As I See It

Why so many people died in Mindanao


The question is why: Why did so many people die in Mindanao in spite of early warnings by Pagasa, by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), and by local government units? In fact, some families had left their homes and gone to evacuation centers. Still so many people died. Why?

Photographs of the disaster scenes give a clue. Many logs can be seen scattered among the ruins or floating in the waters around them. They are not trunks of trees uprooted by Typhoon “Pablo.” The trunks have been neatly cut by chainsaws. They are logs. Washed down the mountainsides by the floods, they served as the battering rams that wrecked the houses left standing by the strong winds of Pablo.

There is a total log ban nationwide. So why are there still so many logs?

Answer: illegal loggers.

When logging companies left their logging concessions, illegal loggers swooped in and started cutting what remained of the forests. Guards of the logging concessionaires used to guard the forests, but with them gone, the forests became free-for-all for illegal loggers. And after them came the charcoal-makers who cut up what remained of the trunks and, worse, the small trees.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources does not have enough forest guards to guard the forests. And of those few, several have been killed by illegal loggers.

The job of guarding the forests have been left largely to local government units because they are nearest to the forests. But how can they do that when it is their own mayors, barangay captains and other officials and influential citizens who are themselves the illegal loggers?

The illegally cut logs are either rolled down the mountainsides to rivers below and floated to sawmills, or pulled through the forests by carabaos, hence the term “carabao logging.”

The people of the barangays and towns know that illegal logging is going on in the mountains, but what can they do when it is their own officials who are doing it? And they themselves are to blame because they buy cut lumber for the construction or repair of their houses. Also, some of them go up the mountains themselves and turn what remain of the trees into charcoal.

The DENR sometimes catch the logs or lumber while these are being transported. Such strokes of success are announced to media with much fanfare, with photographs of the seized logs or lumber, to boot. The Department of Education makes use of the seized logs and lumber by turning them into school desks and chairs and as construction materials for schoolhouses. But no matter, the trees are dead permanently. They cannot be made to grow again, and the mountainsides remain bare.

When there are young trees left growing in the forests (so-called “second growth”), seeds germinate and grow, and the “second-growth” trees themselves grow bigger. In due time, there will be a new mature forest. But when even young trees are chopped down by charcoal-makers, there are no roots to hold the soil together so that when heavy rains fall, the soil is washed down the mountainsides along with the tree seeds and seedlings. This is the mud that slides down mountainsides and buries houses and people in valleys below, as in the case of Compostela Valley.

In addition, with no soil to absorb them, the waters rush down in great volumes to the lowlands, causing flash floods that swamp villages and drown people.

How do we stop that? The answer is obvious. Stop illegal logging and charcoal-making of what is left of the forests. And reforest the denuded mountains. The DENR used to do that but looks to have given that up now. The tree seedlings are often wiped out by grass fires during summer. So the months of growing the seedlings in nurseries and then transplanting them to the mountains are wasted by just one grass fire.

I notice one flaw in the government’s reforestation program. It usually plants seedlings of high-value trees, such as narra and mahogany. These are hardwood that fetch high prices in the market. But they are slow growers. It takes 10 years or more for a narra tree to grow to marketable size.

On the other hand, there are fast-growing trees that are easy to propagate and grow. I am referring to the common kakawati, the giant ipil-ipil trees, the acacia, and the caballero or fire tree. These trees are not only fast-growing but also self-propagating and self-fertilizing. They bear seeds in pods that pop open when ripe, thus scattering the seeds on the ground below where they germinate with the first rains. You see that in your own backyards if you have these trees. After the rains, you notice seedlings germinating from the seeds dropped by the mother tree.

In the forest, therefore, there won’t be any need to plant more seedlings. The adult trees spread their seeds which grow, and soon there will be a lush forest.

In addition, the acacia, caballero, kakawati and ipil-ipil are legumes with leaves of high nitrogen content. When they drop to the ground, they decay and become fertilizer. The trees thus fertilize not only themselves but also other trees and plants.

Finally, imagine if a mountainside has many fire trees. When they bloom, the mountaintop will be “on fire” with the red blossoms that can be seen from far away or even from an airplane. Our mountains would be similar to America’s New England states whose colorful fall foliage attracts millions of tourists. Imagine what that will do to our tourism industry.

*   *   *

KAPIHAN NOTES: Beginning Monday, the Kapihan sa Manila at the Diamond Hotel will be suspended for the duration of the Christmas holidays to give media people and invited resource persons the opportunity to celebrate and enjoy the holidays to the fullest. The Kapihan will be resumed next year.

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Tags: death toll , illegal logging , Mindanao , Philippines - regions , typhoon Pablo , weather

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