Saturday, April 15, 2006


Donald Smith
National Geographic News
December 14, 2000

For once, the worst didn’t happen. Dire predictions that one of the largest stands of triple-tier rain forest left in Asia would be destroyed by illegal logging once its U.S. military guardians pulled out have not come true. In fact, in the intervening seven and a half years, the forest—located at the former U.S. military base in the Philippines—has come under the de facto protection of an unlikely new set of guardian angels: land developers.

“The natural forests, i.e. the lowland primary forests and mangroves, have not been degraded by deforestation,” according to Domingo Madulid, curator of the Philippine National Herbarium in Manila. “In fact, it remains in its pristine state.”
In 1992, when American forces left the Philippines after 45 years of friendly occupation, the idea that the area around Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay Naval Complex on the island of Luzon would escape the degradation that has ravaged much of the rest of the country seemed far-fetched to many environmentalists.

Without the protection of the American GIs, it was feared that much of the 20,500 acres (8,300 hectares) of timber—a rare virgin forest of valuable mahogany and teak trees—would be cut down by poachers.

Home to monkeys, deer, snakes, bats, and many species of birds, the forest not only contains some of the most expensive hardwood trees found in the Philippines; it is also a vital watershed, preventing erosion and providing drinking water for the area.

The last of 12,000 Americans stationed at Subic Bay left in November, 1992 after the Philippine Senate rejected a renewal of the U.S. lease. It was the largest withdrawal in naval history.


Before the pullout, the Navy ran a strict management program in the forest, including regular Marine foot patrols to ferret out hunters and timber poachers. Offenders were turned over to Philippine authorities for prosecution.

“Some of these old military bases have been better preserved than national parks in our own country, because they’re so strictly controlled,” says Merlin Tuttle, founder of the non-profit Bat Conservation International in Austin, Texas. Tuttle says that several species of flying foxes have been driven to extinction by over-hunting in unprotected areas of Pacific islands.

“Sites like Subic Bay have been the last refuges for some of these bats,” says Tuttle. Continued preservation of the forest was discussed by U.S. and Philippine officials during planning for withdrawal.

“It was one of the issues that came up: What’s going to happen to that jungle, now that we’re out of there,” said Lt. Ken Ross of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. “Our concern was that we turn everything over, including the forest, in the best condition possible.”

Philippine officials pledged to save the forest. “What we want to be able to do is replicate or at least approximate fully what the Americans have done,” Fulgencio Factoran, environment and natural resources secretary, said during the withdrawal talks. “This is one reason why our proud people will exert more effort to show everyone it doesn’t take Americans to protect their own forests.”

But many Philippine and U.S. conservationists were skeptical that the government would take the needed measures. Although logging in virgin forests is illegal, the government has a poor record of providing resources for enforcement—partly, say environmentalists, because powerful political and military figures profit from the timber. Politicians also say strict enforcement hurts poor people living in the area.


Factoran and natural resources administrator Herman Laurei expressed dismay at the annual budget the government approved in 1992 for forest protection in the province that includes Subic Bay: the equivalent of US $1,740. Laurei complained that “it’s almost a joke to expect serious results.”

Philippine officials estimate that their tropical rain forests are being cut down at a rate of 445,000 acres (180,000 hectares) a year—about three times the worldwide rate. Widespread poverty and a rapidly expanding population are blamed for the constant pressure to clear land. Timber produces quick profits, as well as firewood for scavengers, and creates space for agriculture.

But it’s been a different story at Subic Bay. The U.S. guardians have been replaced by an equally determined set of protectors: well-heeled businessmen, operating under agencies formed by the Philippine government, hoping to turn the former military base into an international industrial park and free-trade zone.

“Because of security related to business development, and measures that have been taken to protect the business people themselves, the forest is under no immediate threat,” according to John Pipoly of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, based in Fort Worth.

“Most people love to look at the forest,” says Pipoly, who recently completed a major study of Filipino plant life. “Businesspeople come in, wine and dine, and watch the hornbills land from their hotel verandas.”

Present plans call for construction of a giant import-export center, including an industrial park containing large factories on the former base itself—which already contains handsome residential buildings formerly used by high-ranking military officials. An entertainment district, including a casino and a five-star hotel, is also on the drawing board.

Once used by U.S. warplanes, the airport—approximately four times the size of the decrepit municipal airport in Manila—would be the transportation hub for the complex. “The only difference,” Pipoly speculates, “would be that the big planes coming in and out will be civilian, not military. It should have no impact on the forest.”

In the meantime, the business interests—concerned by the rash of Muslim terrorist kidnappings that have plagued the Philippines in recent years—have maintained their own security forces to discourage trespassing in the forest.

The arrangement may not be perfect. April Sansom, who recently spent a year in the country working for the private group Conservation International Philippines and the previous two years as a Peace Corps volunteer there, reports seeing some areas that have been thinned out, and some bare hilltops.

But for the most part, it appears that the business interests—for now, at least—have accomplished what the Philippine government has failed to do in much of the rest of the archipelago: keep the countryside green.

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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More Information

• Philippine authorities estimate that in 1972, the country had about 25.7 million acres (10.4 million hectares) of natural forests covering 34 percent of the country’s total land area.
• Currently only 15.2 million acres (6.16 million hectares) of forest remain, making the Philippines one of the world’s most seriously deforested countries.
• New legislation calling for sustainable management of the country’s forest resources calls for a variety of remedies, including participation of local communities in forest management. However, previous strict laws governing logging have failed due to lack of enforcement.
• Until 1992, the Subic Bay rain forest was used by U.S. forces as a training ground for jungle survival. Local Aetas inhabitants, whose forest lore has been passed down through generations, taught pilots which plants could be used for water and emergency medicine.

More Information

After years of illegal logging, the Philippine archipelago is now estimated to have less than three percent of its original forest cover. Philippine Senator Loren Legarda has warned that if the trend is not reversed, “we will have only 6.6 percent forest cover—both virgin and second growth—by the year 2010.”

“That nation is one of the most nearly deforested tropical countries in the world,” according to Harvard University’s Pulitzer Prize-winning authority on biodiversity, Edward O. Wilson. “Forest reserves there are few and far between, and are of extraordinary value to future generations in the Philippines as well as in the rest of the world.”

In his 1992 book, “The Diversity of Life,” Wilson warned that the Philippines is “at the edge of a full-scale biodiversity collapse. …At best, the ultimate losses will be heavy.”

According to the Philippines’ Forest Development Council—an academic research institution—much of the loss has come from the expansion of subsistence farming by some 20 million inhabitants of forested areas. Many of these areas suffer long-lasting damage from slash-and-burn techniques of forest clearing.

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