Project 1.11.11

(Lifted from Congressman Cesar V. Sarmiento’s privilege speech in the House of Representatives Dec. 13, 2010 is this urgent message to all those who love life here in this island).

Half of Catanduanes used to be covered by lush, virgin forests untouched by man and inhabited only by wildlife. Sadly, that forest cover is now down to a mere 12 percent, even less, thanks to the continuing encroachment of human settlements and the relentless and illegal cutting of trees over the years. We cannot be proud of the verifiable fact that our island still has the highest percentage of forest cover in the Bicol region. We cannot, because we have not done enough to halt its decline.

When typhoons Reming and Loleng thus ravaged Catanduanes, national television feasted on pictures of trees and cut logs floating by our coastlines after being carried down by floodwaters from our mountains. Just like what happened in Ormoc, Leyte when a flash flood claimed 8,000 lives in 1991 due to illegal logging and slash-and-burn farming, Catanduanes was depicted as a haven of people engaged in the wanton destruction of the environment. Sadly, this is happening everywhere in the archipelago. Most of our mountains have become bald, resulting in parched watersheds and thousands, nay, millions of citizens suffering from thirst especially when the El Niño phenomenon is upon us.

We can all boast to the world of what we remains of our paradise, "Wow Philippines!", "Pilipinas Kay Ganda!" comes to mind. But it will not mask the mess we have made of our home, for there is no certainty that the government, with inadequate funds and foresters, coupled with anemic enforcement, will be able to stem the hemorrhage in our mountains. Whatever efforts Congress has made earlier, in terms of allocating funds for reforestation projects alongside similar grants from foreign countries, these have not made a significant contribution to increasing our forest acreage. Haphazardly implemented replanting schemes, table surveys and lousy monitoring have also made sure only a measly percentage of seedlings planted in receding mountains ever grew to trees that would have made Joyce Kilmer swoon.

With all these in mind and after thorough consultations with my people, the very first projects I started after assuming office as Congressman of the lone district of Catanduanes involved planting trees and distributing water pumps in barangays all over my beloved province. As I have said, water crisis has become one of the most immediate concerns we face due to global warming and climate change. From the very first tree I planted right after taking oath, the tree planting project has now enlisted the active participation of environmental groups, schools and LGUs in our Go for 3 Project.

Trying to plant three (3) million trees by the time the 15th Congress ends in 2013 seems to be an unreachable goal. But I have demonstrated that it can be done. How? Every conceivable activity that your representation attends is preceded by a conscious group effort to plant a number of trees, whether in a campus, around a government office or out in the open. This way, we impress upon our constituents the importance of giving back part of what we have taken, and the urgency with which this should be done.

Why the haste? Our island lies in the typhoon belt and the effects of climate change, the denudation of the mountains and the expanding population have conspired to heighten the risk of disasters. Mr. Speaker, in the last two decades, five of the country’s most powerful typhoons have ripped through our province, causing incalculable damage through flooding, horrific winds, and landslides. Many of our roads and bridges were obliterated together with other infrastructures vital for education, trade and commerce.

Surely, we cannot ban inclement weather. So we do the next best thing, mitigate a potential disaster by addressing one of its contributing factors – the declining forest cover.

Let us begin this audacious mission on January 11, 2011, a date which we have set for a simultaneous, province-wide planting of trees to be participated by Catandunganons from all walks of life, from the highest government official to residents of the 315 barangays, including including our children.

January 11, 2011 will be a date everyone will remember, for it will mark the day Catandunganons, as one, started doing something to save their fragile ecosystem. The sight will be impressive: each able-bodied citizen planting a tree – a fruit tree, any tree – on a single day, 1-11-11, as our commitment to environmental protection and disaster risk reduction. And we can follow this up by a larger event ten months later on November 11, 2011, or on 11-11-11, when we return and plant a billion trees more.

My fellow Catandunganons, join me in helping save and protect our environment by planting three million trees in the next three years, as our way of caring for the next generation!