Building A Rainforest From Scratch

Building A Rainforest From Scratch

As the great prophet, Drake, once said – “Started from the bottom now we here.”

If you’ve ever tried writing a monthly report at the end of a lazy month, you know how difficult it is to make something out of nothing. Now imagine staring at 3,000 hectares of volcanic ash and wanting to grow a forest. Where the hell do you start, right?

Knowledge and Skill

When Raf Dionisio, Co-Founder of MAD Travel and The Circle Hostel, first visited the Aeta tribe in Yangil, San Felipe, Zambales, “What can we do to help?” was the first question on his mind. Raf, his friend, and Chieftain Iking trekked to Yangil and beyond, exploring the land under the blazing heat of the sun. The valley was full of grey-white ash, combined with blistering, shadeless heat, with hardly any trees in sight.

Raf and the Hineleban Foundation flew members of the tribe to Bukidnon where they learned about agricultural reforestation. Soon after, the tribe developed their own agri-reforestation plan built on tourism. Who better to restore the land than those who live on it? One of the first steps in the plan was to establish a nursery.


If it sounds simple…it wasn’t.

The Nursery Then

The nursery was set up in October 2016. At the time, it did not look like much and probably did not invite much excitement. Below is a video of the nursery its early stages with Raf and some members of the Aeta tribe.

A lot of questions go into properly setting up a nursery. Where do you put it? Which seeds do you plant first? Which seeds have to wait? Set these questions against forest fires, lack of funds, lack of livelihoods, and complicated social and environmental contexts, and making something out of nothing becomes all the more difficult.

Many of the seeds first planted failed to grow because of improper potting. Some fruit trees that did grow, after plenty of times, resources, and care, turned out to be male and did not bear fruit. Trees we were hopeful would grow tall and strong shriveled under the heat.


Forest fires undid months’ worth of work in mere minutes. It became clear that forests grow much faster and much more easily in our minds than they do in real life.

Luckily, a lot of hands and brains came together to answer these questions and solve these problems. It was the tribe’s understanding of their ancestral land, the MAD volunteers’ willingness to learn, and their combined sweat from work done under the scorching sun that form the foundations of the now thriving nursery in Yangil. As of April 2018, 18 months after the nursery was set up, the answers they found are proving to be right and the solutions they implemented continue to work.


The Nursery Now

Members of the Aeta tribe work on the nursery throughout the week while guests of MAD Travel and The Circle Hostel’s Tribes and Treks tour spend time in the nursery on weekends as part of the tour’s itinerary. The Aetas and guests plant seeds, cut grass, and transfer trees to the foots of the mountains. Cutting the grass around trees that have already began to grow help the trees get more nutrients and sunlight from the soil. This cutting of grass, however, has to be done at a time that the tree is already strong enough to grow on its own. This is just one of the many things we’ve learned in our journey of reforestation. More adventurous guests also collect cow poo to use as fertilizers while others help with inventory and supplies.

Thanks to all that work, the nursery is now lush with a variety of plants. Volunteers have picked up Acacia and Kupang seeds in their travels and brought them to Yangil. Kupang is a beautiful tree that bats feed and perch on. This will be great for the biodiversity in the area. Kupang is also a pioneer species with small leaves that biodegrade quickly and return nitrogen to the soil. This means that its main purpose in the reforestation plan is to create shade and healthier soil for the bigger trees to grow under before it gives way for these bigger species to fully grow. We’ve also gotten quite a few fruit seed donations (dragon fruit from Jelica Ronquillo of Batangas and guyabano, calamansi, and squash from a group of moms whose children go to ICA and Xavier). Other plants growing in the nursery include trees like Ipil-Ipil, Caliandra, and Acacia Aure, and high-value food crops like Cashew donated by Jay Martin, Rambutan, and Papaya.

More seeds are coming in from donors. Water pumps have been installed. Mulching and composting are also being implemented. A monitoring hut has even been built so the tribe can watch out for charcoal makers and wood gatherers.

Slow but sweet

The answer to “Where do you start?”, it seems, is right where you are, with what you have, and immediately. In my first visit to the community, then tribe Chieftain, Erese, pointed me to a small tree by the edge of the nursery. “Tignan mo ito. Lalaki ‘yan tapos diyan na kukuha ng pagkain at paninda yung mga bata, (Take a look at this tree. It’s going to grow and the kids will pick fruit from it to eat and sell in the market,)” he said. This engaged, future-oriented mindset is exactly what the nursery and social enterprise stand for.

The process is slow, the work tough,
and the gratification delayed –
but the fruit, when it bears, is always sweet.

The nursery in Yangil now holds over 25,000 seedlings. These will grow into all kinds of big trees, fruit-bearing trees, and vegetables. Impressive and inspiring as that may be, much more work remains to be done.

To join a Tribes and Treks tour, meet the tribe, and see the nursery for yourself – click here. To make donations to the nursery, email me.

Romano Santos
Romano Santos

Romano is a project manager, content creator, and public speaker for MAD Travel. You may reach him through or on Instagram as @romanohimself

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