Who says saving nature isn’t all fun and games?

The Philippines is losing around 52,000 trees daily. Logging, slash-and-burn-farming, and land conversion are erasing 47,000 hectares of forest yearly – thrice the size of Quezon City. Owing to this rate, only 7.168 million hectares of forest remains, covering roughly 24% of the nation’s land area.

But gamification, the process of turning otherwise serious activities into games, might help reverse the course of this deforestation.

A partnership endeavor among the Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), GCash, and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) aims to harness Pinoys’ natural love for games to plant 365,000 tree seedlings starting July 2020.

Earth has roughly three trillion trees, forming the last remaining forests that harbour 80% of all known terrestrial plant and animal species. Forests not only mitigate climate change by absorbing and storing greenhouse gases while releasing life-giving oxygen, but also ensure the availability of fresh water -- a resource that is becoming scarcer each dry season.

“Water comes not from faucets, but from nature, particularly healthy watersheds,” explains WWF-Philippines project manager Paolo Pagaduan. “Given current trends of deforestation, we might face a future where there isn’t enough water for every Filipino. To secure a clean and reliable source of water, especially during the dry season, we need to revitalize our watersheds. No water means no life.”

Now reeling from the effects of a global pandemic, Metro Manila suffered a dramatic water shortage this time last year. In March 2019, 10,000 Metro Manila households lost water access as La Mesa Dam dropped to its lowest water level in 12 years. Manila’s residents were forced to walk and line up for hours just to secure water for washing, bathing, and brushing their teeth.

It is estimated that for 2020 and 2021, Metro Manila’s water demands will overtake supply by as much as 13% during peak days, meaning there will be more dry faucets and underserved households. Taking care of our life-giving watersheds is one way to avert this grim scenario.

Ipo Watershed

Watersheds are zones that naturally collect and store water. They are typically heavily-vegetated as trees efficiently absorb rainwater, which in turn drains into streams, rivers and lakes.

biofin game of trees ipo watershed 600pxPart of Ipo Watershed. Photo credit: Gregg Yan

Ipo Watershed, together with the Angat and Umiray watersheds, supplies 98% of the water consumed by Metro Manila. Situated in the northeast of the sprawling Metropolis, it covers 7,236 hectares of land in Norzagaray and San Jose Del Monte in Bulacan, and Rodriguez in Rizal. It is home to several protected animal species, including the Philippine Brown Deer, Philippine Warty Pig, Tarictic Hornbill, Grey-headed Fish Eagle and Osprey.

Sadly, the watershed’s forests have been continually dwindling. Though protected by several tenurial instruments including a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title for the indigenous Dumagat tribes, the area is pockmarked by patches of burnt soil. The watershed has seen its forest cover plummeted from 85% down to 40% in recent years, mostly due to slash-and-burn or kaingin farming and charcoal-making.


Pinoys have always loved games – ranging from cockfighting to Pokemon Go. This natural love for play can be used for conservation, too.

“Over 20 million people use GCash, and the majority of them are millennials,” explains Mabel Niala of Mynt, the mother company of GCash. “The challenge is to channel the passion and energy of the country’s 35 million millennials for good.”

GCash is the Philippines’ top cashless service and serves a fifth of its population, with 75,000 partner merchants and 75 nonprofits.

Using their mobile phones, Pinoys can plant trees through GCash Forest, part of a larger programme called GCash for Good. Users earn Green Energy Points by reducing their individual carbon footprint. Paying bills online for instance, eliminates the need to drive to a bank and consume paper for receipts and forms. More points can be garnered for walking to work, taking the stairs and avoiding single-use plastic items. GCash Forest interfaces seamlessly with existing mobile fitness apps to accurately measure not just energy saved, but exactly how much carbon emissions are reduced.

Each green energy point corresponds to a gram of carbon saved. Points are then used to nourish a virtual tree in GCash Forest. When users reach 20,560 points, his or her virtual tree will be fully-grown. WWF, BIOFIN, GCash and its allies will then plant the user’s tree species of choice this July 2020.

The partnership among BIOFIN, DENR, GCash, and WWF was formalized in June of 2019 and aims to plant Ipo Watershed with 365,000 tree seedlings starting July 2020.

“We are depleting our natural wealth at an unimaginable rate. While the Philippines is megadiverse, it is also a hotspot given the extent of the threat to our natural environment. There is no one magic bullet that can turn the situation around. We need diverse actors to engage and find diverse solutions. And we need unusual partnerships – which in time will become usual partnerships. GCash, WWF and DENR are now embarking as one to reduce our carbon footprint and help the Philippines meet its reforestation targets. UNDP through BIOFIN is delighted to bring these actors together to stem the tide on our rapid loss of forest cover,” UNDP Resident Representative Titon Mitra said.

biofin game of trees officials 600pxL-R: Chris Manguera of GCash, Joel Palma of WWF, Anthony Thomas of GCash,
Titon Mitra of UNDP, and Reyner Villasenor, also of GCash

The project was inspired by the Ant Financial’s highly-lauded Ant Forest, which was launched in August 2016. Ant Forest encouraged users to grow a virtual forest, which would later translate into a real forest. By August 2019, over 122 million trees were planted in China.

“GCash Forest is the localized version of this app. We’re proud that it is the pilot site in Asia,” shared GCash CMO and Head of App Product Chris Manguera.

Today there are over 2.3 million registered users of GCash Forest and plans are well underway for expansion.

“We have always said that the G in GCash stands for good and that our objective is to use technology to give back to the world. This initiative is more than about reforestation or securing vital fresh water for the residents of Metro Manila,” said Niala. “It’s about empowering millennials and other mobile users to fight the biggest issue of our era – climate change. But we need to spread the word more, so we call on all Pinoys to try the GCash Forest app today.”

What kind of ending can we expect from this Game of Trees? Though it will affect all Pinoys, it all boils down to the choices of its gamers. (BIOFIN Philippines/ Gregg Yan)


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