Anti-illegal logging task force operates on low budget, lack of personnel

BUTUAN CITY (MindaNews/24 Septebmber) —  The task of wiping out a “well-entrenched” illegal logging syndicate in Caraga region is a gargantuan task for a task force that is not only undermanned but ill-equipped

Retired Marine Gen. Renato Miranda, Executive Director of the Anti-Illegal Logging Task Force (AILTF) said they have only 21 personnel nationwide tasked to run after a deeply-entrenched illegal logging syndicate.

“There are actually 22 but one died so we’re now 21,” Miranda told MindaNews at their headquarters in a low-cost residential subdivision here.

But Miranda explained that while the AILTF operates on lean personnel, it survives on a system that is “coordinative” with all government agencies.

The AILTF is composed of the Secretaries of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) or his representative as chair, and the Department of  the Interior and Local Governments and the Department of National Defense, and the chiefs of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police or their representatives, as members.

“Our work is policing the entire operation since the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) is administrative in nature. This is also our expertise,” Miranda said.

Executive Order 23, which declared a ban on  the cutting and harvesting of timber in the natural and residual forests nationwide, provides that the AILTF “may call upon the support of any department, bureau, and office of the executive branch to assist in the discharge of its functions, such as but not limited to the provision of administrative or technical assistance, logistical support and detail of personnel.”

The Task Force was created by EO 23 which was issued by President Benigno Simeon Aquino III on February 1, 2011.

“Center of gravity”

Miranda is temporarily holding office here to focus on Caraga region which he describes as “the center of gravity” in illegal logging operations.

The region is the country’s largest wood producer, accounting for at least 60% of the country’s wood supply.

MindaNews visited the AILTF office on Friday to get updates on the anti-illegal logging campaign and to follow-up on reports linking Miranda and retired colonel Harry Taladua, AILTF Caraga chief,  to an illegal logging controversy in Surigao del Sur. Both denied the allegations.

Until its transfer to the new office about two weeks earlier, the AILTF was based at the compound of the DENR regional office in Barangay Ambago.

The new office is a two-story white house inside the low-cost Emenville Subdivision in Barangay Ambago. There was no signage outside the gate.

Louie Ceniza, AILTF intelligence officer III, said in jest that they might as well have no signage so no one will be able to locate them.

“Marami kaming mga kalaban” (We have many enemies),  Miranda, one of the brains behind several coup attempts against the Arroyo administration,  added in jest.

The rented office cum staffhouse, referred to as “White House,” stands on several lots. The house is quite big compared to its neighbors, and has a huge open space behind it, within the fenced compound.

“It’s the government that pays for the rent on a temporary basis since I will be basing here. But once the problem in Caraga is resolved, I will have to ship out to another area. Hindi rin pwede nating iwanan ang ibang areas,” (We also cannot leave behind other areas) he said.

Undermanned, ill-equipped

Not only is the Task Force undermanned, it is also ill-equipped.

A retired Marine officer, Miranda is accustomed to living on scant resources while on field. But an office tasked to stop illegal logging is expected to have resources that could help its operatives move quick and communicate fast.

Most of the team members carry old model mobile phones. Miranda carries two phones capable only of calling and sending text messages. “Ako lang siguro ang opisyal na nagdadala nang ganitong klaseng cellphone,” (I think I am the only official who carries this kind of phone), he said.

Taladua also carries a similar old-model phone.

MindaNews noted that the Task Force office itself has only one computer,  two laptops and a single landline phone. It has no photocopier and no scanner.

Fortunately, it has wi-fi access, retired Colonel Ernesto Ga, AILTF chief of staff,  said.

The Task Force members are contractual workers of government and don’t enjoy per diem, Miranda said.

“We cannot reimburse for food, hotels and others. Pwede lang magpa-reimburse sa sasakyan para dun sa gamit mong gasolina. Yung sasakyan lang ang kakain. (The only thing that will be reimbursed is gasoline for the vehicle. Only the vehicle will eat), Ceniza said, laughing.

The only visible high-end car at the AILTF office here is the Alterra, which according to Miranda, is assigned to Ceniza. “Borrowed from Malacanang,” said Ceniza.

A blue Toyota Hilux pick-up, 1996 model, is assigned for Miranda’s use and another for Taladua.

The Task Force ID is still in the process of  being finalized, Miranda said, adding they want a tamper-proof ID.

Undermanned DENR

Marlo Mendoza , DENR Assistant Secretary, concurrent Regional Executive Director for Caraga, in an interview also last Friday, told MindaNews the declining number of DENR personnel contributed  to the problem on how to effectively implement the log ban.

“More than 200 plus items cannot be filled up because of the attrition law,” excluding those who were suspended or relieved, he said.

This is also not counting the 25 DENR personnel in Caraga region who died while on duty since EO 23 was implemented.

Miranda said it is important that the public understands the structure of the Task Force, explaining he is not privy to the tiniest details involving his men on field. The regional chiefs of the AILTF, he said, would have the details related to a particular case. In Caraga, it is Taladua, the AILTF regional head, who is expected to have the details.

Miranda acknowledged Taladua is facing investigation on his reported presence in the company of businessman Rolando Seblario in Cantilan, Surigao del Sur sometime on August 28 or 29 allegedly to retrieve the apprehended logs impounded at the Surigao Development Corporation (Sudecor) concession.

But it will be the DENR that will resolve whether or not the seized logs were legally or illegally sourced, Miranda said.

Miranda reiterated investigations are underway on the supposed illegal loggers in the region and their alleged “kuntsabahan” (collusion) with certain police, military and local government officials but he declined to elaborate.

Ceniza said data gathering is “ongoing” on the alleged illegal loggers operating in the region, including the alleged involvement of Seblario. MindaNews called Seblario by landline and mobile phone several times but he could not be reached. MindaNews went to his business address, Jeroking Enterprises, in Upper Doongan here on September 18 but was told he left for Manila on August 29.

Under Sec. 3.1 of EO 23, the AILTF was created “to take the lead in the anti-illegal logging campaign and ensure the implementation of this EO under the supervision of the DENR. It shall also assist the DENR in  the enforcement of other environmental laws.” (Vanessa L. Almeda/MindaNews)