The revival of a damaged Philippines watershed is helping improve nutrition and livelihoods of communities.

By Lionel Dabbadie, FAO Representative in the Philippines

People working on a reforestation operation. © FAO


The Philippines is blessed with rich natural resources, forests being one of the most important. For Filipinos, forests and forestlands provide a wide array of economic and social benefits. These include contributions to the overall economy – for example through employment, processing and trade of forest products and energy – and investments in the forest sector. They also host vital heritage sites and landscapes of important cultural, spiritual or recreational value to people.

Forests also render many ecological services: they serve as carbon sinks, protect watersheds, and prevent soil erosion, river siltation, and coastal degradation. They buffer the effects of natural hazards such as typhoons, flooding and landslides.

Forests also hold and protect the country’s unique and highly diverse biodiversity. Being one of the 18 mega-biodiverse countries and an archipelago of 7 641 islands, the Philippines is characterized by a very high level of endemism, with almost half of the terrestrial wildlife not found anywhere else in the world. A large part of this rare biodiversity is found in the country’s forests, which cover 7.2 million hectares, or approximately 24 percent of the Philippines total land area.

But these forests are facing challenges.

Despite their vital functions and benefits, they are shrinking because of overexploitation, deforestation, and forestland conversion, resulting from a booming population, brisk economic development and rapid urbanization. Between 2000 and 2005, the Philippines is estimated to have lost 2.1 percent of its forest cover annually – the second fastest rate of deforestation in Southeast Asia and the seventh globally. Specific culprits are the expansion of urban areas, the conversion of forest into agricultural land, the use of trees as firewood or charcoal, illegal logging, and the clearing of forests for oil exploration and mining.

This continued degradation of forests and forestland cover has exposed many communities – especially Indigenous Peoples who have depended on this valuable resource for generations – to unprecedented challenges that are threatening their very way of life.

Until recently, traditional forest management approaches and the accompanying decision-making processes have been one way, and top-down. Technical solutions and policies were based on generally rigid and simplistic models, resulting in expensive one-size-fits-all recommendations that frequently failed when applied in real-world scenarios.

Recognizing this and learning from the lessons of past failed approaches, FAO and the Philippine government embarked on initiatives that modelled innovative, participatory, and nature-based forest management methodologies to achieve sustainable outcomes with improved efficiency. These initiatives comprise the Forest and Landscape Restoration approach and the Assisted Natural Regeneration technique, which were introduced by FAO under its Carood Watershed Model Forest Project.

The Carood Watershed, located in Bohol Province, Central Visayas © FAO

An environmental recovery, leading to improved livelihoods and food security  

The Carood Watershed, located in Bohol Province, Central Visayas, encompasses landscape features from the mountains to coastal areas. Back in the 2000s, the watershed was regularly impacted by seasonal flooding and forest fires, unsustainable farming, improper waste disposal, polluted water sources, erosion, siltation, as well as over-extraction of sand and gravel.

In 2003, the Carood Watershed Model Forest Management Council was created to serve as a participatory decision-making arena. It convened chief executives, local government units, community groups, academe and CSOs, as well as local field officers of national government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

As part of the Carood Watershed Model Forest Project’s interventions, stakeholders first established firebreaks that straddled the boundaries of the eight participating sites. Within these firebreaks, community members planted cash crops, perennial crops, and high-value crops in strategic locations that not only provided sustainable management of fire lines but also sources of livelihoods for local communities.

The project also restored 400 hectares of degraded forest land through the implementation of Assisted Natural Regeneration technique with community members planting 200 seedlings her hectare. This approach promotes the natural regeneration of forests and accelerates the recovery of degraded areas by assisting the growth of indigenous tree species and enhancing the natural processes.

Additionally, FAO and project partners developed information, education, and communication materials, with the intention of raising awareness and influencing perception and positive behavioral change towards the importance and socioeconomic benefits of forest protection and conservation.

In essence, the project linked forest restoration with wider environmental and socio-economic goals, particularly by prioritizing and improving local livelihoods.

The restoration efforts generated a wide range of direct and indirect benefits. The cultivation of cash crops, perennial crops, and high-value crops within the firebreaks generated income over the short-term for the partner communities, while the fruit trees created longer-term revenue opportunities.

More importantly, the restoration of the environmental and ecological functions of the watershed led to improved nutrient cycling, soil formation, erosion control, water filtration and storage, flood control, increased biodiversity, and carbon storage. In turn, these ecological improvements could contribute to reduced costs for drinking water treatment and infrastructure, mitigation of flood-related damages, improved agricultural productivity, and creation of additional and alternative livelihood opportunities linked to tourism and outdoor recreation.

Bohol’s bushy vegetation forest allows the endangered Tarsiers to live there © FAO

FAO's unique expertise in the implementation of the project underscored two critical conditions for successful ecosystem restoration. First, that nature-based solutions could leverage and harness the power of natural ecosystems to address environmental challenges.

Second, an inclusive and participatory approach, coupled with committed and good governance, ensures that all relevant stakeholders – including local communities, indigenous groups, governments, and NGOs – have a say and active role in decision-making and restoration activities.

But, perhaps, equally important is that the Philippine government, FAO and the project stakeholders were able to successfully demonstrate that investing in the restoration and improvement of sustainable ecosystems could lead to tangible and positive socioeconomic impacts that benefit all, especially the marginalized and the vulnerable. By showing that this can be done through the Carood Watershed Model Forest Project, FAO hopes that similar initiatives in the future will be able to start a groundswell that will finally turn things around for the country’s forests and forestlands.

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