Risky work

Environmentalists and personnel of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources have reportedly been receiving death threats, possibly from parties engaged in illegal logging and timber poaching in the province of Quezon. That there is no hue and cry about it indicates a sorry state of affairs: The threat of death and injury for one’s work or advocacy of protecting the environment is now par for the course.

The threats were apparently made in relation to the efforts of environmentalists and DENR personnel to save the Sierra Madre mountains in Quezon from the illegal cutting of protected trees, whether on public or private lands. Funeral flowers and candles have been sent to the Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (Cenro) in the town of Real. Officers and members of the Save Sierra Madre Network Alliance (SSMNA) have received messages that coffins were being prepared for them. The alliance’s assistant executive director, Zander Bautista, said he and his colleagues are now accustomed to such threats. “This latest threat is no different,” he told Inquirer correspondent Delfin Mallari Jr. “We will not be cowed.”

Cenro chief Miliarete Panaligan describes the DENR’s monitoring of the Sierra Madre as “too risky for the faint-hearted.” The SSMNA president, Catholic priest Pete Montallana, said: “I know how [the illegal loggers’] evil minds work. They are willing to kill just to protect their lucrative but unlawful forest activities.”

The DENR has confiscated over 13,000 board feet of hardwood illegally taken from the Sierra Madre since late last month. Bautista reported encountering illegal loggers working on trees felled by chainsaws. He and his colleagues have documented piles of illegal lumber on the mountain trails, in rivers, and in a shack.

Bautista and company have taken steps to protect themselves. Sadly, they feel no comfort in informing the authorities of the imminent danger. “Nothing will happen even if we report it,” Bautista said.

Other environmentalists have paid the price for their work and advocacy. In 2013, Dutchman Wilhelmus Geertman was murdered in Angeles City, Pampanga. In 2011, Gerry Ortega was shot in the head. It took four years before Philippine authorities were able to arrest and bring back from Thailand the high-profile suspects behind Ortega’s killing: former Palawan governor Joel Reyes and his brother Mario. Around the world, more and more environmentalists are being targeted, according to a 2014 Associated Press story. “The murders of those protecting land rights and the environment have soared dramatically,” with three times as many people killed in 2012 than in the previous decade, the London-based group Global Witness was quoted as saying.

Indeed, environmentalists constantly face danger in the course of doing their job. Firefighters battling forest fires know this all too well. They are currently laboring to contain five fires in the protected Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park in Bukidnon, which have been burning since April 2 and swept over more than 800 hectares of forest and grassland. A fire on nearby Mt. Katalungan has also scorched over 140 hectares.

And as we speak, the fire on Mt. Apo, the Philippines’ tallest and most climbed mountain, has been burning since March 26, resisting mighty efforts from both government personnel and volunteers to control it.

All over the country, environmentalists are trying to undo the impact of human activity on what lies around us, and to cope with the calamitous effects of drought and climate change. (An eminent visitor and environmentalist, Prince Albert of Monaco, has flown to Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a protected area in the Sulu Sea and home to the most beautiful corals in the world. What dangers threaten their existence?)

In all, it’s a difficult time in this Pearl of the Orient, which grapples daily against illegal loggers and those who plunder our endangered natural resources. It’s time to acknowledge the risky work of volunteers and environmentalists. It will take the concerted efforts of the government and the private sector to preserve and conserve the Philippines’ trove of treasures—a public-private partnership in the most ideal sense.