Understanding the Bigger Picture

  • Written by  Lawrence N. Garcia
  • Published in Features

When we were kids, we all learned about the scientific method. Our grade school science teachers did not rest until we have memorized the steps in order: make an observation, ask a question, formulate a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, analyze the results, and finally, accept or reject the hypothesis.

Easy, right?

Making observations

The amount of time a researcher takes to overcome the first step of the scientific process would vary from one discipline to another. Some people might take a few months to a year before they finish their observations and move on to ask scientific questions. For others, it may only take a less than an hour. But what if our field of research involves vast watersheds that contain many and varying ecosystems?

Surely, we can’t possibly observe ecosystems for days, months, or even years on end. But UPLB Professors Dr. Rex Victor O. Cruz of the College of Forestry and Natural Resources (CFNR) and Dr. Maria Victoria O. Espaldon of the School of Environmental Science and Management (SESAM) aimed to accomplish this exact thing.

With the support of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Cruz and Espaldon conceived MODECERA – which stands for Monitoring and Detection of Ecosystem Changes for Enhancing Resilience and Adaptation in the Philippines – so that they can observe a network of selected watersheds nationwide for at least ten years. Dr. Cruz describes the MODECERA as “...a holistic and continuous observation of a watershed.” According to Cruz, they are trying to understand what is going on [in our watersheds] and to explain why things are the way they are.

Dr. Cruz noted that one needs at least ten years of observational data to finally say “Aha!” and figure out how, why, and what cause changes in our watersheds and the ecosystems inside it.

“Although MODECERA is a basic research program, what it aims to answer is something that we have ignored or probably neglected for a long time,” Dr. Cruz explains.

Asking questions and formulating the hypothesis

Dr. Cruz shares how a question became the impetus for MODECERA.

In 2014, he was asked by then DOST Secretary Mario M. Montejo on possible solutions to the Coconut Scale Insect infestation happening during that time. His answer was not straightforward. “That’s tough, Secretary. Even in UPLB... experts have different views on how to address it,” he recalls telling the then S&T department head.

“You know Secretary, this type of problem is likely to happen again... probably not due to Coconut Scale Insect but because of the different insects or organisms brought about by other abnormal changes in the functions and behavior of an ecosystem. The only way we can be prepared is for us to understand our ecology and what’s going on,” he remembers adding. Inevitably, Secretary Montejo asked Dr. Cruz for a proposal that would eventually give birth to MODECERA.

The proposal was unprecedented not in terms of budget but in terms of long-term commitment of the DOST to support it. Very rarely that DOST, or any other local funding agency for scientific research, commits to long-term and ambitious programs that would span for at least ten years. As such, the project was split into phases and DOST was only able to initially commit funding support for the first two years.

But believe it or not, MODECERA was only trying to scratch the surface. In comparison, the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) in the United States – which started in 2012 and will become fully operational in 2019 – wants to observe the environment and collect data in many permanent stations across the US for the next 30 years. Like the NEON, MODECERA intends to ask basic questions. “We know that the climate is changing, we know that population is growing and land use is changing... and yet, we don’t have a good idea of how things will turn out with all these changes happening around us,” Dr. Cruz explains. “How will pests and diseases change with climate change? How will they change with changes in land use practices?” he adds. To answer these questions, there should be data that covers and spans a long period of time. Dr. Cruz explains that “we cannot understand the behavior of natural systems with just one, two, or even five years of data sets. It has to span over decades.”

Conducting experiments and analyzing the results

“We want to understand the trends. We don’t want to understand the instantaneous state because that doesn’t tell us a lot,” Dr. Cruz explains. As such, for the first phase of MODECERA, the program was able to deploy observation systems in selected watersheds in the country. These systems are co-managed with regional state universities and colleges and are supposed to run for at least 10 years.

During the first two years, the program was able to gather significant amounts of secondary and primary data that would enable it to establish a good and solid baseline for the observations that MODECERA would gather in the succeeding years.

However, since the target of the program is to monitor watersheds and their ecosystems for 10 years, this is just the beginning. Dr. Cruz sees MODECERA building a long-term empirical database on changes in the watersheds and ecosystems. With MODECERA, he believes that we will be able to understand our ecology and explain how and why changes occur in the different ecosystems in our environment. This body of information will be useful in formulating appropriate interventions to address problematic changes in the ecosystems and watersheds.

With its observation systems already deployed, the MODECERA program has been able to gather data from different watersheds in the country. The program has so far produced several technical and policy briefs out of the initial datasets it has generated. In these, MODECERA has initially highlighted in more locally-specific terms the ecological importance of grasslands; the significance of agroforestry for long-term food production and soil and water conservation; and the current and existing threats to our biodiversity due to unregulated resource extraction activities and lack of alternative livelihood.

Accepting the hypothesis

Phase 1 of MODERA ended last February 2018 and Dr. Cruz, along with the other proponents, are currently seeking funding to support the next phases of the program. The next phase would supposedly expand the current cover of the program from eight watersheds to 18 watersheds across the country. This is to continue building on the existing body of observations and data produced during the first two years.

The country is already experiencing the effects of climate change. The dry season is getting hotter. A new breed of pest, disease, and environmental changes will inevitably come with rising summer temperatures. Meanwhile, the rainy season is giving us heavier monsoon rains. Strong storms and super typhoons are becoming more frequent. We all know that landslides and flooding always come with these storms. If we understand what changes in the watersheds and ecosystems are triggered by these climate abnormalities, we will be able to better mitigate and adapt to them in the future.

For the sake of future generations, there is a need to establish foundational knowledge on the trends and behaviors of our environment. With MODECERA, we will have a fighting chance not only against the next major pest infestation, but also against other calamitous events that will arise from extreme weather events and other changes in the natural and human systems.

Big basic research endeavors such as the MODECERA Program provides the country with a healthy source of data from which we can draw knowledge to better understand why things are the way they are and how things might be tomorrow. This will help us set out an action agenda that will build a future more desirable than we presently have. In the mighty words of Dr. Jose Rizal “Ang hindi lumingon sa pinaggalingan, hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.” ■