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Tree farming and large-scale plantations

The Philippines has the dubious distinction of being one of the first tropical countries to have its forest area severely reduced in large part by modern logging technologies and agricultural expansion. The mechanization of the logging industry closely mirrored North American operations, with heavy, powerful and expensive logging equipment. Another system called the "Bataan," or winch-lorry system, was based on surplus US-military trucks left in the Philippines after the Second World War. The use of hand tools and water buffaloes declined dramatically after 1945.

Philippine exports of tropical hardwoods grew at an incredible rate after the Second World War. This resulted in logging operations steadily expanding into less accessible areas. To reach such areas, heavier and more powerful equipment was employed, largely at the expense of environmental concerns.

The combined effects of opening up forest areas with powerful equipment, over-harvesting of timber, and aggressive agricultural expansion subsequently reduced the country's forests to 10 million ha, and then gradually to 8 million ha. Some foresighted foresters, including some from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), the World Employment Programme (WEP), the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the World Bank, who visited the Philippines in the mid-1960s, were already warning about the unsustainability of Philippine forestry. With the realization that the Philippine forests were not inexhaustible, the government slowly started to reduce the number of forest concessions - Timber License Agreements (TLAs) - in the country.

It is likely that due to this outside pressure, what is one of the world's first and most efficient local community programs in forestry was launched. The program came into being in 1967, and was called simply "tree farming." The idea was to encourage local people to plant a portion of their farms with trees, in addition to their traditional agri-livestock activities, in order to supplement their livelihood.

The idea of "private" tree farming was well received, since it was generally recognized that government forests could not be adequately protected even by well-armed guards. It was hoped that private forest ownership would solve the problem of denudation. The only remaining problem was how to secure the livelihood of the people before trees could be harvested. In those early days, no private farmers had funds available for the very uncertain tree-growing business, which required waiting eight years for the final harvest and income.

By 1972, the World Bank was convinced of the feasibility of the tree farming scheme and allocated US$2 million to support the program. The loan scheme set up to finance the farmers' tree-growing activities was called a "Tree Plantation Lease Agreement," and was carried out under the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). The WFP and the WEP also assisted the Philippines in its efforts to curb future food shortages and unemployment through this tree farming scheme.

To better assess the actual potential of this tree farming scheme, ILO sent a team of experts under the WEP to look into the employment potential in Philippine forestry. Already, one could foresee that the primary employment opportunities in forestry were related to plantation forestry, as the semi-mechanized dipterocarp-based forestry was showing signs of decline. Thus, these activities no longer had the potential of employing additional people. The WEP study tried to develop ways and means of replacing machines in plantation operations with manual harvesting systems.

Meanwhile, some of the large TLA holders in the southern Philippines had been continuously expanding their plantation areas. They realized that the exploitation of the natural forests was being carried out on "borrowed time." Therefore, the plantations expanded very fast and large amounts of plantation-grown wood were further processed by the industry. By 1980, sawn timber and fiberboard were produced from three-year old thinnings of plantation-grown wood.

Private landowners, who became known as tree farmers, also intensified their tree growing activities. The first few pilot tree farmers who had started their operations in the early 1970s had already harvested one rotation of Paraserianthes falcataria. They were now visibly spending their new "fortunes" in the local communities, thus encouraging many more farmers to become involved in tree farming.

Because of the strong support from the international community for the pilot tree farmers, many more farmers became interested in growing trees. The number of farmers grew from an initial 20 families in 1976 to more than 300 families in 1981. The plantation area increased from 20 ha to more than 4,000 ha.

Unfortunately, an unexpected typhoon hit the east coast of Mindanao in 1981. No one was prepared for the onslaught which caused many casualties. The plantation forests of PICOP and surrounding farmers were essentially wiped out, with 1.5 million m3 of wood on the ground. In addition, news spread that PICOP would not buy any windthrown trees less than five years of age. Many tree farmers lost their entire fortune. Under very hazardous working conditions, many lives were lost while trying to harvest what was left of the plantations within three months after the typhoon, before the wood started to decay, became fungi-infected, or was rendered useless through insect attacks.

The wood industry busily engaged in trying to salvage as much wood as possible. North American-made equipment, suitable for tree-length harvesting, was sent, including giant 50-ton portable tower yarders (mobile spars), 120-ton Kenworth trucks and large truck-mounted grapple loaders. However, the plantation trees were soon found to be far too brittle to be handled by the mechanized equipment designed to handle single, large-diameter logs. Landings, and indeed entire forests, were full of small pieces of wood measuring from 30 to 300 cm in size. The logs at the landings were generally damaged and only good for pulp.

The small-scale tree farms were hardly any better off. Outside contractors moved in with their own chainsaw crews and winch-lorries to drag the logs to the roadside. Their technology was very functional, but costly to operate. After paying off the contractors, most tree farmers were left with very little or no profit from the sale of their wood.

Basically, only the farmers who had harvested and sold their crops prior to the typhoon managed to get through this ordeal successfully. Very few farmers were able to continue their operations, and these more by chance, because they went on harvesting their farms with only axes, machetes and water buffaloes. In the end, only a small number of farmers continued planting trees, and the entire area went into large-scale coffee growing. From a financial point of view, the first large-scale tree farming initiative was a disaster.

The years between 1982-1986 were the last years of the Marcos administration, and much of the national budget was spent on political events. With negative economic growth for many years, the economy of the country was in ruins, and likewise most of the forestry businesses. By 1987, however, a slow recovery started to take place under the Aquino administration. Along with the recovery, a new optimism slowly started to spread, and new tree farms were established.

Today, tree farming is an accepted alternative to traditional agriculture in the provinces of Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Davao del Norte, Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur, Misamis Occidental, and Cotabato. In these provinces there are now more than 100,000 ha of forest plantations. For the most part, it is fair to say that this area is both the last bastion and the last frontier of forestry in the Philippines.

Plantations are financially attractive, produce much needed wood for industry, and create a considerable number of jobs (Table 1). If plantation growth averages 25 m3 of wood per year, then 100,000 ha produce 2.5 million m3 per year. The value of this plantation-grown wood ranges from US$10-40 per m3. Assuming that the average price is US$20 per m3, a revenue of US$50 million per year is generated. If the wood is further processed for export, then the benefits are much greater.

Table 1. Labor Inputs for Plantation Establishment and Management


Labor input in person-days/ha1

Clearing and land preparation


Raising and transporting seedlings




Weeding and maintenance


Harvesting (250 m3)


Manual loading




1 A person-day has approximately eight hours
2 Wood loaded on to a truck

11-year old Paraserianthes falcataria before the 1981 typhoon

The same forest after the typhoon

Treefarm with coffee and Acacia mangium

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