Loggers defy Aquino orderBy Danilo V. Adorador III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Weak law enforcement and systemic corruption have blunted the government’s total log ban policy, according to tribal leaders and environmental advocates in this province.
“It seems funny that when P-Noy (President Benigno 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 managed forest of Surigao Development Corp. (Sudecor), which spans Carmen and the neighboring municipalities of Lanuza, Cantilan, San Miguel, Madrid, Cortes and 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 the nationwide indefinite log ban under Executive Order No. 23, which the President issued in February 2011. It has also maintained a skeletal workforce.
The Puyat-owned firm withdrew its guards when its 25-year timber license agreement expired in June of the same year. (Its 25-year integrated forest management agreement or Ifma, approved in 2010, has been put on hold because of EO 23.)
The security vacuum opened a large swath of natural and residual forests, as well as protected areas, inside the concession to illegal loggers, according to tribal leaders and environmental advocates.
Even a number of Manobo families, lured by cash and goods, act as guides and workers for illegal logging operators, said Datu Maka and Datu Eladio Montenegro, another Manobo clan leader in Lanuza.
“But who can blame them when they have nothing to eat?” Datu Maka added.
Rowil Aguillon, a management committee member of Sudecor, said illegal loggers have started poaching some 7,000 cubic meters of cut logs that the company had failed to retrieve in the wake of the ban.
Soon, they got hold of what remains of the concession area. And that’s a lot.
Aguillon explained that of the company’s total production area of 51,693 hectares, its selective timber harvesting operations had been confined only to over 1,000 hectares per year, or 2.5 to 4 percent of the production forest. That means Sudecor would harvest again in a logged area only after 25 to 35 years, allowing the growth of replacement trees first.
But illegal loggers do not discriminate between young and mature trees, he said, cutting trees even in virgin forests, watersheds, wildlife reserves and other protected areas that Sudecor did not touch in its 50 years of operations.
At least 190 illegally cut logs, seized last month, came from an area reforested in 1983, Aguillon said. Illegal loggers had used heavy equipment.
The Aug. 18 seizure, made by Sudecor personnel and local police, had been easy because there wasn’t an attempt to hide the logs in Barangay Cancavan in this town, he said.
The Sudecor concession has many secondary roads that illegal loggers may use to avoid detection, Aguillon said.
Merlinda Manila, Surigao del Sur provincial environment and natural resources officer (Penro), agreed. She said the problem was aggravated by her agency’s manpower shortage.
Ideally, at least one forest ranger should guard every 4,000 hectares of forest, Manila said. “We have only 10 to 15 technical personnel and forest rangers,” she told the Inquirer in a phone interview.
The last time Penro hired an employee was 11 years ago, she added.
But Manila said Sudecor remains responsible for guarding its concession from illegal loggers and poachers.
“They’re supposed to guard their turf and our role would only be complementary,” she said, admitting that she has received various reports of poaching and illegal logging in Sudecor’s concession area.
Aguillon of Sudecor argued that the company cannot be expected to spend on security when it is not in operation. The government should have adequate measures to protect managed forests that would be abandoned as a consequence of EO 23, he added.
Amid the finger-pointing, a multisectoral group has expressed concerns over illegal logging.
“The emergence of illegal logging in the province after EO 23 is increasingly disturbing,” said Fr. Raymond Ambray, spokesperson of Caraga Watch, a regional group of religious and civil society organizations based in Cantilan town.
While the group has criticized Sudecor for not quickly replanting trees, Ambray said EO 23 has spawned far more dangerous effects than what it tried to prevent.
However, Caraga Watch, Sudecor and tribal leaders agree on one thing: Corruption lies at the heart of illegal logging in Surigao del Sur.
They said illegal loggers use influence to either move truckloads of logs even on guarded highways or retrieve those seized by local authorities.
Aguillon said during the Aug. 18 seizure of logs, the alleged owner, identified as Rolando Seblario, talked to him on the phone to demand the cargo’s release. The logs are impounded inside the Sudecor compound in Barangay Puyat here.
Two more shipments of illegal logs were seized early this year and attributed to Seblario, a wood trader who owns the Butuan City-based Jeroking Enterprise.
“Magkakamatayan tayo pag ‘di n’yo ni-release ’yan (There will be bloodbath if the logs are not released),” Aguillon quoted Seblario as saying.
Task Force Kalikasan
When he tried to calm down Seblario, Aguillon said Seblario dropped the name of the task force’s head, retired Gen. Renato Miranda.
A week later, Aguillon said an official of the task force accompanied Seblario at the community environment and natural resources office (Cenro) “more likely to negotiate the release of the seized logs.” He identified the official as retired Col. Harry Taladua, who is close to retired Col. Ernesto Ga, an assistant of Miranda in the task force.
Miranda admitted meeting Seblario “twice or thrice” but said the meetings were “casual.”
Reports of Seblario’s involvement in illegal logging are being investigated, he said. He said Taladua, too, would be investigated.
“The allegation that he was with Seblario … is worth looking into. I will investigate the matter as soon as I come back to Mindanao,” said Miranda, who is in Manila to attend to his ailing wife.
Taladua has not answered the Inquirer’s text messages and calls.
Who is Seblario?
In 2008, the communist-led National Democratic Front named Seblario as one of the illegal logging players in Caraga.
Manila confirmed that she had a meeting with Seblario late last month at her office and Seblario tried to persuade her to release the confiscated logs which, according to him, he had bought from natives.
“I told him (Sebalario) we would release the logs if he can show pertinent documents. He can’t,” Manila said.
Calls to Seblario’s cell phone were rejected. His company’s telephone number listed on the Internet appeared to be owned by a different person when the Inquirer tried to contact it.
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