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Illegal logging returns to Sierra Madre

LUCENA CITY—Illegal logging has returned to Sierra Madre, and environmentalists seeking to preserve what is left of the mountain range are pointing to poverty as its main propeller.

“We’re sad that poor mountain dwellers, some of them tribal people, are forced to join the rape of the mountain due to extreme poverty,” Zander Bautista, assistant executive director of Save Sierra Madre Network Alliance (SSMNA), said in a phone interview.

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SSMNA is a multisectoral network of indigenous peoples’ groups, nongovernment organizations, religious and other individuals working for the conservation and protection of the Sierra Madre. It also wants to help the tribal people in opposing government dam projects in General Nakar town that may impact on the Sierra Madre’s biodiversity.

According to Conservation International, the Sierra Madre contains the largest remaining tract of old-growth tropical rainforest in the Philippines. It spans Luzon’s northeastern coast from Cagayan province in the north to Quezon province in the south.

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The longest mountain range in the country, also known as the “backbone” of Luzon, contains 1.4 million hectares of forest, representing 40 percent of the Philippines’ forest cover, it said.

For three days last month, Bautista led an SSMNA team in monitoring activities in a section of the Sierra Madre covered by General Nakar.

Bautista took photos of several piles of illegally cut lumber in the mountain trails, rivers and a makeshift shack. He also encountered illegal loggers in the act of processing trees toppled by chainsaws.

Fr. Pete Montallana, SSMNA president, said the resurgence of rampant illegal logging not only in northern Quezon but also in Isabela and Aurora provinces and other parts of the Sierra Madre had long been a “mad cycle during elections.”

“It’s nothing new,” Montallana said. “The politician or backers of illegal loggers needed funds to finance the expensive campaign.”

Bautista said workers in the illegal logging trade had told him that they were forced to this job out of desperation to feed their families. They also accept jobs offered by financiers in other parts of the Sierra Madre in northern Luzon, he said.

“But they receive only pitiful amounts from illegal logging syndicates,” he said, without elaborating.

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Bautista said an official in an upland village in the Sierra Madre had talked about being helpless to stop villagers from engaging in the illegal trade.

“They just want to survive,” he said, quoting the official.

Most mountain dwellers, particularly members of the Agta tribe, gather rattan, honey and other forest products that they sell to lowlanders.

But Sierra Madre inhabitants are afraid to wander deep into the mountain out of fear of being caught in the crossfire in clashes between government soldiers and communist rebels, who also consider the forest a haven.

Bautista called on all government agencies to attend to the needs of the mountain dwellers. He asked the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to establish guard posts in several exit points of the Sierra Madre to stop the movement of illegally cut logs.

Illegal loggers use the Umiray River, which connects Aurora and Quezon and ends at the mouth of Pacific Ocean in Infanta town in Quezon, to transport logs felled from the Sierra Madre.

The construction of the Umiray Bridge in early 2014, according to Agta members, provided easy access to the mountain and opened another route to the transport of illegal forest resources.

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TAGS: Biodiversity, environment, environmental, Illegal Logging, logging, Mountain, Sierra Madre
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