Philippines: Disaster Politics and Illegal Logging

2005

Julius Bautista

Though the Philippines was largely spared from the December tsunami, the country did not end 2004 without natural disasters of its own. Earlier that month, Eastern Luzon province was battered by successive killer typhoons, which resulted in widespread damage to property and casualties of up to 1800. The resulting landslides and heavy flooding in the provinces of Quezon and Aurora were blamed on the massive destruction and denudation of the country's forests caused by illegal logging operations.

President Arroyo immediately instructed the Department of Natural Resources (DENR) to initiate a nationwide suspension of logging permits and appointed a Task Force to hunt down illegal loggers. First and foremost, the President identified New People's Army (NPA) guerrillas as the masterminds of illegal logging operations in the area.

The clandestine cutting and harvesting of trees by communist insurgents, however, is only one (if less significant) part of the problem. Public attention soon shifted towards those who have abused or taken excessive liberties on legitimately issued logging permits. Particular focus was placed on holders of Industrial Forest Management Agreements (IFMA), which are contracts issued to private entities to log and harvest in public forests for 25 years. The critical feature of an IFMA is that it defers to the private sector the burden of reforestation. Over the years, however, the lucrative benefits of such contracts have contributed to the continued denudation of forest lands throughout the country. Investigative reports on the history of logging permits often read like stories of kinship politics, oligarchic logging barons, and the farmers and peasants driven by poverty to work for them. In this context, it has been said that IFMAs are the new instrument of patronage that do very little for environmental sustainability, particularly in rural areas.

It is in this context that the President's ban, which is pending in Congress, is seen with scepticism in the Philippine media. In spite of a recent spate of DENR arrests of medium scale loggers, there remains a perception that the 'big fish' of illegal logging continue to thrive (some within the halls of congress itself). Meanwhile, over 5000 workers gathered in various areas of the country to protest the logging ban in mid February, which they claimed is putting enormous strains on their livelihood.

With an annual deforestation rate of 1.2 per cent, only 6 million hectares of the country's entire land area of 30 million hectares. remain as forest (down from 17 million in 1934, and 27.5 million in 1575). In the after-math of the December floods, Filipinos are left to contend not only with the thousands of deaths, but with the competing interests of patronage, economic growth and environmental protection that might not be resolved unless drastic rehabilitative action is taken right away.

WATCHPOINT: Without Congressional approval, the President's logging ban will continue to be seen as a quick fix, largely designed for political mileage. It is important that the country's legislative bodies come to a national policy on this matter so that the DENR can follow and implement clear and definitive measures. Should Congress decide to continue its selective log ban policy, the DENR must look into rationalizing its operations to be truly effective against illegal logging and to further protect the country's rapidly vanishing forest cover.

WATCHPOINT: Without Congressional approval, the President's logging ban will continue to be seen as a quick fix, largely designed for political mileage. It is important that the country's legislative bodies come to a national policy on this matter so that the DENR can follow and implement clear and definitive measures. Should Congress decide to continue its selective log ban policy, the DENR must look into rationalizing its operations to be truly effective against illegal logging and to further protect the country's rapidly vanishing forest cover.

 

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