Don Miguel Perez Rubio, President Benigno Aquino III’s chief protocol officer, usually utters “Hello, Mr. Brown" whenever he passes by the old balete tree in front of the state entrance of Malacañang Palace.

“Mr. Brown," Perez Rubio told reporters Monday, is a benevolent kapre who calls the more than a century old tree his home. A kapre is a Philippine mythical creature described as a tall, hairy male who always smokes big tobacco pipe.

Perez Rubio said he utters the greeting to avoid any misfortune that might befall him if he ignores “Mr Brown," whom he said had once raised a security guard high off the ground. He said the creature also once scared a limousine driver by towering over his car.

So far, no one has been hurt by “Mr Brown."

And perhaps he will not have a reason to, especially now that President Aquino has officially proclaimed the aforementioned balete tree (Ficus concinma) as a Heritage Tree.

On Monday, President Aquino led the ceremonial unveiling of the commemorative marker of the new Heritage Tree at the sidelines of the launching of the United Nations Decade of Biodiversity in Malacañang.

“You hear so many stories but I have yet to experience it," President Aquino said, referring to “Mr. Brown."

Not an ordinary tree

A heritage tree is any healthy native or endemic, exotic, rare, threatened and endangered tree with a minimum girth of 100 cm, measured at one-half meter above the ground. In determining a Heritage Tree, the aesthetic, historical, cultural, social and educational significance of the tree is considered.

Following the proclamation, any pruning, cutting or removing of the tree — as well as any work conducted near it — will require permission from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

President Aquino said the proclamation is a “fitting symbol of our commitment to the United Nations Decade of Biodiversity."

“I hereby proclaim the Balete tree located in front of this hallowed hall as our Heritage Tree. In making it a Heritage Tree, it will constantly remind us of our obligations, both as citizens of this country and as stewards of this planet," he said.

The tree, according to historians, has stood witness to the unfolding of the country’s history from the Spanish-American War to the People Power Revolution to EDSA II.

National Decade of Biodiversity

Before the unveiling of the marker, President Aquino signed a Presidential Proclamation declaring the year 2011 to 2020 as the National Decade on Biodiversity in the country, an initiative recognizing the United Nations’ (UN) celebration as an excellent opportunity to increase public awareness on the values of biodiversity and promote actions at the national, regional and local levels to conserve and sustainably manage the nation’s rich natural heritage.

DENR Secretary Ramon Paje handed over a copy of the Presidential Proclamation to Dr. Ahmed Djoghlaf, UN Assistant Secretary General and Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The President witnessed the event as well as members of the diplomatic corps from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Also in attendance were high level government officials, conservation organizations and the business community.

“It is important for us to continue down the path of preserving biodiversity. Therefore, in support of the United Nations, I declare 2011-2020 as the National Decade on Biodiversity in the Philippines," President Aquino said.

Due to multiple cases of deforestation, wildlife hunting, climate change, pollution and population growth, the Southeast Asian region is losing a number of endangered species.

President Aquino urged fellow leaders and the people all over the world to act now as he noted the various efforts being done by the government to address such problem.

“Our region is on the brink of losing a significant number of endangered species… if it was not clear before, then it is as clear as day now: we need to act. We need to act now, our administration has already begun a number of programs to preserve vulnerable species and habitats," he said.

PNoy eyes green PHL

The government initiatives on environmental protection include the pursuance of biodiversity conservation efforts in the region, as expressed by President Aquino during the 18th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia recently. Such efforts include the Coral Triangle, the Greater Mekong Program, the Heart of Borneo Initiative and the ASEAN Heritage Parks.

The DENR has also launched a project to expand the terrestrial protected areas in the country, beginning with the nine key biodiversity areas.

The recently-inaugurated National Greening Program of the Aquino administration focused on planting 1.5 billion trees in 1.5 billion hectares of land across the country from 2011 to 2016 which complements Executive Order No. 23 calling for a total log ban in the country’s natural and residual forests and consequently establishing an anti-illegal logging task force to implement the campaign.

The UN Decade of Biodiversity (2011-2020) was agreed upon by the UN General Assembly in response to the recommendation of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The UNDB aims to highlight the importance of biodiversity for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals; emphasize the need to achieve full implementation of the objectives of the Convention and other biodiversity-related conventions, organizations and processes; reaffirm the importance of raising public awareness on biodiversity-related issues; and, stress the need to build on the momentum achieved by the celebration of the International Year of Biodiversity.

Balete tree (also known as Balite or Baliti) are several species of the trees in the Philippines from the genus Ficus that are broadly referred to as balete in the local language.

A number of these are known as strangler figs wherein they start upon other trees, later entrapping them entirely and finally killing the host tree. Also called hemiepiphytes, initially, they start as epiphytes or air plants and grow several hanging roots that eventually touch the ground and from then on, encircling and suffocating the host tree. Some of the baletes produce an inferior quality of rubber.

The India rubber plant, F. elastica were earlier cultivated to some extent for rubber. Some of the species like tangisang-bayawak or Ficus variegata are large and could probably be utilized for match woods. The woods of species of Ficus are soft, light, and of inferior quality, and the trees usually have ill-formed, short boles.

Studies have shown that F. elastica are noted for its antimicrobial and antiinflammatory properties. In folkloric medicine, the bark of some of the species like F. benjamina, its roots, and leaves boiled in oil can be applied on wounds and bruises. The juice of the bark has a reputation for curing liver diseases. In rheumatic headache the pounded leaves and bark are applied as a poultice.

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