Bislig forests: besieged, beleaguered but there is hope

Cethosia or Lacewing butterfly. Photo courtesy of Trinket Canlas/www.birdingphilippines.comBISLIG, Surigao del Sur (MindaNews/23 April) – Ever since we joined the Wild Bird Club over five years ago, we have always been advised to visit Bislig forests before they finally disappear from the face of the earth and soon. There were gory tales of trees capriciously cut down by settlers and loggers, of kids as old as 10 wielding chainsaws, of murders and killings of those who got in the way of these malefactors.

Not wanting to put up with such aggravation and heartache, we had shunted Bislig to the periphery of our consciousness like a recurring nightmare until fellow birders related their experience of seeing bluebirds in a forest in the morning at road 1-4 and coming back to the same place later that day to find the forest all burnt up and gone.

We had reality bites at Bislig in early April – not exactly as envisaged in our nightmares but pretty close.

We saw logs almost everywhere along the road ready for shipment – tree farm logs mixed with endemic hardwood in a half-hearted way of concealing illegality; we saw log smugglers deep into the forest filling up their truck so very early in the morning, staring us down if we were the wrong doers; late at night we were blinded by the bright lights of a “Saddam” truck carrying huge forest logs the diameter of which were longer than we are tall, slowly approaching us and stopping to check who we were. Very early in the morning of our last day we heard that an illegal logging financier was murdered by his competitor – six bullets pumped into his body at close range. These are the loggers.

With regard to the settlers, there were huge swaths of cut up and burnt up areas; saplings and trees wantonly cut along the road and the unkindest cut of all, aside from the burning, is the sight of felled endemic trees left to rot where they had fallen, many purposely burnt. We did not see children with chainsaws, they were wielding bolos, but we saw three little girls and two little boys, the eldest not more than 8, demolish saplings along the road with their bare hands and feet and throwing rocks at Mang Lucio, the famous hermit in the forest – the very same smiling children who were quite shy at being photographed and who waved us good bye as we passed on the way home.

What is quite ghastly with the settlers is that most of the areas they clear are left uncultivated. Other than cutting, burning and destroying, almost nothing was seen in terms of raising food. There were semblances of haphazard farming but these tiny cultivated areas do not do justice to the widespread burning and destruction around it. So why cut more areas than they can plant on?

This brings me back to the jungles of  Davao some 50 years ago. Settlers from the Visayas and later Luzon would lay stake on an area by cutting the trees and burning the shrub. They would ensure that the area stays cleared at all times in a vain attempt to show possession, control and occupancy. This penchant for clearing also had a deeper purpose – those settlers wanted to convince themselves that they did not leave their quaint little Visayan villages to be relegated into the jungles of Mindanao and be derided as “taong gubat” by their visiting relatives – so the jungle had to go.

Today, half a century later and a few miles north of Davao, the same greed and phenomenon seems to prevail still. It seems that we have not progressed in our way of thinking – so the forest has to die.


But they say for every cloud there is always a silver lining, and might we add, for every bald patch of land, a bit of a forest, for every bit forest, quite a few bluebirds.

Yes, we did see the birds we’d wanted to see – the Blue Fantails, the Short-crested Monarchs, why, the male Celestial Monarch came so close we could almost touch its crest!!

Whoever said that non-endemic trees are a bane to our forest has not seen young falcata trees abloom with cuckoo birds. I will never look at falcata in disdain again. My heart will always go cuckoo when I behold a falcata for it is there that we saw the Indian, the Oriental (in both morphs) the Plaintive and the Brush Cuckoos. The beautiful Violet Cuckoo got away with “heard only” several times.

Did I hear raptors or birds of prey? Yes! Picop forest or what is left of it holds these jewels in her rags too. These birds preying on other wildlife in the forest are good indicators of a still healthy habitat. How long will it stay that way,  we do not know.

Rufous Hornbill. Photo courtesy of Trinket Canlas/www.birdingphilippines.comHornbills? In record numbers – 25 Mindanao Tarictics in a tree, 53 Writhed Hornbills flying overhead, seven noisy, mighty Rufous Hornbills or Kalaws, the biggest hornbills in the Philippines, being led by a young adventurous male.

In the devastation, we were able to detect the jungle trying to spring back – the magnificence and resiliency of nature. We saw fresh shoots springing up from a partly burnt tree; we saw fresh growth amongst the ashes; Tuog trees standing mightily defying the barbarity of the chainsaw, and what better defense would a tree have than to grow on steep slopes where the bullying homo sapiens have no choice but to bare his feet of clay?

Make no mistake about it, the forests of Picop are vast inspite of the all the carnage, and not everything is lost yet, but we have to act now and act fast.

There is hope. (Alex M. Tiongco of Davao City and Makati is a lawyer and environmentalist).