Regenerative greeningAs a kid, summer meant total freedom from the responsibilities of school which for me meant climbing trees to pick and enjoy the fruits in season. To this day, bayabas, santol, aratilis and mangga are the comfort foods that I eagerly await each summer.
I have always had a close kinship with the outdoors, whether this meant swimming at the beach, climbing hills and mountains or diving the reefs of the ocean. Given a choice, I would rather be out of the house, on some adventure. This is why I never had the time to learn mahjong or even develop an interest in basketball like my brothers. My passion for nature has persisted all my life and has influenced how I spend my time, where I go, and even what I spend on.
Fast forward to today. Having spent a quarter of a century with the Lopez Group, I now find myself living a very integrated life, where what I am passionate about aligns very closely with what I do for a living. I joined the Group’s 100% renewable power arm, Energy Development Corporation (EDC), in 2008, which was also the year we launched our BINHI greening legacy program through the direction of our chairman emeritus, Oscar M. Lopez.
BINHI was established to bridge forest gaps and bring back to abundance 96 of our vanishing Philippine native tree species. From the outset, it was an ambitious goal to rescue the most threatened endemic Philippine hardwoods from the brink of extinction. Trees of these 96 species are being cut down at an alarming rate, given the natural beauty of their grain and their mechanical strength. To combine the business need to reforest our concession areas with the need to preserve our heritage, we formulated the BINHI program, which is now on its 13th year.
Guided by science
From the start, BINHI has been a collaborative effort. To make sure our efforts were guided by science, we partnered with the UP Diliman College of Biology led by Dr. Perry Ong and Leonard Co, as well as UP Los Baños College of Forestry led by Prof. Pat Malabrigo. Prof. Pat brought in his team, and together with our very own Agnes de Jesus who is a botanist herself, we began to plan the whole undertaking. We also built a team of foresters, permanent hires in each of our project sites who work with the 88 farmers associations in and around our communities to ensure that the trees we plant survive and grow into forests. Our community partners earn a good living by taking care of the trees instead of earning from cutting them down, which was their livelihood before.
The millions of trees planted to date have enriched the lush forests in our sites and in the areas of our community partners. These have been crucial in creating robust carbon sinks and in recharging the geothermal reservoirs that our business depends on. Our BINHI program takes the whole reforestation and tree planting efforts to another level, because instead of planting any fast-growing invasive tree like mahogany, we instead focused our efforts toward propagating the 96 most threatened endemic Philippine hardwoods. We have made a lot of progress in the past decade, with all 96 species rescued and propagated. Going forward, we are taking on the next 49 most threatened tree species on the list, bringing the total of the tree species under our care to 145.
We now have over 190 partner institutions, from universities to private gated communities to NGOs and local governments. Our partners work with us to plant the BINHI trees in areas where they will be protected as they grow. To provide a steady supply of saplings, we built our own tree nurseries across the country, in Antipolo, Albay, Negros and Mt. Apo. These nurseries are fully automated using Israeli technology, which provides constant misting for the seedlings to simulate the moisture in a forest floor.
Today, we are just less than 500 hectares away from completing our 10,000-hectare forest restoration target this year. The forest stands we have under our care absorb over 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) each year, allowing us to be carbon negative, as our entire operation emits only a little over 966,000 tCO2e.
10 big words
In 2020, the entire Lopez Group headed by our chairman Federico “Piki” R. Lopez declared its revitalized mission: To forge collaborative pathways for a decarbonized and regenerative future. These 10 big words raise the bar on how we operate as we now aim to elevate everything we touch—from our environment, to our communities, to our customers, to our cocreators (employees, contractors, other partners) and our investors—by uplifting the lives of our stakeholders and by transforming them into our partners in healing our planet.
We know that this daunting mission needs to be grounded in each of us individually, which means that each one of us who are employees of the company must strive to live our own regenerative life. BINHI has influenced my personal journey and attempt at being regenerative, and it all began to take root during this COVID-19 crisis.
I have been working from my farm since we in EDC and the rest of the Lopez Group started working from home in March 2020. I noticed that the pandemic has worsened poverty in the area so I tried to think of a way to help the community while at the same time working to elevate the environment. I met with my neighbors and told them that I was starting my own nursery, and would put them to work by caring for the Philippine hardwood seedlings that they collected and purchased from private lands. We paid for the seeds and provided labor to collect them. Once collected, we potted them and have been growing them. I told my neighbors to stand tall and be proud of doing honest work that is good for nature. Today, we have been able to pot and grow over 300,000 seedlings of kamagong,yakal, guijo, dungon, narra and other endangered tree species.
I have two dreams. The first is a personal one and that is to plant a million Philippine native trees in five years. I still don’t have a business model for this endeavor right now, but maybe at some point I can sell some of the seedlings and create an ecotourism venture that exposes the youth to nature and explains the importance of trees in an experiential manner.
My other dream is that by talking about my project, others will be inspired to plant even one single tree. A friend of mine, Bobby Castro (chairman and CEO of Palawan Pawnshop), upon hearing about my project, told me early this year that it inspired him to do his own one-million tree project, which he has begun. Who knows, if 1,000 people or institutions band together, we could reach a billion trees planted in the next decade or so. Maybe we can even brand it “BINHI One Billion”?
It’s important to plant trees because they are the cornerstone of our terrestrial ecosystem on which our life depends. Trees produce oxygen as they sequester carbon to grow, they provide food and shelter for all manner of animals, including mammals, birds and insects. They are the ageless guardians that protect us from the wind, rain and sun.
On my daily hikes, I pick fruits fresh off the trees, rinse them of dust and enjoy them on the spot. Few pleasures come close to that of hiking and enjoying fruits fresh off the branch. And to be totally honest about it, after a day of interminable Zoom calls, doing just that destresses me by transporting me back to the carefree summers of my childhood.
The VMR rooting area in the BINHI seedlings nursery
The author, EDC president Richard Tantoco (2nd from left)—alongside ASEAN Center for Biodiversity director Mundita Lim, the late Dr. Perry Ong and UP Diliman VP-Academic Affairs Dr. Gisela Concepcion—plants a BINHI native tree
Niño Gibe and the other members of the BINHI team relentlessly give talks on the importance of planting, growing and nurturing our Philippine native tree species to different stakeholders including student leaders
EDC emergency management expert Dr. Ted Esguerra (in black), who are now BINHI youth champions in Negros
One of BINHI’s partners in Bicol, the Philippine Army’s 903rd Infantry Brigade
BINHI forest patrol and monitoring activities