‘Extortion’ bugs tree farmers, sawmill owners in Butuan City

BUTUAN CITY (MindaNews/22 July) – Small-scale wood processors here said they might be forced to shut down for lack of raw materials as tree farmers have stopped supplying them logs to evade the alleged rampant extortion activities at checkpoints along the Agusan River.

In an inquiry yesterday by the Sangguniang Panlungsod’s committee on police and public safety, Benedicto Temosa, president of the  Butuan  Integrated Group of  Band-saw  Operators and Lumber Dealers (Big Bold), said many of their members have already  slowed down their operations.

Big Bold, an organization of 50 mini-sawmills and lumber dealers, claims to employ at least 5,000 workers.

Temosa said the presence of many checkpoints has made it difficult for their suppliers to deliver timber.

He alleged that those who are conducting “mobile checkpoints” along Agusan River would demand “higher” transport fees for logs without issuing official receipts.

Reports said the asking price would reach as high as P50,000 regardless of whether the logs have proper documentation or not.

The committee, chaired by Councilor Anthony Ryan Culima, conducted an investigation in aid of legislation on reports of extortion activities at checkpoints allegedly perpetrated by law enforcers, soldiers and personnel of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

San Vicente Barangay Chairman Raul Carampatana, owner of the Samuel Industries and Big Bold spokesperson, said suppliers of either lauan logs or planted species have experienced losses.

“What’s happening now, let us say, your capital is P15,000 to P20,000 and your expenses  reached P25,000, so, no one would do business again”, said Carampatana who accused law enforcers manning the checkpoints of extortion activities.

Mayor Ferdinand Amante Jr., who attended the committee hearing, called on law enforcers and DENR personnel to stop the alleged extortion activities.

He also warned owners of sawmills and plywood companies and loggers “to operate within the bounds of law and ethical practices.”

“These activities are anti-business which surely hamper all our efforts to turn around Butuan’s economy”, the mayor said referring to extortion, adding it would kill the local wood-based industry.

Supt. Joseph Boquiren, acting Butuan City police director, reported to the committee that a policeman was relieved for alleged involvement in extortion activities.

He said they are also investigating members of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group, Coast Guard and a Maritime police officer for allegedly committing the same offense.

Boquiren, however, withheld the identity of the policeman who was placed under office “restriction” pending further investigation.

When Vice Mayor Laurence Fortun asked for names of agencies that are allegedly involved in extortion activities, Temosa said “what happened to Caloy (Carlos Tanjay) is the breaking point” of such activities.

Tanjay, owner of a mini-sawmill, was arrested by members of the CIDG for “resisting arrest” after he tried to enter the CIGD office at the Agusan del Norte Provincial Capitol complex here on July 12.

CIDG agents allegedly barred Tanjay from entering the office to see the 11 persons who were earlier arrested for transporting 661 pieces of lauan logs suspected to be illegally cut.

He allegedly reacted by shouting “bad words,” prompting the agents to lock him up.

Tanjay admitted before the committee that the 11 persons have supplied falcatta, gmelina and other planted species to his sawmill.

As “evidence”, he showed to the committee receipts of cash advances to the 11 persons but he did not admit that the advances included amounts for the confiscated lauan logs.

The CIDG later released the arrested persons without charges.

Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer Rosendo Asunto of Agusan del Norte informed the committee that mini-sawmills are only allowed to process planted species not naturally grown trees such as lauan.

“One of our flagship projects is to implement the Oplan Kalikasan, to protect the environment and run after those who are involved in illegal logging and mining activities,” Supt. Warren De Leon, CIGD Regional Director told the committee.

De Leon said the CIDG has no checkpoint along the Agusan River and would only respond to reports on logs being transported downstream.

Jaime Acebu, Community Environment and Natural Resources Officer for Butuan, testified that the DENR only has one authorized checkpoint in Butuan City and it is located along the river in Barangay Bit-os.

He said other checkpoints established outside the designated area are considered illegal.

But a city official who requested anonymity said that there are four other checkpoints along the river in Barangay Amparo usually manned by law enforcers. (Alden Pantaleon Jr./MindaNews)