By Rhett Butler   |   Last updated July 14, 2014

The once spectacular primary forests of the Philippines are now a relic of a bygone era. What little primary forest does remain exists on the island of Palawan, the last sanctuary for the Palawan eagle.

Between 1990 and 2005 the Philippines lost a third of its forest cover, according to FAO estimates, but the country's deforestation is down since its peak in the 1980s and 1990s.

Widespread logging was responsible for much of the historical forest loss in the Philippines. Despite government bans on timber harvesting following severe flooding in the late 1980s and early 1990s, illegal logging continues today.

After temporarily lifting the log export ban in the late 1990s, the government has increasingly tried to crack down on timber smuggling and forest degradation. Additional threats to Philippine forests come from legal and illegal mining operations — which also cause pollution and have been linked to violent conflict — agricultural fires, collection of fuelwood, and rural population expansion. In recent years, deforestation has been increasingly blamed for soil erosion, river siltation, flooding, and drought; environmental awareness is now rising in the country.

Environmentalists in the Philippines now fear that plantation agriculture, especially oil palm, could emerge as the newest threat to remaining forests.

The continuing disappearance of Filipino wildlands is of great to concern to ecologists due to the high levels of endemic species. Of the 1,196 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles in the country, nearly 46 percent are endemic. Among plants, the number is around 40 percent. Only about 5 percent of the Philippines land area is under some form of protection.

A closer look at the forests of the Philippines

Estimates of current forest cover in the Philippines are highly variable between sources. According to the national Forest Management Bureau, forest cover in the Philippines declined from 21 million hectares, or 70% of the its land area, in 1900 to about 6.5 million hectares by 2007. This data is very similar that to the U.N. FAO, which is usually based on government data. Both the government and the FAO show an increase in overall forest cover since 1990.

In contrast, data first published in 2013 by Matt Hansen and colleagues paints a much different picture, estimating 2012 forest cover at nearly 20 million hectares, using a 10 percent tree cover definition of forest. Hansen puts dense forests — areas with more than 50 percent tree cover — at 17.4 million hectares, or nearly three-fifths of the archipelago's land cover.

Hansen et al 2013

Hansen et al 2013

However annual loss data between the various sources is similar. FAO estimated that forest cover in the Philippines declined by an average of about 54,750 hectares per year between 1990 and 2010. Hansen puts the figure at about 51,400 ha per year between 2001 and 2012, increasingly slightly over the period. At 3.2 percent, MIMAROPA or the area formerly known as part of the Southern Tagalog Islands — including the provinces of Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan, had the highest rate of loss between 2000 and 2012, accounting for 42 percent of all forest loss in the Philippines during the period.

Hansen et al 2013

Total forest areaDense forest areaForest gainForest lossTotal land area
>10% tree cover (ha)% total land cover>50% tree cover (ha)% total land cover2001-2012 (ha)% total forest cover2001-2012 (ha)% total forest cover(ha)
Agusan del Norte25087586.1%22617977.6%39031.6%72422.9%291360
Agusan del Sur79082092.4%75950088.7%172802.2%484426.1%856309
Camarines Norte17776484.8%16458078.5%17711.0%43672.5%209651
Camarines Sur37068570.9%32762562.6%40321.1%83522.3%523084
Compostela Valley37537888.4%34962182.4%81342.2%174034.6%424406
Davao del Norte26784776.9%22659465.1%48961.8%82643.1%348314
Davao del Sur42300770.0%35434358.7%71551.7%88822.1%604087
Davao Oriental46502091.1%43897686.0%86761.9%151623.3%510372
Dinagat Islands6532282.1%5646670.9%4920.8%13702.1%79602
Eastern Samar40560795.3%39073091.8%36630.9%81952.0%425780
Ilocos Norte19906459.0%16871350.0%7680.4%15730.8%337355
Ilocos Sur14849059.4%12416749.6%4480.3%9120.6%250099
La Union8370057.5%6759446.4%2410.3%5960.7%145634
Lanao del Norte22519079.5%19908370.3%11760.5%39431.8%283331
Lanao del Sur29487783.9%27125477.2%9640.3%69492.4%351576
Metropolitan Manila587810.8%23474.3%320.5%661.1%54454
Misamis Occidental14909878.8%12656866.9%23641.6%28141.9%189232
Misamis Oriental22818968.6%18894856.8%22721.0%28791.3%332435
Mountain Province16695078.5%14942570.2%8600.5%37522.2%212810
Negros Occidental25731333.0%18583823.9%24601.0%43911.7%778940
Negros Oriental22435844.9%16882033.8%28191.3%55552.5%499182
North Cotabato31988550.4%24527338.6%38931.2%94623.0%634974
Northern Samar30625090.7%29205586.5%37881.2%70212.3%337578
Nueva Ecija17491432.2%14315726.3%16671.0%36312.1%543761
Nueva Vizcaya27665070.5%23589860.1%28231.0%75672.7%392241
Occidental Mindoro35972161.0%31638253.6%59941.7%82082.3%589963
Oriental Mindoro30562573.7%27071565.3%70182.3%92633.0%414606
Shariff Kabunsuan14212662.2%10726447.0%10970.8%39422.8%228381
South Cotabato24948857.5%20311446.8%41831.7%71032.8%433999
Southern Leyte15078589.7%14256684.8%12460.8%30072.0%168034
Sultan Kudarat27403962.0%23426353.0%40701.5%102933.8%441872
Surigao del Norte16764384.2%15167376.2%10310.6%21551.3%199027
Surigao del Sur39670292.6%38092588.9%74651.9%181394.6%428458
Zamboanga del Norte48483876.0%41947865.8%131872.7%260415.4%637981
Zamboanga del Sur34422665.5%28132753.5%76782.2%115723.4%525809
Zamboanga Sibugay20219375.0%17436164.7%41612.1%100445.0%269565

Philippines environmental news updates | XML

Philippines Forest Figures

Forest Cover
Total forest area: 7,162,000 ha
% of land area: 24%

Primary forest cover: 829,000 ha
% of land area: 2.8%
% total forest area: 11.6%

Deforestation Rates, 2000-2005
Annual change in forest cover: -157,400 ha
Annual deforestation rate: -2.1%
Change in defor. rate since '90s: -20.2%
Total forest loss since 1990: -3,412,000 ha
Total forest loss since 1990:-32.3%

Primary or "Old-growth" forests
Annual loss of primary forests: n/a
Annual deforestation rate: n/a
Change in deforestation rate since '90s: n/a
Primary forest loss since 1990: n/a
Primary forest loss since 1990:0.0%

Forest Classification
Public: 89.5%
Private: 10.5%
Other: n/a
Production: 75%
Protection: 11%
Conservation: 12%
Social services: n/a
Multiple purpose: n/a
None or unknown: 2

Forest Area Breakdown
Total area: 7,162,000 ha
Primary: 829,000 ha
Modified natural: 5,713,000 ha
Semi-natural: n/a
Production plantation: 304,000 ha
Production plantation: 316,000 ha

Plantations, 2005: 620,000 ha
% of total forest cover: 8.7%
Annual change rate (00-05): -46,400,000 ha

Carbon storage
Above-ground biomass: 1,566 M t
Below-ground biomass: 376 M t

Area annually affected by
Fire: 6,000 ha
Insects: n/a
Diseases: 1,000 ha

Number of tree species in IUCN red list
Number of native tree species: 3,000
Critically endangered: 46
Endangered: 35
Vulnerable: 134

Wood removal 2005
Industrial roundwood: 403,000 m3 o.b.
Wood fuel: 138,000 m3 o.b.

Value of forest products, 2005
Industrial roundwood: $60,272,000
Wood fuel: $722,000
Non-wood forest products (NWFPs): n/a
Total Value: $60,994,000

More forest statistics for Philippines

Chinese turtle heist sends rare Philippine species to brink of extinction, international rescue underway

(06/29/2015) On Friday, June 19, Philippine authorities raided a warehouse on the island of Palawan and confiscated more than 4,000 live, illegally harvested rare turtles, only days before they were to be shipped to foreign food and pet markets. The massive haul included over 3,800 critically endangered Philippine forest turtles – animals in very poor health and showing signs of severe neglect from long captivity.

Filipino fishermen operating illegally in Indonesia's Sangihe Islands

(06/25/2015) Indonesia’s crackdown on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing has so far focused on foreign boats weighing more than 30 gross tons that enter Indonesian waters. But the Indonesian maritime affairs and fisheries minister recently expressed her dismay that in Sangihe, a group of islands directly adjacent to the Philippines, Filipino fishermen are allowed to operate with impunity.

Researchers find treasure trove of unique, threatened animals in Philippine forest

(05/08/2015) A group of more than 30 researchers is surveying the the forests of Cleopatra's Needle, on the Philippine island of Palawan. They have already found many endemic animals, and hope to use their findings to confer more protection to the region.

Growing need for deforestation-free rubber as tire demand destroys native forests

(04/18/2015) Surging demand for natural rubber is decimating some of the world's most endangered forests, putting wildlife and critical ecosystem services at risk, warn scientists writing in the journal Conservation Letters. Reviewing a large body of published research, Eleanor Warren-Thomas of the University of East Anglia and colleagues detail the crop's expansion across across Southeast Asia in recent decades.

Indonesia's public water movement consolidates after two of its biggest wins

(04/17/2015) With the tide of privatized water in Indonesia as close to turning since the dictator Suharto was president, an entire spectrum of stakeholders is scrambling to chart a path forward on the heels of two landmark – and unexpected – court decisions. First, the Constitutional Court struck down the main governing law on water resources. Then a Jakarta court annulled the city's contract with private operators Palyja and Aetra, which have run the city's piped network since 1998 amid continual allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

New species of monitor lizards found on the black market

(03/27/2015) Searching the globe for undiscovered species takes biologists to far and remote locations, trekking through exotic locales that may yield a new discovery. However, exploring the black market can also produce results. And this is just the case for Rafe Brown, curator of the University Of Kansas (KU) Biodiversity Institute, during a recent visit to the Philippines. In a black market in Manila, Brown and his colleagues discovered two new species of water monitor lizard for sale.

Rainforest loss increased in the 2000s, concludes new analysis

(02/25/2015) Loss of tropical forests accelerated roughly 60 percent during the 2000s, argues a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The findings contradict previous research suggesting that deforestation slowed since the 1990s. The study is based on a map of 1990 forest cover developed last year by Do-Hyung Kim and colleagues from the University of Maryland. The map, which includes 34 countries that contain 80 percent of the world's tropical forests, enabled the researchers to establish a consistent baseline for tracking forest cover change across regions and countries over time.

Palawan palm oil presence likely to grow, industry rep denies harmful impact

(12/23/2014) Plans to convert eight million hectares of land for palm oil production on Palawan island in the Philippines have been met with opposition from environmental and social advocacy groups, with a petition to cease development sent to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights by an anti-palm oil expansion group. But an industry representative denies claims that all eight million hectares will be cultivated to the detriment of wildlife and human communities, maintaining palm oil expansion will be beneficial to the people of Palawan.

Advocacy group lashes out against palm oil expansion on Philippine island

(12/23/2014) In the first week of November, an anti-oil palm expansion group sent a copy of their petition to the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of the Indigenous People for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights hoping to elevate their concerns over land-grabbing issues faced by tribes in Palawan, Philippines, due to planned palm oil expansion in the province.

'Too many people': Philippine island being deforested despite extensive protections

(10/31/2014) About an hour and a half plane ride from the Philippine capital Manila is Palawan, a long, narrow island home to about a quarter of all the animal species found in the country. But the province is losing its forests at a rapid clip due to human population increases, logging, quarrying, mining, and even a huge palm plantation.

How protected are they? Report finds world's Protected Areas may relax, shrink, even completely disappear

(10/28/2014) On March 1, 1872, the United States Congress declared 3,400 square miles of land spanning three states as the country’s - and the world’s - first national park. We call it Yellowstone. Today, there are over 160,000 PAs spanning 12.7 percent of the planet’s land surface.

Next big idea in forest conservation? Empower youth leaders

(10/09/2014) Want to save forests? Don't forget the youth, says Pedro Walpole, the Chair and Director of Research for the Environmental Science for Social Change, a Jesuit environmental research organization promoting sustainability and social justice across the Asia Pacific region. 'Youth leadership in environmental management is key,' Walpole told mongabay.com.

'We will win this war': Yeb Saño speaks out on global warming

(09/17/2014) Ahead of the upcoming Climate Change Summit to be held in New York, September 23, a Filipino man who last year made headlines around the world on the subject is speaking out.

Have scientists discovered a new primate in the Philippines?

(08/21/2014) Despite some media reports, scientists have not yet discovered a new species of big-eyed, nocturnal primate—known as tarsiers—in the Philippines. Instead what they have discovered is an intriguing population that is genetically-distinct even from nearby relatives, according to a new open-access paper in PLOS ONE.

NASA: Forest loss leaps in Bolivia, Mekong region

(08/08/2014) New satellite data from NASA suggests that deforestation is sharply increasing in Bolivia and Mekong countries during the second quarter of 2014.

The Philippines: where 'megadiversity' meets mega deforestation

(07/31/2014) Ongoing loss of forest cover in the Philippines places it among the top ten most threatened forest hotspots in the world, with the archipelago ranking fourth, behind Indo-Burma, New Caledonia and Sundaland (a region encompassing Australia and parts of Southeast Asia). According to a report issued by Conservation International, only seven percent of Philippine forests remain intact.

Suggested reading - Books CIA-World Factbook Profile
FAO-Forestry Profile