By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Last weekend, Presidente Benigno S. Aquino III said he was mulling over an executive order to address the problem on illegal logging, which he said was behind the increased devastation caused by heavy rains and landslides in various parts of the country.
Aquino took a stand against illegal logging while visiting communities in Legaspi, Albay, which suffered massive damage because of flooding. He said he wants to implement a stricter policy with regard to illegal logging.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda, in the meantime, said the EO will include a measure that will effectively “shut down sawmills which have continued operating without a visible and consistent supply of logs.”
The Philippines is among the countries with the highest deforestation rates. It has only around seven million hectares of forest land left. Even reports of the Department of Environment and National Resources (DENR) reveal that large-scale commercial logging have continued since the country’s colonial period. Seemingly indifferent or apathetic to findings exposing the rapidly dwindling forest cover, the Philippine government continues to issue permits to big logging companies to cut down trees for commercial use and export.
Based on most recent reports from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDMC), damage to property, infrastructure and agriculture from floods in parts of Bicol, Visayas and Mindanao has amounted to P1.2 billion. The floods have also displace 262,107 families, or some 1.355 million individuals. The death toll was last pegged at 42, while five remain missing.
Agency reports also show that 1,618 municipalities across the country already considered disaster hotspots.
Despite his seemingly firm stance, however, Aquino made the admission that a log ban could not be enforced immediately. He said that the Department of Environment and National Resources (DENR) and logging firms should first come to an agreement. He added that the EO would also affect and small-time saw mills.
Previous administrations have also flexed their muscles against logging, but given the state of the country’s forests, it appears that all their efforts have not been positive.
The Arroyo administration laid down total ban on logging activities in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Ousted president Joseph Estrada said he would implement a total log ban during his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), but no policy or law was created.
The Ramos administration carried the policy of selective logging, wherein areas were identified to allow logging under the concept of “sustainable development.”
Commercial loggers against ban
Already, the Philippine Wood Producers Association (PWPA) has issued an appeal to Aquino to reconsider plans for a total log ban, saying that the ban will have serious impact on over two million people directly and indirectly working in the wood industry. They said that that a total log ban has “never really worked.”
Instead, the PWPA officials warned that a total log ban would only increase illegal logging activities from which the government does not get any benefits. They said that a nationwide log ban or moratorium would lead to a loss of at least P30 billion in investments made by firms engaged in the wood industry. The PWPA said investors in the wood sector, would be discouraged from putting in further investments in the sector.
The wood producers also said that they would lose an estimated $1 billion in annual exports of high value-added and high-end finished wood products.
The PWPA officials insisted that only protected forest and those in watershed areas should be covered by a total log ban, while residual forest that are covered by timber license agreement (TLAs) and industrial forest management agreements (IFMAs) should be allowed to continues with their sustainable forestry management practices.
The assertions of the PWPA against a log ban was immediately contested by environmentalist group Kalikasan PNE.
Even as it agreed that the proposed EO on log ban will not stop deforestation, it said that the real culprits were precisely companies into commercial logging that are to blame, not illegal loggers.
“Although illegal loggers do contribute to the problem, the primary culprits in the destruction of our forests are the legal commercial loggers. If Aquino wants to stop the massive destruction of our forests, he should cancel all the permits of all commercial logging concessions and impose a ban on commercial logging. Illegal logging in itself is a crime whether there is a log ban or not,” the group asserted.
Based on 2008 records of the Forest Management Bureau (FMB), a total of 1,355 M hectares of Philippine forests are under different logging concessions, among them the TLA and the IFMA. As of 2003, the country has only 7,168,400 hectares of remaining forests.
Catholic Church officials have already supported the call for a total log ban. Speaking over church-run Radio Veritas, Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales said non-stop cutting of trees has worsened the massive flooding and landslides.“That’s why we have to take care of our remaining resources and stop logging because nature can take revenge,” he said.
Too Late and Too Little
The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), in the meantime, said that the Aquino government’s plans to implement a total log ban “comes too late and too little.”
“The plunder and destruction of the environment is being carried out not only by large-scale commercial loggers, but by big foreign mining companies and plantations that poison the land and silt the rivers and waterways,” the CPP said.
According to the CPP, proposals to ban logging have cropped up several times in the past but none one of the “puppet reactionary governments” ever had the determination to put a stop to big commercial logging.
“It’s doubtful that Aquino will put a stop to the big commercial operations of the San Jose Timber Corporation owned by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile that controls a 96,000-hectare timber concession in Samar and is within the 330,000-hectare protected Samar Island Nature Park,” it said.
”Will Aquino would order a stop to the big logging operations of the Surigao Development Corporation (SUDECOR) in Surgiao del Sur?”