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

1st of three parts

CARMEN, Surigao del Sur (MindaNews/17 September) —  The Aquino administration’s total log ban is endangering, instead of protecting, the remaining forest cover in the six towns of Surigao del Sur, as illegal logging activities have intensified at such an alarming scale, a church-led group here said.

“If the main intent of Executive Order No. 23 is to improve forest protection, how come illegal logging (has intensified) today at a scale so alarming, and illegal loggers seem to find refuge (in it),” Father Frank Olvis, Vicar Forane of the Diocese of Tandag’s Social Action Center (SAC), said.

Olvis heads the SAC zone of  CarCanMadCarLanPar, the acronym for Carrascal, Cantilan, Madrid, Carmen, Lanuza and Parang towns in Surigao del Sur.

The church-led group, which has been at the forefront of the anti-mining and anti-logging campaign in the province, lamented in a press statement sent to MindaNews last week that since January this year, “illegal logging, illegal cutting and illegal lumbering have increased significantly despite the log ban.”

EO 23 was issued by President Benigno Simeon Aquino III on February 1, 2011 “to protect the remaining forest cover areas of the country not only to prevent flash floods and hazardous flooding but also to preserve biodiversity, protect threatened habitats and sanctuaries of endangered and rare species, and allow natural regeneration of residual forests and development of plantation forests.”

Among the evidences of large-scale illegal logging cited in the press statement is that “100 chainsaws were used to cut Lauan, Yakal, Narra and Falcatta trees in Sitio Gacub of Barangay Hinapuyan in Carmen.”

Logging equipment “like tractors and wreckers were deployed to make the extraction much faster,” it said.

More cutting
At the center of the illegal logging activities is the 75,671 hectare managed forest of  the Surigao Development Corporation (Sudecor) which covers Carmen and the towns of Madrid, Lanuza, Cortes, Tandag, Tago and San Miguel. Within this concession are five certificate of ancestral domain titles (CADT) given to Manobo communities.

Leaders of Lumads (indigenous peoples) also confirmed that the logging moratorium has ushered illegal loggers into their areas.

Paquito Maka, also known as Datu Pahilona, Manobo chief in Lanuza, said illegal logging in several upland communities is now widespread. But he admitted that some Lumads are also engaged in the trade in order to survive.

“Sa pagkakaron amo nang gikontra ang EO ni Aquino kay wa man hinoon nasumpo ang illegal logging. Gipahunong ang kumpaniya pero nanulod naman hinoon ang mga illegal” (We are against the EO because it hasn’t stopped illegal logging. It stopped the company from logging but illegal loggers have taken over), another Manobo Datu, Eladio Montenegro or Datu Makaligoy, said.

The Datu, now based in Barangay Puyat, here told MindaNews that illegal logging is now also rampant in the towns of San Miguel and Tago.

Sudecor’s plight

Sudecor had a Timber License Agreement (TLA) that expired in June 2011 but has an Integrated Forest Plantation Management Agreement (IFMA) approved in 2009.

The IFMA, however, has been put on hold because of the logging moratorium declared last year.

Sudecoris also facing a review pending the request of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) for them to seek a Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) from the tribal communities covered in the five existing CADTs.

When the logging moratorium was imposed, Sudecor had to shut down its operations as the EO specified that IFMA holders are also banned from logging operations.

Rowil Aguillon, Woods Division head of Sudecor’s Management Committee,  said the logging moratorium has inadvertently perpetuated illegal logging activities instead of stopping it, with the vast concession area of the Puyat-owned company as haven for illegal loggers and greedy government officials.

According to Aguillon, 92% of its total concession is still forested, including about 20% forest reserve.

“We have adopted the policy since 1992 to ban logging in old-growth forests under silvicultural prescriptions,” Aguillon said. He explained that they cut trees at an almost a 50-year cycle, cutting only 10 to 15 trees for every one-hectare forest. “What we found in Barangay Hinapuyan were trees at least 30 years already and they were not supposed to be cut,” he said.

Since the temporary shutdown in 2011, Sudecor has withdrawn its 26 forest concession guards. The absence of the guards, however, has made it easy for illegal loggers to enter. (Vanessa Almeda/MindaNews)
[Tomorrow: Pandora’s box]