Kris-Crossing Mindanao

Forest criminals

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Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree, the poet Joyce Kilmer wrote. Yet,   in Mindanao, not fools but environmental criminals continue to unmake and wreak havoc on one of nature’s gifts to humanity.

A week ago, while accompanying a client on a project inspection trip to the eastern part of Mindanao, I witnessed a scene that was not only scandalous but even gravely criminal.

The whirring sound of chainsaws was very distinct as our vehicle zigzagged through the road arteries of the provinces of Compostela Valley, Davao Oriental, Surigao del Sur and Agusan del Sur. At first, I did not mind it and dozed off during the entire road trip. However, on our eight-hour trip back to Davao at around 2 p.m., I was gravely stunned by the sight of  freshly cut logs scattered along the highway and being loaded to several large trucks.   From the looks of it, despite the much ballyhooed  logging ban imposed by the Aquino administration, logging is still very much the main economic activity in this part of Mindanao.

The sight was truly sordid: while heavy equipment and construction workers are busy paving  and concreting the arterial roads in these parts of eastern Mindanao, loggers on the other hand are similarly busy killing and felling one by one the trees of Mindanao’s remaining thick forest cover. As we drove back to Davao City, I counted no less than 40 very large trucks fully loaded with already cut logs snaking their way in the national highway, passing several army, police and DENR checkpoints, whose personnel are apparently not oblivious to their activities. More disheartening still was the fact that most of the cut logs were rare and endangered species, like lauan, which are usually found only in natural forests.

Ironically, the day we witnessed this sordid episode was declared National Arbor Day, where citizens are encouraged to plant trees to save our environment and to avert more disasters.

Under Executive Order 23 issued on Feb. 4. 2011, President Aquino declared a nationwide moratorium on all logging activities in residual and natural forests and stopped the DENR from issuing new logging permits. Together with EO 23, Mr. Aquino also issued EO 26 to implement the National Greening Program that aims to plant 1.5 billion trees covering 1.5 million hectares by 2016.

Yet, that Arbor Day sight is one proof that two years  into the present Aquino administration, its environmental policy, even on the issue of forest preservation and protection alone, is a dismal failure; a policy that is probably good for media sound bytes, but, in reality, more in sound only rather than in the bite.

The “we mean business” statement made by environment officials notwithstanding, it is truly quite obvious that the unabated logging and business-as-usual attitude, particularly in Mindanao,  are a product of collusion between the loggers, officials of local government units, the police, the military and the DENR—not only on the local but even the national levels.

Thus, the announcement of the so-called relief and investigation recently of at least 31 environment officials, particularly from the eastern  regions of Mindanao, was nothing new. These supposedly relieved officials have been there for quite some time, yet are continually being “recycled” and merely transferred to other regions, despite charges of irregularities in the past.

In fact, the administration’s announcement of the so-called relief and investigation of these officials can only be interpreted as another ploy to prop up the administration’s image as President Aquino prepares his annual report to the nation on his accomplishment for the past year.

Thus, as the doublespeak continues, we are still faced with the fact that at least 59 percent of our so-called forestlands no longer have forest. A revolting fact, especially since forests used to cover at least 90 percent of the country’s total land area during the pre-colonial era. At present, some experts say, our country continues to lose at least 150,000 hectares—almost the size in area of Metro Manila—of its forest cover annually, mainly because of unabated logging activities.

But aggravating further the deforestation rate  is the current thrust to mine the country’s rich mineral resources. Under the Mining Act of 1995, mining companies were given timber rights inside their mining concessions. While the Aquino administration is yet to officially issue its “new” policy on mining, it is doubtful that it will veer away from this destructive activity that accompanies mining. There are currently more than 1 million hectares of land covered with mining permits and applications.

At this maddening rate, the country may probably leave its current No. 4 ranking and end up topping the record of the world’s Top 10 most threatened forest hotspots. Nature has long sent its message over the grave and disastrous effects of the continued destruction of our remaining forests. In Mindanao, the destruction and carnage brought last year by Tropical Storm “Sendong” are still freshly etched on the collective memory of the residents of Northern Mindanao, particularly in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City.

At the rate our natural resources are still being plundered now, it seems nature’s message is being ignored. While government is still engaged in doublespeak, environmental plunderers continue to amass huge profits, at the expense of our future and that of the next generations. In the end, indeed, only the people can make us free.

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