Asia-Pacific, Biodiversity, Civil Society, Climate Change, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines

PHILIPPINES: Deforestation – MNCs, Militants, Soldiers, Farmers Blamed

Brad Miller

NABUNTURAN, Mindanao, May 14 2008 (IPS) - Outside the office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in Compostela Valley province sits a pile of confiscated, milled hardwood – a monument to the deforestation caused mainly by parties to a festering armed conflict.

Fingers point in all directions; to small farmers and indigenous people, communist insurgents, Muslim separatists, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), multinational corporations (MNCs), the Philippine National Police (PNP) and to those entrusted with protecting the forests, the DENR.

“Many times it is all of them,” says Leo Avila, chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee of Davao’s City Council.

According to the DENR, the Philippine’s forest cover has gone from 70 percent in 1900 to approximately 24 percent , while several non-governmental organisations (NGOS) believe that statistic to be below 10 percent.

The World Wildlife Fund reveals that less than three percent of old growth forests remain, having been decimated by logging, slash and burn farming, the expansion of export crop plantations, land conversion and an exploding population. Some of the most extensive destruction took place during the 1990’s, when 75,000 acres a year were lost, even as logging bans were imposed in selected provinces.

Among the hundreds of species endangered by the loss of forest cover are the Philippine eagle in Mindanao. The Haribon Foundation has documented over 10,000 deaths and the displacement of nearly a million people since 1991 due to floods and landslides caused by denudation.

Environmentalists are also concerned with the tons of soil lost due to erosion, the ensuing siltation of rivers and coral reefs, besides the contribution to climate change and global warming.

To combat environmental damage caused by cutting timber, Compostela Valley (Comval) Govenor Arturo Uy signed an executive order on Jan. 11, creating the ‘Anti-Illegal Logging Task Force’. Composed of the DENR, PNP, AFP, Federation of Barangay captains and others, the task force will work in cooperation with similar agencies from the neighboring provinces of Davao del Norte and Davao Oriental to obstruct the smuggling of contraband lumber and help prosecute the perpetrators.

“We hope this will really help,” says one of Uy’s executive assistants, Rogelio Abalus, “not only here in Comval, but in all three provinces.” Abalus says the task force was formed in part to alleviate the pressure on DENR forest rangers who are woefully understaffed and unarmed-unlike illegal loggers, who are often members of either militant groups or government security forces.

Moran Takasan, chair of the committee on environment and natural resources of Comval’s provincial board, says the protectors of illegal logging operations in this province are the communist New People’s Army, while DENR forester Ramon Embuscado in South Cotobato says that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is often to blame in western and southern Mindanao.

But Abalus admits that one of the difficulties in containing illegal logging activity is that “sometimes it is hard on the part of the local government to control the national elements”-those elements being the AFP, PNP and coast guard, all of whom have been accused of either protecting or operating illegal logging syndicates.

It came to the attention of Govenor Uy and the Comval Provincial Board that some AFP units have been aiding illegal loggers because, they claim, they need the extra income to finance their counterinsurgency operations against the NPA. Forester Embuscado says “that is not a valid excuse,” calling the culprits “scallywag soldiers’’.

Carlito Tanzo, assistant director of the DENR’s provincial environment and natural resources office in Nabunturan, Comval’s capital, feels that violations by the military are isolated cases. He says their office encounters more problems with the police, who are not only taking bribes from timber smugglers, but charging legitimate logging operations fees to transport their cargo past checkpoints.

“Sometimes our people are also conniving,” Tanzo says, referring to DENR employees taking pay-offs. He says some monitors stationed at wood processsing plants have been working with the illegal loggers. There have been recent reports of alleged smuggling involving top DENR officials, several Congressmen and the Philippine Coast Guard, with ships loaded with hardwood being apprehended on their way from Mindanao to Manila.

Officials like Abalus believe the biggest cause of deforestation is the collection of fuelwood by farmers and tribal communities. This cutting is a “result of poverty in the uplands,” says Davao City Councilor Leo Avila. “Between their stomachs and the trees they’d rather take care of their stomachs.”

But Keith Bacongco, a paralegal with the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center, says much of the destruction can be attributed to rich corporations, like Dole, whose pineapple and banana plantations continue to encroach on protected areas like Mt. Apo and Mt. Matutum. Bacongco also notes that large MNCs such as the Australian-owned BHP Billiton, which controls a nickel concession in Davao Oriental, have been illegally cutting timber. “They say they need to clear the area, but it is the workers that are selling the logs and the lumber,” he attests.

Whoever is responsible-rich corporation or poor farmer, soldier or insurgent-the Philippines continues to lose two percent of its forest annually holding out prospects for a bleak future.

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