By Jazz Quiambao
Here’s a quick question: what Philippine native tree is currently vulnerable, endangered, and with only a few thousand left existing in the whole world? Here’s a hint, it’s also our national tree.
Narra, our national tree, among other native trees such as kamagong (Diospyros blancoi), akle (Albizia acle), and Philippine teak (Tectona philippinensis), are unfortunately at risk of extinction, according to studies from the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB).
Along with issues of climate change and other environmental problems, Filipinos should be more aware and forward with preserving our native trees. Luckily, there’s a family of three who are one of the growing number of Filipinos ready to help save the trees.
Paul Engler, his wife, Celeste, and their daughter, Calille, have taken it upon themselves to create a haven for Philippine native trees. This family from Baguio, Benguet are the people behind the Out of Danger project, an initiative to plant and preserve Philippine native trees, especially the ones endangered.
Planting an idea
Prior to 2018, the Engler family acquired a 7.8 hectare land in Sablan, Benguet. It was a location not far from the heart of the province, but it was still an area filled with wildlife and native plants.
At the time, they weren’t sure on what to do with the property just yet. Paul and Celeste are educators at the Brent International School in Baguio City. As the head of science and the principal respectively, the couple couldn’t be present at Sablan everyday. The same went for Calille, a BS Biology student at Saint Louis University.
They knew they wanted a farm, but they needed to build a farm that didn’t require an everyday routine and monitoring.
Now Paul, a Nebraskan who came to Baguio in 2015, had a long-standing interest in the country’s native trees. “When I first came here, I was really interested in the local wood carving areas in Baguio. A lot of the furniture were (sic) really beautiful,” he said. “And that kind of got me interested in the different species of trees here.”
That sparked the idea of building a tree farm. “We thought trees would be a good fit,” Paul said. “As we did more and more research, we thought planting Philippine native trees could help us in a lot of ways. It could give us something we could grow on the farm. Something we could grow commercially and also help the local environment as well.”
Celeste said that the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 also gave them the push to choose trees. “The pandemic made us all realize how important green spaces are, and how important being in the outdoors is (sic),” she said. “Native trees were meaningful.”
Keeping the trees out of danger
The Out of Danger initiative is the family’s passion project to reconnect with nature, as well as contributing to its preservation.
“The main idea is to have an ethical source of the native hardwood trees,” Paul explained.
“Hopefully [with this farm], we could kind of reduce the demand on wild trees,” he continued. “The idea is if people are able to provide commercial trees of these different species there’s not gonna be much demand to cut them down in protected forest areas.”
By choosing to plant trees, not only are they helping the environment for humans, but it also enables the local flora and fauna to develop a safe habitat. The Out of Danger project was a way for them to give back to nature, while also generating income.
“As Filipinos, we don’t know what we have,” said Celeste. She explains that prior to the project, she didn’t know much about trees beyond what she’s been in contact with. “I didn’t know these other trees are national treasures, but are actually endangered.”
Paul had been planting since he was a kid, but native Philippine trees were new to all of them. They took to Facebook groups to source for native tree seedlings, as well as connect with established native tree farmers.
Paul also conducted his own research and learned how to best care for each tree species.
The family started planting in 2018, but only as an initial experiment. It wasn’t until 2021 that they were able to truly prepare and plant for the project. Now, the Out of Danger project currently has over 50 species of native trees planted in Sablan, with almost 300 planted trees. Among them are narra, kalantas (Toona calantas), akle (Albizia acle), molave (Vitex parviflora), dungon (Heritiera Sylvatica Vidal) and so much more. They plan to plant more fast-growing trees and hardwood trees in the future.
Since 2021, the family has only had to plant trees twice. They plan to continue planting annually. “We’re kind of having a rotation going,” Paul said. “We’re probably going to have most of the [target] trees planted in a couple of several years, most of the farm will then be planted with them. [Then] we can focus on developing it, like nature trails.”
As a family now more in touch with nature, they plan to develop the farm for eco-tourism while also maintaining it as a native tree preservation site. Their farm was registered as a native tree plantation last March 2022
Helping family, happy trees
Now surrounded by so many trees, the family has their personal favorites.
Celeste’s favorite is narra. “Did you know that the young leaf is edible? Two weeks ago we went there and I ate a leaf,” she said with a laugh.
“I like the kamagong trees,” Paul said. “Those are really slow growing, but I think they’re useful because they have edible fruit and its wood is really beautiful.” He said that they have no plans to cut those trees down.
Calille is a fan of their rainbow eucalyptus. “I remember being amazed at the fact that the bark of trees weren’t just brown,” she said. “I was amazed that trees could develop different colors.”
The family was busy with work and school during the week, however their weekends are devoted to Sablan farm. Paul does all the planning and research, Celeste does the logistics and communication with outside farmers, and Calille does documentation and content creation.
They have a YouTube channel dedicated to native tree education and raising awareness for its preservation.
They maintain the farm together by constantly weeding the areas around the trees, and watering during the dry season. They have a goal of not using insecticides or pesticides so the trees wouldn’t depend on regular sprays.
They are especially appreciative of the developed product from UPLB, Mycrogroe, a soil-based microbial fertilizer. “It’s worth celebrating,” Celeste said.
However, since they were relatively new at tree farming, the family went through a lot of challenges.
“Initially the main challenge was accessing the land,” said Paul. The road going to Sablan was muddy and difficult, so getting to the farm needed a hike and tremendous physical stamina.
It was also hard for them to source seedlings of specific native trees, as well as finding info about them. “It’s been challenging finding information on the growth rate of a lot of the species. A lot of them don’t have documentation on that,” he continued and mentioned how he had to be resourceful to acquire information.
However, despite the initial challenges, the family persevered. Nowadays, the road going to their farm has been developed and they have easier access to the farm. Paul consistently tracks the trees’ growth rate and other details in order to be a source for future native tree farmers.
A life of nature, and soon to share with others
The Engler family said that the farm has no profit or hasn’t conducted any business yet, but they are continuously passionate about planting more native trees.
“All I can think is if, 50 years, 70 years ago people had planted all these species of trees… [I’m] just thinking of [how] amazing, how it would look with all these trees around,” Paul said. “All of this would be really different.”
They are optimistic and excited for the developments they have in mind. They are hoping to open a retreat place in the farm for travelers to connect with Cordilleran culture and nature, and be more in touch with Philippine native trees.
Paul expressed excitement at seeing their trees grow and seeing their farm’s landscape change. “[There’s no] monetary profit, but it’s been beneficial for me just to see them growing.”
“I feel very grateful because it’s such a meaningful way to live,” Celeste said. “It’s meaningful because we can be content with the fact that the lifetime we are blessed with has a positive impact.”
Calille mentions how she was personally anxious about climate change and other environmental issues. “It’s very gratifying to know that by what we’re doing, we’re making an impact and making a contribution to taking care of our environment,” she said. “And making sure that the next generations can enjoy what we’ve been given.”
Photos courtesy of the Out of Danger Project.