Forest guards, unsung heroes
VALENCIA, Bukidnon — I will always carry the memory of Elpidio “Jojo” Malinao, a forest ranger in University of the Philippines Los Baños and friend of our family. Whenever I would go hiking on Mt. Makiling, I would see Kuya Jojo in the park entrance and he would tell me various stories of their patrols, from the animals they encountered to the mountaineers they had to rescue.
Great was our shock when he was killed one afternoon after testifying in court about illegal activities in the mountain. Incorruptible and dedicated to his mission, the ranger of 25 years was uncompromising in his stand against illegal logging and other destructive practices, and such dedication apparently cost him his life on that fateful day in May 2011.
Jojo Malinao’s predicament and fate, alas, is shared by forest protectors all over the country — perhaps even more so in this day and age, with the recent Global Witness report numbering them among the at least 113 environmental defenders killed in the three years since President Duterte took office, compared to just 65 in the same period before. Just a few weeks ago, forest ranger Bienvenido “Toto” Veguilla Jr. was killed by suspected illegal loggers in El Nido, Palawan.
Some of these “forest guards” (I use the term loosely to include rangers and foresters) are regularly employed by the government. Others are volunteers deputized by Protected Area Management Boards (PAMBs) and local environment agencies, receiving an “allowance” that depends on the generosity of the local governments. Though their positions vary in terms of their formal status, what they have in common is that they are underpaid and outnumbered, receiving little support and protection even as they face threats of violence and death.
In an ongoing research project supported by the Forest Foundation Philippines, I have been visiting mountain communities in Mindanao and Luzon and listening to the narratives of forest guards, to better understand their role in conservation and the challenges they face.
Many of them, I learned, possess a deep love for the forests rooted in their cultural heritage. “The forest is our home,” as a bantay gubat in Aurora told me with tears in his eyes—a response I find echoed by many others. While forest guards gain social capital, a sense of belonging and economic opportunities in their position, many of them are also motivated by a genuine passion for the environment.
I also learned that forest guards actually make a positive impact on the mountains. When I asked the forest guards in Mt. Kitanglad how many trees they have planted, one of them said “around five” — and when I incredulously repeated my question, he said, “Yes, five. Hectares.” By deterring illegal activity and taking an active role in reforestation, the Kitanglad Guard Volunteers (KGV) have doubtless been instrumental in the mountain’s remarkable net forest gain of thousands of hectares over the past two decades.
In light of their significant but under-appreciated role, one important response is to give due credit for their service. Aside from higher pay, they also plead for adequate equipment (e.g. two-way radios), health insurance and sustainable support. As Easter Canoy of the Kitanglad Integrated NGOs (KIN) reminds me, this also entails recognizing the role of indigenous communities in forest protection.
Secondly, it is imperative to give forest guards the support and protection they need. Beyond the controversial proposal to arm them, the government should act on their reports, build their capacity, take their side against powerful illegal actors, and address the social and political conditions that enable corruption and violence. Ominously, the Global Witness report points out that these crimes “are aided by the people and institutions meant to prevent them.”
Finally, we must bring justice for the forest guards and other environmental defenders who were killed in the line of duty or activism. Being the “deadliest country for environmental defenders” is an unacceptable distinction, one that the government must redouble its efforts to undo.
Impunity is not an option if we are to protect our forests — and the unsung heroes who are protecting them with their lives.
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