As to DIVERSITY issue, YES…. we addressed it already. Our Bohol Biodiversity Complex at BISU Bilar has been producing native species and i know we dispersed thousands for treeplanting already. Many NGOs are promoting native tree planting. DENR is now promoting indigenous species. I suggest that instead we will refocus our attention to the northern part of Bohol where LGUs dont care about those grasslands where there is a real ecological/biodiversity issue.

    BTW, there is no such thing as man-made forest.

    • Nice observations/comment Observer/Jotrav…..nosebleed na sila sa imo scientific/ecological statement… diha sila nasayop sa word nga ang Bilar Man-made Forest biologically dead kuno…pastilan baya… dili unta ta magpataka ug yawit…Keep it up Observer…saludo kos imo Bay/Day!

  20. Many concerns have been raised in the previous comments, and I will try to address them in this one comment:

    1) I have volunteered in tree planting activities of native species before and after I posted this blog entry. But, I am also a writer, and, once I realized the importance of planting native trees, I decided to write about this issue on my blog to make a greater impact. My goal was to make people question and go beyond tree planting as a generally beneficial activity to the environment. Friends and strangers alike appreciated what they learned from this blog entry, and one reader even went so far as to research more and write his own article with far more information than mine: http://www.feelingenvironmentalist.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/why-your-tree-planting-isnt-helping-the-philippine-environment/ Through writing, I believe i have made a far more effective impact than just me planting native trees.
    2) On “manmade forest” –> I used this term as a travel writer, as this is what I heard local travel guides and locals call the Bilar forest. As I heard this term used in the tourism context and I am writing a travel blog, I also used this term for my readers’ easier reference and identification.
    3) To Jotrav: The writeup I quoted was by Dr. James LaFrankie, a UP professor with published studies on forest ecology, conservation and management. I do not believe he was just using a poetic experession when he wrote “biodiversity-dead.” His claims are based on research. As you made a suggestion to local officials on Bilar, I am guessing that you have knowledge and influence to impact tree planting activities. I am saddened by your comment as it appears to downplay the importance of planting native trees – granted, Bilar Forest has environmental benefits like being a watershed (I did say in my blog post that I appreciate the forest, but it has a dark side, and the purpose of this blog post is for people to think beyond treeplanting as a generally beneficial activity), and granted, there may even be other species living and adapting in Bilar Forest, but, given your knowledge and influence (which again, I deduced from your comment), I had hoped you would further explain what worked for Bilar but also what did not work in terms of planting non-native trees, instead of just focusing on Bilar’s benefits. You did mention that you later engaged in tree planting projects of native species, so I suppose planting native trees must be important. If indeed the effect on the species living in Bilar Forest is not the issue with planting non-native trees, what is the issue that makes planting native trees important? Also, in terms of environmental impact, can we honestly conclude that it does not matter whether Bilar Forest was planted with native species or not? Though you did not say this directly in your comment, other readers might conclude such based on what you said.
    4) I originally wrote this post with fellow travelers and ordinary people in mind. But it looks like it is also reaching people who organize or at least have influence on environmental activities. And so, to readers who can have a greater impact on environmental activities, I implore you – I beg you – that in the face of information like this that may question your usual environmental practices, can you look into it more? Can you ask questions that need to be asked, even the hard ones, instead of brushing them off? Yes, your previous environmental efforts may have already helped the environment, and that is truly commendable, but given new information that can improve how you help the environment, can you try to find out more even if it means changing the environmental practices you have been so used to (if such information is incorrect or lacking, can you help clarify it in a way that is helpful and informative, especially to ordinary people who want to help the environment)? Can you help raise the bar when it comes to saving our environment and encourage others to do the same? When given the opportunity, can you help educate people interested in helping the environment?

    I appreciate that my blog post has become the start of conversations like this. This article is more of a starting point and is not meant to hold all the answers. So to those who have been affected by this blog post, I encourage you to do your own research.

  21. We have in Cebu several man-made forests of mahogany, gmelina and Burmese teak. These type of trees do not share space with indigenous trees and shrubs. The trees do not make the soil fertile and are known to hoard all the water to themselves. Birds do not nest or stay for simply there are no insects to take as food. I would suggest that several bamboo species be part of the new thrust of reforestation. There are so many like bagakay, kagingkingon, lunas, bontong, buho, butong and the kawayan. I notice also that mangrove reforestation and propagation concentrate only one species. Biodiversity with marine life becomes limited and would not result to a healthy environment.

  22. Proud to tell the the world that my father papa ben calamba is one who planted this trees now weve seen now my father is now 88 year old he is a stroke patient …as bilarnoon we treasure much our environment still up to now still encourage to plant trees

  23. I planted hundreds of mahogany trees on our land, and there and many birds in and around them. Some of the trees are a hundred years old.

    • Hello! May I ask which species of mahogany did you plant? I understand that we have native mahogany species. Thanks!

      • Yes, there IS a native mahogany, but it is very rare (from what I’m told) and the people who own them are dicks about who they give the seeds or seedlings to. I only have access to the non-native from South America, I pay 5 peso each, from the forestry dept. I also was able to get some Nara, Kamagong and a 3rd one I can’t remember, which are native. But I don’t plant the mahogany anymore.

  24. I planted a part of my farm with mahogany trees almost 20 years ago. I noticed really that there are no other species of trees growing under the trees. Its all bare. Not even weeds, i should say. With your writing, i finally had the answer. Thank you and more power.

  25. For those who wish to plant tree crops for lumber, in the relatively short term, which is a good alternative to non-native mahogany? Looking to see return on investment in 10-15 years by chopping the tree down and selling to furniture-makers, etc. Also, if one plants on one’s privately-owned land indigenous species which are endangered, what are the restrictions on chopping same trees down for profit once they are grown?

    • Hello! I believe it is best to consult those who work in forestry for your question. UP Los Baños has a Forestry department and they have professors and researchers there you can ask.

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  28. Plant Mabolo for Kamagong wood. The wood is better than Mahogany. Native to Philippines and mabolo fruit able to feed birds and fruit bats.

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