TURNING POINT: The Legal Implications of Tree Cutting at MSU Naawan

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews/02 March) — The recent cutting of 30-year-old Narra, Mahogany, Ilangilang and other trees at the Mindanao State University (MSU) Naawan if carried out without authority from the Environment Secretary or his authorized representative, is a statutory crime punishable under Republic Act 3571 and under Section 68, PD 705, as amended by Executive Order 277 Series 1987, otherwise known as the Revised Forestry Code of the Philippines.

RA 3571, as amended by PD 953, is a law that prohibits and punishes the cutting, destroying or injuring of planted or growing trees, flowering plants and shrubs or plants of scenic values along public roads, in plazas, parks, school premises or in any other public ground.

The only exception to the regulation is when the cutting, destroying, or injuring of same is necessary for public safety, or such pruning of same is necessary to enhance its beauty and only “upon the approval of the duly authorized representative of the head of agency or political subdivision (Section3, PD 953).”

On the other hand, Section 68 of PD 705, as amended, prohibits and punishes anyone who shall cut, gather, collect or remove timber or other forest products without authority, from any forest land, from any alienable or disposal public lands, or from private land.

Incidentally, the Mindanao State University is a government corporation allowed by law to purchase and own land to be used for public services as an institution of higher learning. The parcels of agricultural land the University campus now occupies at Naawan, Misamis Oriental were purchased from private landowners covered with titles and/or tax declarations and are, therefore, private lands within the purview of Section 68 of PD 705, as amended. Thus the cutting of trees within MSU Naawan premises is also covered or governed by Section 68 of said decree.

Moreover, the cutting specifically of Narra and other premium hardwood trees requires special permit under DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) Adm. Order No. 78, S. of 1987 and DENR Memo Circular No.22, S. of 1990. And under DENR Memorandum Order dated February 5, 2013, the cutting of Narra needs to be approved by the DENR Central Office, particularly by the Office of the Undersecretary for field Operations,

There are two distinct and separate offenses punished under Section 68, of PD 705, as amended, to wit:
(1) Cutting, gathering, collecting and removing timber or forest products from any forest land, or timber from alienable or disposable public land, or from private land without any authorization; and
(2) Possession of timber or other forest products without legal documents required under existing forest laws and regulations.

The offenders and/or persons liable and subject to arrest with warrant or in instances without warrant, with respect to prohibited acts above are the following: the cutter, gatherer, collector, receiver, and the possessor, or in the case of a corporation, the officer or officers who appear to be responsible to the commission of the offense.

All tools and equipment used in committing the offense shall be confiscated and seized and forfeited in favor of the government.

The offenses committed under RA 3571 and PD 705, as amended, are malum prohibitum offenses, that is, crimes committed in violation of statutory or regulatory laws. Hence, criminal intent is not an essential element in the offense. In other words, those who cut the trees or keep and possess the timbers without authority or legal documents committed a criminal act punishable under the existing laws regardless of the motive or purpose it was pursued. So such argument that the trees were cut in order to give way to the construction of a school building, or to fabricate chairs and tables for the school will not justify the act or mitigate the effect of the crime.

The violation of RA 3571 is punishable by prison correctional in its minimum period to prison mayor in its minimum period.
The violation of Section 68, PD 705, as amended, is punishable as qualified thief under article 310 in relation to Article 309 of the Revised Penal Code and whose penalty may range from a few months to as long as 20 years of imprisonment depending on the total worth or value of the stolen goods.

For instance, in a case involving 111 board feet of lumber and logs worth P20, 930.40 from a narra tree cut in a private lot, the offender was penalized by the court four (4) months and one (1) day of arresto mayor, as minimum, to three (3) years, four (4) months and twenty (20) days of prision correctional (Sarmiento Merida vs. People of the Philippine, GR No. 158182).

In another case (Villarin & Latayada vs People of the Philippines, GR No. 175289), the possession without legal documents of 4326 board feet of timber valued at P108, 150.00, the second offense contemplated in Section 68, PD 705, as amended, caused a penalty to the offender of two (2) years, four (4) months, and one (1) day of prision correctional as minimum to sixteen (16) years, eight (8) months and one (1) day of reclusion temporal.

Were the cuttings of premium hardwoods at MSU Naawan campus covered by permits issued by the DENR Secretary or his authorized representative?

MSU Naawan has, accordingly, applied for said permits, but whether the applications were approved or granted by DENR is another matter. The application for special permit to cut trees, particularly protected hardwoods, inside public school grounds and in private land, is usually acted upon by DENR authorities only upon compliance of certain requisites, or upon submission among others of the following:
1. Vicinity map and sketch of the area where the trees to be cut are located
2. Inventory of the trees to be cut which covers
a. Number and species
b. Diameter and height of each tree and estimated volume of timber to be generated
c. Estimate of total volume in board feet of cut lumbers/woods and their estimated value
d. Utilization plan of the cut timbers
3. Infrastructure/physical development plan of the area where the trees are found
4. Building permit
5. Community consultation on the cutting of trees
6. Confirmatory assessment by DENR environmental officers of the site and the trees to be cut

Once compliance is made, DENR may issue the permit to the requesting party often with certain conditions, like the possibility of saving some trees by moving the construction of the building a little away from premium trees, or by earth-balling and relocating the trees; the submission of a replanting plan for the replacement of the felled trees; fixing the schedule or timeframe of tree cutting; and the supervision of the cutting by the CENRO or other DENR environment officer.

The permit has exclusive period and is not transferable. No cutting shall be started without the presence of the DENR supervising representative(s). The presence of a DENR officer is important to control the cutting because if the number of trees cut exceeds the number requested and the period of cutting goes beyond the period permitted, the permit may be rendered null and void. Penalties may be imposed in accordance with existing laws and regulations.

Now, has MSU Naawan management complied with all the requirements to warrant the issuance of a tree cutting permit in connection especially for the construction of a gymnasium or a Training and Student Activity Center on campus?

Accordingly, the application for permit was submitted to DENR 10 sometime in late November or early December 2013. The cutting of trees on the other hand was commenced sometime in the middle of January 2014. Obviously, there was no material time to comply with the requirements in the issuance of a permit, so much so that the cutting involved 28 Narra trees which needed the approval of DENR Central office.

By the mindless way it felled, bulldozed, uprooted and the careless manner it dumped the trees in a log site that was also cleared of some trees, a permit is apparently absent. We have not also read or heard of any public notice or announcement on scheduled consultations anent the cutting of trees with community stakeholders, particularly with the constituency of MSU Naawan campus who planted, nurtured and cared for the trees for years. And no DENR officer was ever around to supervise the cutting of the trees.

But, was there really a permit as claimed (without showing) by the MSU Naawan Chancellor during an interview with ABS CBN on February 13, 2014?

If the answer is affirmative, then MSU Naawan management has nothing to worry. It may instead put DENR 10 in hot water on the possibility of issuing a hanky-panky permit.

If, on the other hand, the answer is negative then all concerned in MSU Naawan are in for big trouble. DENR is in the position of filing a case against the responsible persons in the proper court. (William R. Adan, Ph.D., was a research and extension worker, professor and the first chancellor of the Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental. He was a British Council fellow and trained in 1994 at Sheffield University, United Kingdom, on Participatory Planning and Environmentally Responsible Development. Upon retirement, he served as national consultant to the ADB-DENR project on integrated coastal resource management. He is the immediate past president of the MSU Alumni Association)