WHERE HAVE ALL THE FORESTS GONE? (3): Illegal logging intensifies in Surigao Sur despite total log ban

Last of three parts

CARMEN, Surigao del Sur (MindaNews/19 September) – Fr. Raymond Ambray, spokesperson of Caraga Watch, an environment watchdog composed of various churches and sectoral groups, said they found an unlikely ally in the Surigao Development Corporation (Sudecor).

Ambray said they were at loggerheads with Sudecor and the company was even the subject of their protests for its alleged failure to protect the sacred places of the Manobo.

But the alarming illegal logging activities in the province have bonded them to a common cause. “Yes, we received reports of the increasing illegal logging activities in the area and this is quite disturbing,” the priest said.

The Social Action Center (SAC), according to its press statement sent to MindaNews on September 10, said they have a Lumad informant who said that one of the major illegal logging operations in the area is financed and managed by one “Jhero King.”

“Jhero King” has been identified to be Roland Seblario, owner of Jeroking Enterprises in Upper Doongan, Butuan City in Agusan del Norte.

A tribal chieftain interviewed by MindaNews said Seblario also introduces himself as “Datu Kalinga.” The source, who requested not to be named, citing security reasons, added he met Seblario in his house in Doongan, Butuan City and talked with him over the phone a few months ago.

In both meetings, the source claimed Seblario told him he didn’t care if he was encroaching on their ancestral domain because  “malaki ang koneksyon ko sa gobyerno” and that no one can stop him.

In 2008, Seblario was identified in a National Democratic Front press release as one of the traders in Caraga region involved in illegal logging activities.

MindaNews last week made several attempts to call Seblario but the person who answered the number listed under Jeroking Enterprises, said it was a residential number. Several calls were also made to his mobile number but these went unanswered.

MindaNews went to Jeroking Enterprises in Butuan City on Tuesday (Sept. 18),  a compound with an eight-foot high gate and a watch tower but no signage, and was told by  Junry Umbal, who claimed to be a guard, that Seblario was not around and that he left for Manila on August 29. Umbal said he could not give the phone numbers of the firm and Seblario.

Review EO 23

For Dr. Isidro Olan, executive director of the Lovers of Nature Foundation Incorporated based here, illegal logging activities prevail “because they (illegal loggers) are able to acquire falsified documents and table surveys facilitated by crooks within the DENR.”

Olan was quoted in the SAC statement as saying that the reason why illegal loggers are difficult to stop is because of their “established connection with high ranking officials of enforcement agencies, politicians, and members of (the anti-illegal logging task force).”

The SAC statement urged the Aquino administration to “start reviewing EO 23 itself” and “start evaluating the performance of the DENR and all other enforcement agencies tasked to implement and enforce all relevant forestry laws.”

PENRO meets Seblario

Merlinda Manila, the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) based in Tandag, Surigao del Sur, told MindaNews in a telephone interview on September 14 that she has received reports of Seblario’s alleged questionable activities “but I made it clear to him that it cannot be allowed because he will find a lot of enemies.”

She acknowledged there may have been reports about collusion with the previous team “but not under my team.”

Manila assumed the post on June 30 after her predecessor, Domingo Cabrera Jr., was sacked along with 30 other DENR officials in Caraga and Davao regions.

Manila disclosed she met Seblario sometime in the third week of August at Shacene Restaurant in Tandag City after the latter requested for a meeting with her.

“Nakig-meet ko kay mao man ang ato work pud nga makig-istorya kung kinsa man ang naay concern. Nag ingon siya nga siya ang namalit,” Manila said. (I met with him because part of our work is to talk to persons who have concerns. He said he is a buyer).

She said she received a text from a friend that a certain Seblario wanted to meet with her at Shacene Restaurant in Tandag City and she obliged since she had just come from field work and would be passing by the said restaurant.

“It was not a scheduled meeting. It was a friendly conversation and I just gave in to a friend’s request. Baka sabihin naman nila napakasuplada ko. At saka taga dito din naman ako” (They might think I’m a snob. And I’m from here, anyway), Manila said.

She added she found nothing irregular with the restaurant meeting.

She said meeting Seblario at the restaurant was a “familiarization” (meeting) since she is still new to the post.

Asked if the logs impounded at Sudecor’s compound had been paid for by Seblario, Manila said, “I have no idea whether it is already paid or not.”

Manila recalled having told Seblario that the logs are still subject for confiscation in favor of the national government since it is “illegal because of the lack of papers.”

Manila denied Seblario tried to influence her into releasing the logs. “Pag may papel pwede ra (ma-claim) pero dili pwede na sa akoa (ang maimpluwensyahan). Dili pwede yun sa ako nga team karon. Ang amo trabaho diri is to enforce the law.” (That is not allowed. If there are documents, that’s fine but trying to influence me is not okay with me. My team will not allow that. Our work here is to enforce the law). (Vanessa L. Almeda / MindaNews)