Sunday, July 15, 2012

Not Good Enough

Last July 1 while at breakfast, a trio of related new reports caught my attention the way a steaming cup of extra strong black coffee can deliver a rousing, wake up jolt to the heart and brain after a bleary, listless morning.  It appears that Sec. Ramon Paje of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources had just announced the sacking from their posts of a total of 31 DENR officials in Region XIII (Caraga Region) and Region XI (Davao Region) for their failure to control illegal logging activities in their respective areas.

Removed from their posts were Leonardo Sibbaluca ( Region XI Executive Director), Jim Sampulna (Region XIII Executive Director), Musa Saruang (Regional Technical Director for Forestry for Region XIII), Hardinado Patnugo (RTD for Forestry for Region XI) and Claudio Jumao-as ( Forest Resources Conservation Division OIC for Region XI. The provincial environment and national resources officers (PENRO) of Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Sur, Davao del Norte, Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley were also relieved of their duties together with at least 20 community environment and national resources officers (CENRO) including those heading DENR offices in Bislig City, Tandag City, Cantilan and Lianga in the province of Surigao del Sur.

Sec. Paje had pointed out that it has been over a year since President Noynoy Aquino had issued Executive Order No. 23 which effectively imposed a total logging ban covering all natural and secondary forests all over the country and yet the the anti-illegal logging task force also created under the same executive order has been able to receive and confirm reports of rampant illegal timber cutting operations in many forest areas supposedly under the monitoring of the relieved DENR officials.  The sacking of the 31 DENR officials, according to Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte, has the support of Malacanang and  is a move aimed to prove the sincerity and seriousness of the government's commitment to transparency and public accountability in government.

In an even earlier yet related development, Nicanor Bartolome, the chief of the Philippine National Police, issued relief orders for several Caraga region senior police commanders including 6 police station chiefs also for their failure to control illegal logging activities in their areas of responsibility.  Bartoleme has also commanded Cagara police director, Chief Supt. Reynaldo Rafal to explain why the police units under his command has been unable to effectively monitor and curb rampant violations of the presidential executive order. 

Lastly,  Sec. Jesse Robredo of the Department of Interior and Local Government has also asked Agusan del Sur Gov. Adolph Edward Plaza, the mayors of the towns of Esperanza, San Luis, Talacogon, La Paz and Las Nieves in Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur plus two other local chief executives from Region XI to formally explain the continuing proliferation of illegal logging within their localities.  The implication is that these local executives may be up for possible penalties or charges pending further investigation by the DILG.

There is no doubt in my mind that these three separate yet connected actions on the part of the Aquino government are all meant to deliver one single and direct message to the Filipino people - that it is deadly serious in its intention to fully implement the provisions of E.O. 23 and that the six provinces including Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur and Surigao del Sur in Region XIII or the Caraga region and Davao del Norte, Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley in Region XI have all become front lines in the campaign against illegal logging.  These provinces which host some of the few remaining stretches of virgin forest cover in the country have been for decades a haven for illegal loggers and the President through the executive bureaucracy is anxious to reassure the nation that he will not stand idly by while timber poachers make a mockery of the logging moratorium he had put in place just over a year ago in the wake of the devastation brought about by Typhoon Sendong.

I commend Sec. Paje, Sec. Robredo and PNP Chief Bartolome for their public efforts to show that their agencies are all behind the President in support of E.O. 23 and the campaign against illegal logging but it is clear that even the unprecedented steps they have taken recently to discipline and call to account erring subordinates may not be, in the long term view, not good enough.

It is true that rampant illegal logging operations here and elsewhere in the country cannot continue with impunity unless government officials and security forces are either sleeping on the job or conniving with the same illegal loggers that the government is trying to run after.  Disciplining those in government who may be less than zealous in getting behind the illegal logging campaign is an obvious part of the overall solution.  This is, however, subject to the assurance that erring government officials and personnel have not been merely relieved of their posts and then transferred to other assignments without really being seriously investigated and charged with the appropriate offenses if needed.

But the problem of illegal logging cannot be addressed solely by just bringing solidly into the fight all the government agencies and all security and law enforcement forces.  The government has to find a way to mobilize, energize and get the ordinary citizenry themselves into the campaign.  After all, it is these local communities living in and around these forest preserves that may have the most to lose if the country will eventually lose whatever precious little remains of its forest cover and timber resources.

Take Lianga, for example.  With several of its sister municipalities in Surigao del Sur, it shares jurisdiction over a rapidly dwindling expanse of virgin forest and, in many ways, illustrates clearly the difficulties the government has to confront in trying to curb and control rampant illegal timber cutting in an area where there is little organized support among the local people for what should be seen as a vital, laudatory and absolutely necessary endeavor.

The town had its boom years in the 1960s when large scale commercial logging was at its height and then predictably suffered sudden economic decline when that industry petered out in the waning years of the last century.  To this day, old timers still hearken to the so called "good old days" of the now defunct Lianga Bay Logging Company and still dream of the time when the huge logging and timber processing complex in Barangay Diatagon north of Lianga was providing widespread employment to local inhabitants and a steady influx of revenue and taxes for the municipality.

Now, the people of Lianga  have seen for themselves over the decades the tragic consequences of uncontrolled logging and denuded forests and how flash floods and landslides have caused havoc, ravaged agricultural land and residential areas and then claimed the lives of countless of their fellow Filipinos elsewhere in the country.  Many of them are, in fact, acutely aware of how the uncontrolled destruction of forests and watershed areas are connected to soil erosion, severe flooding and the real threat of denuded and unstable mountainsides coming down and burying whole communities under tons of mud and rocks. 

But there seems to be huge disconnect between the knowing of all of these facts and the development of a collective mindset here that enables the people to see their remaining forest lands, their entire environment and ecosystem as intrinsic and absolutely essential to their survival as healthy and  progressive communities in the future.  Instead, they look away unconcerned as trucks loaded with illegal timber pass by their homes along the national highway in the dead of night or just shrug away the distant yet telltale, snarling sounds of chainsaws felling trees as they visit their farms in the remote countrysides and mountains.

More than a few see nothing wrong in ordering from known illegal timber procurers wood supplies for their homes and construction needs.  Still others actually help or work for illegal loggers in one way or the other, horse blinders firmly strapped on and everything narrowly focused on the chance for quick and easy money, while any sense of guilt and the sight of naked tree stumps dotting ruined mountainsides are thrust away from all memory and everyday consciousness.

There is, of course, a small and slowly growing sector of the population here who is now becoming more vocal about not only the problem of illegal logging but are also seeking to address the whole gamut of concerns all related to the protection of the local environment and ecology.  Some them are affiliated with church and religious groups while others are non-governmental organizations and associations representing indigenous peoples and cultural minorities.  All holding views spanning the whole political spectrum yet are somehow united in the desire to protect what they all realize is priceless national wealth and patrimony that is in danger of being irreparably lost due to human greed and government neglect.

Yet their voices are lost in the midst of the general apathy and air of unconcern.  That is until the next round of natural calamities aggravated by an already damaged natural environment vengefully comes around to claim its quota of hapless victims and turn our comfortable, safe and familiar world upside down.  Only then will we raise our voices and scream to high heavens our remorse and regret why we did not do anything earlier to help prevent disaster from being brought down upon us.  Only then when everything we will try to do will no longer mean anything and will all be for naught.

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