Something good is happening at the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) – 1-billion trees are growing. So says the message emblazoned on a tarpaulin of the Bucor Love Foundation at “Munting Paraiso” in Muntinlupa City.
“Munting Paraiso” is what the Faithful Servants of Christ Fellowship (FSC) call their enclave where nine (9) inmates stay on a “Living Out” status. Throughout the day, they adhere to the Monks’ regimen of “Ora et Labora” (Prayer and Labor).
At “Munting Paraiso”, the inmate-workers propagate tree seedlings and maintain a massive seedling nursery. When former Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno, chairman of the Bucor Love Foundation, asked former Batangas Governor Jose Antonio Leviste, who heads the Fellowship, “How many seedlings are in the nursery?” The latter answered, “50,000 seedlings, Sir”. The former Chief Justice quizzically followed-up with the question, “Where then are the billion trees?” Governor Leviste’s response was, “Sir, it’s all in my mind, for as Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People advocates, “Begin with the end in mind”. The former Chief Justice was amused, but nevertheless, convinced it was a noble and doable project to protect and preserve the environment. Forthwith, he gave the Billion Trees Program his full and unstinted support.
Truly, while the inmate-workers have hardly begun to approach the 1-billion mark, they have, however, empirically proven that their aspiration is attainable. During the last two (2) years, the Billion Trees program of the Bucor Love Foundation, beginning with only six (6) inmate-workers have been producing 50,000 seedlings every three (3) months (the production being limited only by the restriction of the inmates’ mobility and the lack of open space in their place of detention and inadequate resources) at its Reception and Diagnostic Center (RDC) Seedling Nursery. Thus, they have produced more than 150,000 forest tree seedlings (Mahogany, Narra and Acacia) and another 50,000 seedlings of Malunggay all of which were given away free to environmental advocates and local government units who commit to plant and care for the seedlings until they are at least three (3) years old when the trees can be left alone to grow on their own to maturity. For, indeed, tree planting is a serious endeavor. One does not merely plant a seedling and leave it alone. It has to be watered and protected from various causes which may prevent it from surviving such as grass fire, stray animals, vandalism, etc.
The Malunggay seedlings, on the other hand, were devoted to the establishment of a 1-hectare Malunggay farm to supplement the diet of the 1,200 inmates at the RDC and the bulk were distributed among the 50,000 informal settlers who were relocated from the railroad tracks of Metro Manila (“Home along the Riles” habitués) to the Southville Subdivision of the National Housing Authority situated within the NBP reservation.
The original strategy of producing the 1-billion seedlings is based upon the utilization of penal labor. Theoretically, the 92,000 able-bodied and idle inmates and detainees under the supervision of the Bureau of Corrections and the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology throughout the country can produce 7.8-billion seedlings a year, with each inmate producing 240 seedlings a day under the Foundation’s innovative technique. The 1-billion seedlings, therefore, is attainable with even just a twelve (12%) percent success rate.
Meantime after two (2) years of experimentation and improving the system, the Billion Trees Program has expanded its approach to involve the 42,025 Barangays in the country. Representations have been made with President Benigno C. Aquino III to direct the Barangay Councils nationwide to each produce a mere 25,000 seedlings from January to March 2011 in preparation to planting the same during the annual worldwide celebration of Earth Day on April 22, 2011. A considerable advantage of the Barangay approach is that there would be no need of transporting the seedlings since they are already in the area where they are intended to be planted. With the penal labor strategy and the Barangay Councils approach complementing each other, the project is assured of success.
Thus, the Philippines will accomplish what before was unthinkable, but is now imperative: to plant 1-billion trees in one day. It has never been done by anyone anywhere in the world. When the program succeeds, it will surely be “one for the books” and a model for other countries to emulate.
The underlying purpose of the Billion Trees Program is to mitigate Climate Change. All agree that the gravest threat to the survival of mankind is Global Warming. Massive tree planting, which creates “carbon sinks” that will suck the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere like a vacuum cleaner is, for the moment, the most doable solution to the problem.
While this is the urgent rationale of the Project, no one can deny that planting trees has many other benefits. Trees are the source of food, medicine, fuel, shelter and various materials necessary for human existence; it is the habitat of all living creatures; it conserve ground water, prevent soil erosion and enhance the quality and aesthetics of the landscape and the environment, and much more. But, more importantly, it absorbs the carbon dioxide man exhales, and produce through photosynthesis, the oxygen man inhales to survive. As Governor Leviste puts it, “There is a symbiotic relationship between trees and man. There would be no life on earth if there are no trees”.
The Billion Trees Program of Bucor Love Foundation consist of four (4) facets: the production of 1-Billion seedlings, the development of a “Greenbelt” around the NBP Lake, the establishment of a Vegetable Organic Farm, with Malungay as its mainstay, and the conduct of a regular environmental forum in its unique PAMANTASAN NG KALIKASAN (“Outdoor Nature University”). The forums are held in a scenic amphitheater with a stage set beneath a century old Calumpang tree and a Lake as its background. Participants take part in a discussion on Global Warming and Climate Change, partake of their packed lunch and devote the rest of the day to tree planting in the field or working at the seedling nursery.
The propagation of the Billion Trees Program, however, is only part of the inmate-workers’ activities. The other aspect of their life in “Munting Paraiso” is Spiritual Transformation. One of the nine (9) inmates, Alfredo Gatongay, providentially is both an agriculturist and an evangelist. Prayer meetings and Bible study are observed twice a day, at 6:30 in the morning and 7:30 in the evening. The religious activity is held at the “PUNLAAN”, a place which the inmates regard as “a blessed God- given spot-on-earth where the Word is sown, nurtured and assimilated by the Faithful Servants of Christ”. Verily, they zealously consider the spot Sacred.
Pastor Gatongay, “Manong Fred” to his fellow inmate-workers, has an absolute mastery of the Bible. He declares that the solution to every conceivable problem of man may be found in the “Good Book”. He knows the Bible by heart and every Book, chapter and verse is at his finger-tips. When asked for advice on problems involving family, health, relationships or whatever, instantly he cites the appropriate passage in the Bible. Considering that the other seven members of the group are unschooled, it helps that Gov. Leviste is able to interpret the verses discussed by Pastor Gatongay in practical terms.
Governor Leviste, while unfamiliar with the Bible until he met Pastor Gatongay is, on the other hand, an ardent advocate of the protection and preservation of the environment. He started planting trees in his youth and when he became Governor, the “Batangas Plan for National Survival” (BPNS) which involved massive planting of Malunggay and “Lepili” trees, was the cornerstone of his administration for his efforts, he was recognized and appointed chairman of the Program for Forest Eco-system Management (PROFEM) by President Ferdinand E. Marcos and chairman of the National Committee on Conservation of the Boy Scouts of the Philippines (NCC-BSP). In 1996, he was designated Special Adviser of the Congress of the Philippines on the Billion Trees Program. He is a recipient of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines (TOYM) Award from the Philippine Jaycees for Public Administration in 1973 and was conferred the National Afforestation and Rehabilitation Achievement Award (NARRA) by the Ministry of Natural Resources in 1976. He is the president and founder of the Trees for Life Foundation and the Save Our Seas (SOS) Foundation. As it is with trees and man, it may likewise be said that there is a symbiotic relationship between Gov. Leviste and Pastor Gatongay in the effort to transform spiritually the inmate-workers of “Munting Paraiso” and in the prosecution of the Billion Trees Program.
Environmental advocates, local government units and all others interested in combating Global Warming and mitigating Climate Change are welcome to “Munting Paraiso”. In fact, anyone looking for a venue for a seminar or group outing will find the amphitheater, where spirituality and the conservation of nature are being forged and which has become a ‘tourist spot’ of sort, a unique and memorable place to visit. Interested parties may contact Ms. Nelia Fuentebella, Executive Director of the Billion Trees Program at Cellphone No. 0922-8401111.