While illegal loggers feast on forests left vulnerable by corruption and weak enforcement of the government’s moratorium on logging operations, thousands of wood industry workers throughout the Caraga region face the adversities of joblessness.
For Carlos Cubero, a longtime forester at Surigao Development Corp. (Sudecor), that means having to tell his son he can’t enroll in college when classes opened in June.
Cubero, 52, and some 1,200 Sudecor workers were affected by the closure of the company’s veneer and plywood plants in Cantilan town early this year, following the implementation of Executive Order No. 23, which declared a total log ban on both natural and residual forests.
The ban’s aftermath has hit hard on workers like Cubero, who have been in the wood industry for so long and are finding it difficult to shift to other jobs, or are too old to start anew. And there are thousands like him, as Caraga remains the country’s largest wood producer, accounting for at least 60 percent of the country’s wood supply.
“I’ve been in the company for 26 years and I can’t simply be job-hopping when I wake up tomorrow,” Cubero said. “With my job gone, so too are the loan facilities that would have helped pay for my son’s tuition.”
Alfredo Sorella, president of Sudecor’s 300-strong labor union, joined the 50-year-old Sudecor in 1976, when he was 21. Suddenly finding himself jobless at 58, he had to take up fishing.
“The transition was painful. My job was my life and suddenly it was taken away—just when I was about to retire,” he said, lamenting that the work stoppage has created uncertainties on his retirement benefits.
Sudecor said the laid-off workers would be rehired once the company starts operating again, but it was uncertain about the retirees’ compensation.
Throughout the region, workers from over a hundred wood-processing companies face the same bleak prospects.
In Butuan City alone, the local government estimated that 5,000 workers were displaced when the ban was imposed, as the local wood industry is heavily reliant on logs from residual forests. A major industry player, Richmond Plywood Corp., said it might retrench some 1,000 workers more.
Municipalities and national line agencies are scrambling to address the mass layoffs.
Last week, Butuan Mayor Ferdinand Amante Jr. said youths coming from the affected families would be provided scholarships under a P3.8-million grant provided by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda). Some 75 scholars will receive P10,500 each to fund 34 days of training in welding, heavy equipment operation, masonry and electricity.
Educational assistance, however, does not address the immediate need to put food on the table, and other livelihood programs are widely seen as stopgap measures—and even wanting.
Of the 3,200 laid-off wood workers in Butuan that it documented in March, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) managed to find jobs for only 500.
In smaller towns where large concessions such as Sudecor’s operate, expecting for government assistance seems to be a wish for the impossible. In fact, towns such as Cantilan, Carmen, Madrid, Carascal and Lanuza—the seat of Sudecor’s 75,000-hectare managed forest—expect lower revenues with the company’s inactivity.
“We expect nothing from the local government. With a log ban policy that doesn’t make exemptions even on well-managed, strictly guarded forests such as Sudecor’s, everybody loses,” said Sorella, a former labor union president.
The runaway winners, Sorella said, are the illegal loggers who are in cahoots with corrupt government officials, and those who exploit loopholes in EO 23 to cut and transport dipterocarps—a family of hardwood trees—from natural and residual forests.
Wood industry stakeholders and pro-environment groups in Surigao del Sur agree. They pointed out that illegal logging still persists in the province even after authorities discovered thousands of illegally cut lauaan flitches at a warehouse of a suspected illegal logger in Butuan on Sept. 25.