Lianga was again in the news on national television a couple of days ago and as usual the bulletin did little to discredit the observation made some years ago to me by an old buddy (also from Lianga but who now resides outside of the country) that every time the town's name gets into the news it is usually about something or some event that paints it and its people in a bad light.
It seems that a investigation team composed of officials from the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the local government of the town and representatives of the Caraga Conference for Peace and Development has recommended that the government block the shipment of a shipload of cut timber in the port of Barangay Diatagon some nine kilometers or so to the north of the town proper. The shipment belonged to the SAMMILIA Federation of Peoples's Forest Development Cooperative which has for some time now taken over part of what was once the vast timber concession area of the defunct Lianga Bay Logging Company.
The team has determined in its surprise inspection of the timber cargo that there are what appears to be serious discrepancies between the record of the official tally and inventory of the said shipment submitted to the government in comparison to the actual volume and measurements of the logs being loaded for shipment. The implication, of course, is that SAMMILIA may have knowingly misrepresented the volume in order to escape legal restrictions on the maximum "allowable cut" it was allowed to make under the law and in order to defraud the local government of its rightful share in the form of taxes and levies.
SAMMILIA (named for the towns of San Agustin, San Miguel, Marihatag and Lianga whose territorial jurisdictions skirt the boundaries of the cooperative's forest concession area) has for many years been granted by the DENR the right to cut timber under a community-based forest management agreement. But its operations have always been plagued by accusations time and time again from environmental protection groups and non-governmental organizations that it has has not been complying with the volume limits on the amount of timber is has been allowed to harvest from its area but so far no serious investigation has been conducted by the government particularly the DENR to verify the truth about the persistent allegations.
Rumors have also been rife in the past that DENR personnel as well as local government officials have always been persuaded to look the other way every time SAMMILIA shipped its timber cargos from Diatagon in return for substantial bribes. Certain well-placed and well-connected political kingpins in the province have also been pointed out to be behind the regular mis-declaration of the timber shipments.
What is clear is that, in the case of the recent discovery of the so called "hot logs" in Diatagon, there appears to be at least, according to reliable sources, probable cause to assume that something fishy is indeed going on as far as SAMMILIA's timber cutting operations are concerned and that a full, thorough and exhaustive formal inquiry into the matter is justified if not essential. "It is our obligation to determine if there is indeed excess loading and if the cooperative is complying the the legal restrictions placed upon it in accordance with its community forest management agreement," said Lianga Vice-Mayor Jun Lala who was part of the investigating team.
But even then there many here who are pessimistic that something concrete will come out of any formal investigation into the "hot timber" fiasco in Diatagon or even that a formal investigation will ever take place. The prevailing opinion is that there are far too many fingers in the SAMMILIA pie and that some of these may belong to shadowy but politically powerful figures in the province. In fact, some local government officials who have initially backed the findings of the above mentioned investigation team may have, according to some sources, already decided to keep quiet and refrain from becoming further involved in the issue.
Inevitably, the final outcome of the unfortunate incident in Diatagon will be seen as a test of how serious the DENR (as the government agency tasked with safeguarding the already threatened virgin forest reserves of the province) and the local government of Lianga (as the government authority representing the interests of the affected local communities) is in determining if SAMMILIA is indeed complying with law in the conduct of its logging operations. It will also, in the larger sense, be a chance for both government institutions to prove to the people here that the new era of transparency and public accountability in government operations recently proclaimed by President Noynoy Aquino in his inaugural speech is more than just words and not mere lip service.
In the meantime the people of Lianga are watching the situation intently and hoping that both government agencies will have the resolve and the will to resolve, once and for all, the many questions related to the timber shipment controversy. It is a great thing to have the courage to grasp the proverbial tiger by the tail but an even greater feat to have the gumption to follow through, face it squarely in the face, subdue it and then pin it to the ground.