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IN PHOTOS: Dying timberland contributes to temperature rise

Text and photos by Daniel Ceng, Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines

In the coastal town of Currimao in the northern Philippines, the sound of ear-piercing chainsaws echoes with the widespread fear that the unbearable heat will continue to escalate, as more trees have been cut down for a sweeping solar power development.

The threat was not immediately felt, when the project to install solar panels in a pine tree forest land along a beach, just a few hundred meters from the residences, was introduced in 2015 to tackle energy scarcity and instability – one of the country’s problems hindering economic growth.

Rejections amongst watch groups and experts, however, soon emerged, fearing that uprooting hundreds, if not thousands, of trees in exchange for the solar power plant would take a heavy toll on the environment and people’s health.

NOTE: This story was produced during the 15th Professional Photojournalism and Documentary Photography workshop of the Photojournalists’ Center of the Philippines (PCP) In Ilocos Norte on November 22-25, 2023.

According to a published article by community media Ilocos Times on June 13, 2015, about 1,300 indigenous trees were initially targeted, but the number was reduced to 600 after an energy company’s efforts to lobby with opposing groups, who then agreed to compromise. The decision also came after a commitment to implement a reforestation project, replacing 300 seedlings for every tree cut. Photo by Daniel Ceng
Their fear has sadly grown into an everlasting nightmare, as the far-reaching consequences were underestimated nearly a decade ago–at least for many of the remaining residents in the area. The timberland-turned solar darm, aimed to support around 8,000 households across the country, has now become a storage of extreme heat, making the population of the low-lying town more “vulnerable than ever to unpredictable extreme weather events,” according to residents who asked to remain anonymous. Photo by Daniel Ceng
Locals disclose the growing concerns over the town’s inability to withstand powerful tropical storms, rising sea levels, and other unpredictable natural catastrophes. They also fear that the economic lifeline of micro-farming and fishing will be on the periphery of extinction if more trees are to be eliminated. Photo by Daniel Ceng
Down the road leading into an oasis in the desert-like town, 56-year-old resident Ms. Macatbag scrambles to clean up her yard while enduring the beating of the scorching sun. For her, the biggest obstacle to living a normal life is the intense heat coming from the solar farm not far from her flat, exacerbated by its iron sheet walls. Photo by Daniel Ceng
Outside the household next door, Leonardo is grieving over the death of his wife Jesusa, who passed away in 2020 following a heart attack. He believes that it has a connection to the rising temperature in the area, citing scientific findings linking out-of-hospital cardiac arrest to extreme temperatures. Photo by Daniel Ceng
Inside their bedroom, the couple’s love, intimacy, and memories are still evident. But, as the sunlight streams through the windows, comes the heat–a constant reminder of what her late wife had to endure while she was still with him. “I miss her. Of course, I miss her,” said the 73-year-old, recalling what made up a significant part of his life in Curimao. Photo by Daniel Ceng
Hotter weather in the area drives up the demand for air conditioners, but this convenience comes at a cost: the greenhouse gases that exacerbate the conditions in the already burning town, where there are fewer trees to absorb them. Photo by Daniel Ceng
The uncertainty is heightened by the stacks of trunks outside the solar power plant, a result of the recent expansion of the renewable energy facility. The shared pain of sacrificing the trees to build the solar energy facility has grown, along with the locals’ fear of possible retaliation or aggression from the parties involved in the project if they were to step up and voice their objections. Photo by Daniel Ceng
Despite an array of financial packages available to boost reforestation, for the locals, recovering the once thriving timberland in Currimao is like building a castle in the air. Photo by Daniel Ceng
Residents there are now bound to live with the pain of losing their beloved woodland, much like what leonardo has been going through. “it has never been so hot. I feel like our village and our municipality are dying,” said Elnora, a resident who cherishes the importance of greenery development after having worked in the Asian skyscraper city of Hong Kong for eight years. Photo by Daniel Ceng
“The trees were brought down so that we have a place to build solar panels for the people. But now the people are being sacrificed, too,” said Mark Anthony Ramos, a Currimao resident who assisted in building the facility. Photo by Daniel Ceng
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