Clark, Pampanga – DENR research arm Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau (ERDB) held a media chat during the ASEAN Conference on Medicinal Forest Trees on Sept 5, 2023, at Quest Plus Conference Center, Clark, Pampanga, Philippines.

The panelists were the DENR-ERDB Director Maria Lourdes G. Ferrer, CESO III, and OIC-Assistant Director Forester Conrado B. Marquez. They were joined by two (2) of the conference’s plenary speakers – Dr. Pastor Malabrigo, Jr. of the University of the Philippines Los Baños and Ms. Ma. Teresa Torres of the Philippine Institute of Traditional and Alternative Healthcare (PITAHC).

One of the topics raised during the informal meeting with the press was the role being played by the indigenous communities in the preservation and propagation of medicinal trees. Dr. Malabrigo, professor at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños and internationally recognized plant taxonomist, highlighted that the source of our knowledge when it comes to traditional medicine is the indigenous communities. “That statement alone underscores the importance of our IPs”. But he also added that scientists and experts come into play by studying the public or social acceptability of these indigenous knowledge.

Ms. Torres, Special Operations Officer III of PITAHC, added that “many of our ethnolinguistics groups in the Philippines are also endangered or threatened. We have a hundred plus indigenous groups and many of them are dying out.”  That is why the preservation of IP culture and communities is crucial, as their knowledge has many applications in terms of development and sustainable use of natural resources.

Moreover, the global implications of climate change in the distribution and availability of medicinal trees and other species was raised during the forum. Dr. Malabrigo explained that the intense change in weather conditions highly affects our flora in terms of its phenology, fruiting, and flowering, and consequently, there is an effect in their availability. “With the continuous impact of climate change, it could lead to certain species’ extinction… And so what we do is cultivate these forest species and train them to grow in hardened conditions.” said Dr. Malabrigo.

 Ms. Torres also shared an example on how climate change affects our environment.  “Aside from the plant development and phenology, the active components in medicinal plants also shift along the changes in its surroundings. For example in Lagundi, it can be effective to produce its active ingredient at a certain temperature but not at a different temperature.” This is why research is vital in knowing the adaptive environments where these medicinal plants can thrive, she added.

More often, people say that climate change affects agriculture. But moreso, it also affects our trees.” ERDB OIC-Assistant Director For. Marquez added. “And so there is a need to protect the habitats of these medicinal forest trees. When we say we protect, we talk about active management, governance, and fund allocation for the protection of the forest.”

 Another topic mentioned during the media chat was the likelihood of the promotion of medicinal forest trees in the future. Ms. Torres affirmed that it will happen, but it will take time. “As with other medicine, medicine sourced from plants undergo various trials and rigorous scientific investigation, spanning an average time of 5-10 years before it becomes an approved herbal medicine.”

 On the number of species of medicinal forest tree and their conservation status, Dr. Malabrigo said that “based on the compiled database of tree species in the Philippines, we have 456 tree species with known medicinal value. Those include exotics. Around 280 are native. In fact, many are in advanced stages of clinical trials, many of them are exotic. In a country with 3,500 tree species, it’s safe to assume that we are underutilizing our plant resources.”

 “Data show that rare threatened species not commonly known among people are not being used. On one hand, it is good to know that most of our medicinal forest trees are not threatened. But on the other hand, the reason why specific species are abundant is because they are known to the general public. We still have a lot more forest trees to be explored. In fact, of the ten (10) medicinal plants approved by the DOH, only guava is a tree. And it is an exotic tree, not native.”, exclaimed Dr. Malabrigo.

 Lastly, For. Marquez explained that ERDB has developed the technology on seed fortification as one of the conservation measures being done by the bureau. “We’re fortifying seeds in a manner that will make them more resistant to pests and adding to the viability or germinability of particular species.”  He clarified that it’s not genetically modified, but instead, it is fortifying seeds just like how rice is being fortified.

“The objective really is trying to put a strategy of adding to the population of these scarce species. We’re not limiting ourselves with seeds, there are other strategies we use like vegetative propagation and cloning. For. Marquez ended the forum by stressing ERDB’s role in conserving these medicinal forest trees, as well as other species for that matter. “That’s one of the directions of ERDB, to come up with protocols in propagating threatened forest tree species.”