Philippines storm deaths caused by logging

Wednesday, November 20, 1991 - 11:00

By Emlyn Jones

More destruction was caused by tropical storm Thelma in the central Philippines than has been caused in the past by much bigger storms. Worst affected was he town of Ormoc on the island of Leyte, where thousands of bodies were left in the streets and among the ravaged houses. Many are still buried under the mud or have been washed out to sea.

This was not a natural disaster, but one for which both the Marcos and Aquino governments, anxious to make money from the sale of timber, are responsible. Mountain slopes denuded of forests could not hold the storm water, which rushed down carrying mud from eroded slopes.

Also responsible are the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, both of which have pressed the government to pay the national debt instead of spending on welfare and the environment.

The disastrous effects of logging have been known for a long time: flash floods sweep away houses, spoil crops, drown buffaloes and wash away fertile soil. Rivers which ran deep and clear are silted up, soil carried out to sea covers coral reefs, both river and sea fishing are affected.

The mountains of Bukidnon, the source of the biggest rivers in Mindanao, have been extensively logged. "If we allow logging to continue in this province, 10 years is the longest for Mindanao to become a desert", says Bukidnon vice governor Lorenzo Dinlayan.

In recent years, recurrent flash floods have turned the lives of the people of San Fernando Bukidnon into a nightmare. Logging continued in spite of letters of protest written to the Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR). The people set up barricades and picketed the logging trucks in 1987, but Judge Ernesto Mendoza of the provincial trial court issued a restraining order declaring the picket illegal.

On the strength of this order, Philippine Constabulary (PC) soldiers, the Civilian Home Defence Force and hired company goons violently dispersed the picket. Father Patrick Kelly described how the PC came with their shields and rattan sticks, beating people, throwing them to the ground and clearing the way for the trucks. But the people continued to protest until the DENR was forced to suspend the timber licence of the Caridod C. Alemendras Logging Enterprises (CCALE). Nevertheless, logging continued and so did the protests.

In 1988, after other municipalities joined in the protests, the DENR was compelled to cancel the timber licence agreement and suspend that of El Labrador Lumber Co Inc, said to be owned by congressman V. Chaves. Like other logging firms, El Labrador had flouted reforestation laws. In 1987, it reforested 26 hectares instead of the 200 it was supposed to replace.

According to the Asia Pacific Bank, forest concessionaires could realise profits as high as 100,000 pesos per hectare, with the government charging only nominal royalties. In September 1989, continued logging drove 13 people from San Fernando to stage a hunger strike on the doorstep of the DENR in Quezon City. After three Bukidnon congressmen urged the president to declare a total logging ban in the province, the group was invited to meet President Aquino.

The people had won a small victory, but only for their area. When they asked the DENR to assign 20 forest guards it refused for budgetary reasons, but agreed to deputise 20 citizens.

The government did nothing to stop logging in the rest of the archipelago. During a visit last February to Agusan del Sur, where some tropical forest still remains, I passed three trucks laden with huge logs. The parish priest said he had recently seen 10 trucks loaded with logs protected by a military escort.

A fact-finding team in May 1988 reported that El Labrador had resorted to "farming out": allowing illegal loggers to operate within company concession in exchange for "royalties". CCALE trucks have also been observed in illegal operations.

Logging is responsible, too, for much avoidable destruction following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in Central Luzon. Steaming mud (lahar) which caused so much damage could not flow harmlessly to the sea because deforestation had caused silting of the rivers, and there was no vegetation to slow the movement of lava. Perhaps even more serious is the long-term threat of desertification hanging over these once beautiful and fertile islands.

From GLW issue 36