I am a drinker and a smoker. That makes me a sinner twice over in the eyes of tax collectors. For my penance I pay them P4, give or take, for every bottle of San Mig Light I drink, and about 60 centavos for every stick of Marlboro I smoke. Those are taxes called “excise,” a word that has two definitions in Merriam-Webster: “to cut out surgically” and, well, “to tax.” As if there’s a difference.
Like the surgeon’s excision—say, of a brain tumor—the tax collectors’ excise is supposed to be good for my health. The taxes make my beer and smokes more expensive, and that’s supposed to dissuade me from drinking and smoking too much or too often—or at all. They don’t. When I can’t afford San Mig Light I drink Red Horse. It gives me a stronger kick for the buck, so it costs me less to reach the condition we drinkers call “hapi.” (As in “Tayo’y maghapi-hapi.”) And I have long ago switched from imported Marlboros to what I used to call “lokal.” (As in “Pwe, lokal”; I was a snob when I could still afford imported Marlboros.)
That coping strategy with Red Horse I learned from a friend who used to read market research for San Miguel Brewery. The lower I was in the socio-economic ladder, he said, the stronger my drink of choice would tend to be. If I still couldn’t afford strong beer, there’s sugarcane gin, whiskey or brandy. (No, it’s not just our rum that’s made from sugarcane.) If I couldn’t afford even that, there’s always crystal meth.
So, as long as crystal meth is available, cheap and tax-free, the tax collectors’ excise will not serve its healthful purpose. So it’s really the Aquino administration’s fiscal health that they want to protect by raising my penance some more this year—to raise another P60 billion just from sinners like me.
But I don’t mind that. As far as I’m concerned, President Aquino can heap all the taxes he wants on my beer and cigarettes as long as he keeps Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in jail. After all, I already have a coping strategy for the rising cost of my sinful ways.
What I mind is the characterization of those taxes as sin taxes, but not of taxes on timber.
What’s “sinful” about drinking and smoking is their so-called social costs. Alcohol-addled individuals become bellicose and smokers get sickly—one a menace and the other a burden to society necessitating government to hire more peace officers and health workers. As if it does. Drug-crazed individuals are more violent, actually, and drug dependents are sicklier. So why not legalize and tax crystal meth? Because snorting it is much too pernicious, to the individual and to society. We’re not ready to allow government to sanction its production, sale and use.
But if snorting crystal meth is pernicious, cutting trees has become downright destructive—and from time to time apocalyptic. Yet logging is perfectly legal and properly, albeit imperfectly, taxed. How imperfectly? For starters, taxes on timber are not even called taxes but “forest charges,” as in “forest rent,” as in payment for the privilege of being “stewards”—as in custodians, caretakers, guardians—of our forests. That makes loggers angels in the eyes of tax collectors.
Forest charges are levied “on timber cut in forestland,” to quote our tax code, and reckoned in cubic meters. When tax collectors look at forests all they see is lumber. They don’t see the trees catching rain and storing it in the bowels of mountains to feed springs and rivers and aquifers that in turn feed waterfalls and farms and municipal waterworks. They don’t see their trunks blocking the surge of floodwater nor their roots gripping the soil in place to save farm crops and villagers and, nowadays, city dwellers from deluge. So they don’t tax loggers for the social costs of their “Forest Management Agreement” with government: droughts and water crises and floods and deaths.
But then again, designating forest charges as sin taxes would merely stigmatize logging and make it easier for tax collectors to keep increasing them—and not too much, either, for it would drive up the prices of lumber and paper. It would be like penalizing wholesale mayhem and mass murder with a tsk, tsk and a frown and a bigger fine—but not too much because they wouldn’t want to penalize home buyers nor antagonize newspaper publishers.
And how would they reckon those tax increases? In drowned corpses?
Every time flood is visited upon us we beat our breast and tear our hair, and blame “illegal loggers.” We have lost some 4 million hectares of forest in the last 20 years. There’s no way unlicensed tree cutters are the main culprit of that! Yet we don’t hold the licensed ones accountable, nor ourselves who have allowed our government to keep granting them their licenses. And for what? Fifty centavos (you read it right, centavos!) per hectare in application fee, P50 per hectare in survey fee, and 25 percent of the value of the timber they cut in forest charges. (Which they don’t pay, mind you; they pass on those charges to end-users of lumber and paper.)
Jose Rizal said, and I paraphrase, a crime cannot be expiated by lamenting or by giving alms to the Church. He was writing about the indulgences sold by friars in his time, of course, but how are forest charges different from those? Well, they’re much, much deadlier to body and soul.
Line up the pictures of the dead from Ormoc (“Uring,” 1991), Bicol (“Rosing,” 1995), Quezon province (“Unding,” “Violeta” and “Winnie,” 2004), Metro Manila (“Ondoy,” 2009) and Pangasinan (“Pepeng,” 2009) with the recent ones from Mindanao (“Sendong,” Christmas 2011). If you can look at them and still feel blameless, your soul is dead already.
All of us must therefore do penance, not least because if we left that to the loggers we would not escape this hell until the other one freezes over. And our act of contrition must be a deed, not merely a recitation. We must ban logging for one generation or two, and not only in our natural forests but also in plantations covered by existing Forest Management Agreements. For the time being we can import all the timber we need from countries that have managed their forest resources well. If our economy cannot afford that, what for are those billions of dollars our expats send home each year?
In the meantime we must reforest those denuded mountains that have become floodwater funnels. It won’t be easy because much of those mountains are private property now. But if our government cannot wield its power of eminent domain to save countless lives, what for do we have a government?
Romeo D. Bohol is a retired advertising copywriter.
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