Imperiled forest rangers
Faster perhaps than the forests that the Philippines is losing is the number of its forest rangers. According to an alarming report by Agence France-Presse, 20 of the country’s 2,000 forest rangers have been killed since the government imposed a nationwide logging ban in 2010. The number shows that shady timber merchants have turned to more aggressive and deadly tactics to defeat the total log ban. It also shows that the government may be losing the race to save the remaining forests.
The report is particularly alarming because the rangers interviewed come from Norzagaray, Bulacan (just a 3-hour drive from Manila), and patrol the Angat forest. Only eight rangers are trying to protect 21,000 hectares of forest that serves as the watershed for nearly all of the tap water of Metro Manila and nearby areas, home to 15 million people.
One of those interviewed was a father of five who had seen a pastor shot dead by loggers for tipping off authorities on their illegal activity. Armed with a cheap pistol, Alex Leber, 49, was obviously trying to banish the thought that he would go the way of the pastor and other forest protectors and environmental activists who have been shot dead for making a stand against illegal logging. But whatever hope he harbors may be a desperate one.
Quoting the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the report said forest rangers were underfunded, outnumbered and extremely vulnerable. Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said it was the military that should fight illegal loggers. But his remark betrayed the inutility of the DENR in fulfilling its mandate, especially because of certain questionable acts in matters connected with the environment. The DENR has: given the environmental clearance for the construction of a multistory tower right in the Subic forest for the R&R of employees of a Korean shipbuilding facility in the former US naval base; issued a permit for a Korean plan to set up a spa right at the mouth of Taal Volcano (the permit was withdrawn after a public uproar); allowed the balling and uprooting of centuries-old pine trees to make way for the expansion of a mall in Baguio City; and given the go-signal for the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Metro Manila Development Authority to similarly uproot centuries-old trees in the wide Lacson Street sidewalk of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila to widen the road and make way for the construction of another ugly flyover.
By its seeming helplessness, the DENR also betrays the fact that corrupt government officials are often in cahoots with illegal loggers, if not themselves involved in the illicit trade. Paje himself said at least eight city mayors were under investigation for allegedly protecting illegal loggers.
But the wider picture as far as the environment is concerned is that corruption is merely abetting the government’s incompetence and gross mismanagement of Philippine forests and other natural resources. The Aquino administration has not matched its proenvironment platform with resources. It has issued an executive order on mining that’s neither here nor there; it has been going nowhere in its putative total logging ban.
In a report by Inquirer Mindanao last month, it was disclosed that the Surigao Development Corp. (Sudecor) concession covering Tandag City and a number of municipalities, many of them with Manobo communities, has become the haven of illegal loggers. This supposedly came about after Sudecor reduced its security when the nationwide indefinite log ban under Executive Order No. 23 was signed by the President in February 2011. The security vacuum opened a large swath of natural and residual forests, as well as protected areas, in the concession to illegal loggers, according to tribal leaders and environmental advocates.
It’s ironic that as the administration has gone for the jugular by banning logging totally, the envisioned main beneficiary of such a radical policy—the forest—has become even more a prey of greedy loggers. The government should match its rhetoric with substance by outfitting forest rangers and providing them the resources necessary to effectively protect not only their areas of concern but also their very lives. With what’s been happening, the public is witnessing a total wipeout of both the forests and their guardians.