CARMEN, Surigao del Sur—Weak law enforcement and systemic corruption have skewed the government’s total log ban policy in favor of illegal loggers, tribal leaders and environmental advocates in this province said.
“It seems funny that when PNoy (President Aquino) ordered the log ban, the legitimate loggers came down from the forest, only to be replaced by the illegal loggers,” said Datu Paquito Maka, also known as Datu Makaligoy, a Manobo clan leader based in Barangay Pakwan, Lanuza town.
Datu Maka was referring to the 75,000-hectare forest of the Surigao Development Corporation (Sudecor), which spans this town and neighboring municipalities of Lanuza, Cantilan, San Miguel, Madrid, Cortes, Tago and Tandag City. The area is covered by several Ancestral Domain Claim Titles where thousands of Manobo families live.
Sudecor reduced security in the area since the implementation of a nationwide indefinite log ban (Executive Order 23) that President Aquino issued in February 2011. The Puyat-owned company withdrew its remaining 26 concession guards when its 25-year Timber License Agreement expired in June of the same year. (The company’s 25-year Integrated Forest Management Agreement, approved in 2010, has been put on hold because of EO 23).
The ensuing security vacuum opened a large swath of natural and residual forests, as well as protected areas, inside the concession to illegal loggers, tribal leaders and environmental advocates here said.
Even a number of Manobo families, lured by illegal loggers with cash and goods, have been acting as guides and laborers for illegal logging operators, lamented Datu Maka and Datu Eladio Montenegro, another Manobo clan leader in Lanuza town.
“But who can blame them when they have nothing to eat?” Datu Maka hastened to add.
Rowil Aguillon, management committee member of Sudecor, which has maintained a skeletal workforce in the area, said illegal loggers have started poaching on some 7,000 cubic meters (almost 2,000 trees at an estimated four to five cubic meters for each tree) of cut logs that the company has failed to retrieve in the wake of the ban.
Not for long, illegal loggers started getting their hands on what remained of Sudecor’s concession area.
And that’s a lot.
Aguillion explained that of the company’s total production area of 51,693 hectares, its selective timber harvesting operations has been confined only to over a thousand hectare per year, or about 2.5 to 4 percent of the whole production forest. That means Sudecor would return harvesting on a particular logged area only after 25 to 35 years, ensuring that the whole concession maintains a lush growing forest cover all year round.
But illegal loggers would not discriminate between young and fully grown trees, he said, cutting at will even in virgin forests, watersheds, wildlife reserves and other protected areas that Sudecor had left untouched in 50 years of operating.
Some 190 illegally cut red Falcata confiscated last month by local authorities showed that these were cut from an area reforested in 1983, Aguillon said. The seized logs also indicated that illegal loggers had used heavy equipment, he added.
The August 18 seizure, coordinated between Sudecor personnel and the local police, had been an easy job because the round logs were flagrantly stockpiled in Barangay Cancavan in this town, he said, “in what may have been a demonstration of the illegal loggers’ clout with some enforcement agencies.”
The Sudecor concession has many secondary roads that illegal loggers may use to avoid detection, according to Aguillon.
Merlinda Manila, Surigao del Sur Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer (PENRO), agreed.
The problem, according to Manila, is aggravated by her agency’s manpower shortage. Ideally, at least one forest ranger should guard every 4,000 hectares of forest, she added.
“We only have 10 to 15 technical personnel and forest rangers involved in monitoring the Sudecor area and adjoining forests,” Manila said in a phone interview with the Inquirer.
The last time Penro-Surigao had hired a personnel was 11 years ago, she added, citing the agency’s perennial problem: financial constraints.
But Manila stressed that Sudecor has remained responsible for guarding its concession from illegal loggers and poachers, based on the timber firm’s existing approved IFMA license on the area.
“They’re supposed to guard their own turf, and our role would only be complementary,” she said, admitting that she has received various reports of poaching and illegal logging activities within Sudecor’s concession area.
Aguillon of Sudecor argued that the company could not be expected to spend on security while not in operation. Government should have put in adequate measures to protect managed forest that would be abandoned as a consequence of EO 23, he added.
Amid the finger-pointing, a multisectoral group has expressed concerns over the illegal logging problem that emerged in the wake of EO 23.
“The emergence of illegal logging activities in the province after EO 23 is increasingly disturbing,” said Fr. Raymond Ambray, spokesperson of the Caraga Watch, a region-wide group consisting of religious and civil society organizations based in Cantilan town.
While the group has misgivings for Sudecor— which it criticized for allegedly not being prompt enough on reforestation, among other things— Ambray said EO 23 has spawned far more dangerous effects than what it tried to prevent.
Ambray’s group, Sudecor and the tribal leaders, however, have one thing in common: they all believe that corruption lies in the heart of illegal logging activities in Surigao del Sur.
They said illegal loggers have been using influence to either move truckloads of logs even on guarded highways, or retrieve them when confiscated by local authorities.
Aguillon claimed that on the day of the August 18 seizure of logs, its alleged owner, identified as Rolando Seblario, talked to him on the phone to demand the release of the logs that have been impounded inside the Sudecor compound in Barangay Puyat here.
Two more seizures of illegally cut logs early this year were attributed to Seblario, a wood trader who owns the Butuan-based Jeroking Enterprise.
“Magkakamatayan tayo pag di nyo ni-release yan (We would end up killing each other if you don’t release these logs),” Aguillon quoted Seblario as saying.
When he explained the process of turning over the seized logs to Task Force Kalikasan for proper disposal, Aguillon said Seblario dropped the name of the task force’s head, retired general Renato Miranda.
“Sinong pinagmamalaki nyo? Si General Miranda? Eh tao ko yan eh (Who are you banking on? General Miranda? He’s my man!” he quoted the insistent Seblario as saying.
A week later, Aguillon said an official of Task Force Kalikasan accompanied Seblario to the local Community Environment and Natural Resources Officer (CENRO), “more likely to negotiate the release of the seized logs.”
He identified the Task Force Kalikasan official as retired Col. Harry Taladua, reportedly second in command to retired Col. Ernesto Ga, an assistant of Miranda in the task force.
Seblario’s attempts to recover the confiscated logs reached the Cantilan-based Social Action Center of the Catholic Church, which issued a press release early last Monday to condemn the protection that illegal loggers allegedly enjoy from the Task Force.
“Illegal logging prevails because they are able to acquire falsified documents and table surveys facilitated by crooks within the DENR,” the Social Action Center press release quoted Dr. Isidro Olan of the Lovers of Nature Foundation Incorporated, an environmental advocacy NGO in Surigao del Sur.
“The reason why illegal loggers are difficult to stop is due to their established connection with high ranking officials of enforcement agencies, politicians, and members of Task Force Kalikasan,” Dr. Olan said.
Seblario is no stranger to the illegal logging circle. In 2008, a National Democratic Front press release named him as one of the illegal logging players in Caraga.
The Social Action Center, which is affiliated with Caraga Watch, also named Seblario as a financier of “major illegal logging operations” in this town and neighboring municipalities.
“Mr. Seblario is said to be the younger brother of a military general from the Philippine Army. He is also said to be close to the head of CIDG Region 11, and his security escorts are active CIDG personnel and PNP Regional Intelligence operatives. Seblario or Jhero King also claims to be a member of Task Force Kalikasan, and he would easily show his ID when confronted,” reads the September 10 press release issued by the center.
Manila confirmed that she had met with Seblario late last month at the latter’s request. In the meeting, which occurred in her office, Manila said Seblario had tried to persuade her to release the confiscated logs, which Seblario said he had bought from the natives.
“I told him (Sebalario) we would release the logs if he could show pertinent documents; he can’t,” the Surigao del Sur PENRO said.
Manila’s predecessor, Domingo Cabrera Jr., was sacked along with 30 DENR officials from Caraga and Davao regions for failing to curb illegal logging activities in their respective turfs.
Manila said Caabrera had been a casualty of DENR’s “two-strike policy” against illegal logging.
Alibaba, the Chinese Internet business directory, listed Jeroking Enterprise as a Butuan City-based company “engaged in lumber and timber operation and trading.” It identified its owner as one Rolando Sevlario.
Likewise, the Philippine Wood Producers Association website (www.pwpa.org.ph) listed a Roland Sevlario of Jeroking Enterprises as a lumber/plywood dealer.
Calls to Seblario’s cell phone went unanswered. His company’s telephone number listed on the Alibaba website appeared to be owned by a different person when the Philippine Daily Inquirer tried to contact it.
Meanwhile, environmental advocates said illegal logging has persisted in Surigao del Sur despite the July revamp at the DENR and the existence of Task Force Kalikasan. They are also questioning the wisdom of EO 23.
Citing reports received from Indigenous Peoples (IPs), the Social Action Center noted that “illegal logging, illegal cutting and illegal lumbering have increased significantly despite the log ban.”
“In Sitio Gacub of Barangay Hinapuyan, municipality of Carmen, more than 100 chainsaws were used to cut Lauan, Yakal, Narra, and Falcata trees. People have also reported that logging equipments such as tractor and wreckers were deployed to make the extraction much faster,” the Social Action Center said.
In the press release, Fr. Frank Olvis, Vicar Forane of Carrascal, Cantilan, Madrid, Carmen and Lanuza, lamented at “the extent of illegal logging proliferating in Surigao del Sur…while the whole nation is placed under a logging moratorium.”
“If the main intent of Executive Order No. 23 is to improve forest protection, how come illegal logging has risen into a scale so alarming, and illegal loggers seem to find refuge under this controversial law,” Olvis added.