Floods and forests, plunder and profit

The ecological debacle that the Philippines is currently facing is characterized by floods, landslides and mudslides which devastated vast areas in Luzon at the heels of successive typhoons in the past few weeks. The culprits are easily identifiable—mega dams stopping the flow of rivers, alongside historical denudation of the country’s mountains. Alongside their demand for social justice, a wide array of democratic sectors are clamoring for environmental justice. They demand an end to the plunder and destruction of the environment which makes the Philippines vulnerable to ecological disasters and extreme weather disturbances.

State-sponsored large-scale logging and mining operations spanning several decades have resulted in massive deforestation. Companies which are mostly foreign-owned and engaged in the export of timber and mineral extracts are allowed to operate with impunity and rewarded with numerous perks and incentives.

A research published on October 25 by TreeHugger, a US-based environmental watchdog, indicates that the Philippines is among the top 10 countries in the world that recorded the highest deforestation rates in the past two decades. Using satellite images, the study points out that the country recorded an average deforestation rate of 28% since 1990.

Based on the latest Philippine Forestry Statistics released by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in 2015, the country has only a remaining 7 million-hectare total forest cover, or merely 23% of its total land area, which is the lowest is Southeast Asia. Only 3% of primary or virgin forests remain in the country.

A history of catastrophe

The Philippines used to be 90% (27 million has) forested during the precolonial period, down to 70% (21 million has) in the early 1900s. Massive deforestation during that era is mainly attributed to the establishment of export crop plantations by the Spaniards.

Deforestation decreased during World War II but escalated again during the post-war years, particularly from the 1940s to 1980s which have seen the steepest deforestation rate as lumber exports became one of the country’s source of foreign income. Under the guise of reconstructing the economy, successive puppet regimes lifted restrictions on log harvesting and exportation. Remaining restrictions such as the 50-cm minimum diameter for timber to be cut were ignored by loggers. By the early 1970s, over 170 000 has of forest lands were being destroyed annually. Less than 5% of this was reforested.

The logging industry also served as one of the most lucrative sources of ill-gotten wealth by those in power, especially during the Marcos dictatorial regime. In 1975, logging companies protected by Marcos extracted a record high of 15.5 million cubic meters of lumber. From 1972 to 1988, around 8.57 million hectares of forested area and 3.8 million hectares of virgin forests were destroyed. By the late 1980s, only 8% of the forest cover in the country remained. Since then, the rate of deforestation slowed down, simply because very little has been left of the Philippine forest cover.

The catastrophe in the Cagayan Valley which was submerged in flood in the wake of recent Typhoon Ulysses and the overflowing of the Magat Dam, brings to light the history of large-scale deforestation in the area. One of the biggest plunderers of the Sierra Madre mountains is Marcos crony Alfonso Lim Sr., who owned the Taggat Industries Inc., Western Cagayan Lumber Co. Inc., Sierra Madre Woods Ind. Inc., and four other logging companies which were responsible for denuding hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests in Sierra Madre.

During martial law, then Secretary of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile gave military protection to Lim, with one of his logging companies enlisting 150 soldiers. Lim supplied them with with weapons and paid for their salaries. Earlier in 2016, Lim’s properties were sequestered after his family lost the graft case filed against them.

To monopolize the timber industry, the Marcos regime also appointed Enrile as the “general” for logging in the Philippines who was tasked to issues permits to logging companies. At the same time, Marcos also awarded him with the biggest logging concession in the Philippines which covered 95,770 hectares of forests in Northern Samar as owner of the San Jose Timber Corp. This is in addition to seven of his other logging companies which denuded forests in Palawan, Samar, Bukidnon, Butuan, Cebu and Palawan. He is also the owner of a rubber plantation in Basilan. On top of this, Enrile was engaged in illegal logging in Las Navas, Northern Samar, which was protected by a paramiltary group called “Lost Command” which was directly headed by Philippine Constabulary Col. Carlos Ledesma. The said group was behind the massacre of 45 anti-logging residents of Barangay Sag-od in the said town in September 1981.

Isidro, son of the late Marcos crony David Consunji, is currently the biggest logging mogul in the country. He owns the DMCI Holdings, Incorporated, a conglomerate which operates various logging companies in more than 102,954 hectares of land in 10 municipalities across South Central Mindanao. Seven of these are based in Sultan Kudarat, two in Maguindanao and another in South Cotabato. His logging operations are covered by Integrated Forest Management Agreements (IFMAs) issued by the DENR that are valid for 25 years and may be renewed. DMCI logging operations are notorious not only for massive denudation of forests but also for using armed suppression in encroaching in ancestral lands and displacing Dulangan Manobos, settlers and Moros. Large-scale gold and coal mining concessions are also located in the said areas.

Currently, conservative estimates by the reactionary government put the rate of destruction of forest cover at 47,000 hectares annually. This includes closed and open forests as well as mangroves which help in preventing erosion, floods and storm surges. However, despite the worsening impact of natural calamities in the Philippines in recent years attributed to deforestation, Duterte continues to promote and uphold the export of lumber and other wood products by allowing large-scale logging operations across the country, especially by multinational companies.

Based on data by the Bureau of Customs, the Philippines has exported 878,664 tons of lumber from 2016 to 2019. Almost 90% of exports went to only two countries, namely China (81%) and Japan (18%). Similarly, under the regime of Benigno Aquino III, the country also exported almost 1.6 million tons of lumber. The aforementioned figures excludes the hundreds of millions of exported processed wood products such as plywood and furniture among others, and lumber extracted through rampant illegal logging operations.

Sham environmental rehab efforts

Instead of implementing environmental rehabilitation efforts, Duterte’s economic agenda is focused on promoting destructive mining, logging operations, as well as infrastructure projects and other artificial beautification programs such as the controversial dumping of dolomite sand at a portion of Manila Bay. Even the flagship program of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources dubbed the National Greening Program (NGP) which is touted to [plant more than one] billion[s of] trees is exposed as a scheme for massive contract growing of commercial timber and fruit bearing trees that are mostly invasive and endanger biodiversity. Local politicians from the big landlord class and their agroforestry business counterparts mainly benefit from contracts awarded under the NGP.

Data published by the Commission on Audit in 2019 on the NGP revealed that exotic (or non-endemic) species have continuously been the predominant species planted in NGP areas. This includes fast-growing commercial trees such as mahogany, falcata, rubber, and cash-crops such as coffee and cacao. The so-called reforestation scheme of the NGP goes against the advice of the scientific community that calls for the planting of trees that are endemic in the forests.

The same products are among the country’s top agricultural exports. Contrary to its claim of rehabilitating forests, the DENR touts that it is expecting to harvest tons of falcata timber in approximately 79 hectares of NGP plantations and generate a P31.6 billion profit for its contractors. Such will be the case in many areas where exotic commercial timber and crops are being planted. Forest covers will only be temporary as these will only be cut down later on.

On top of this, the NGP is also being utilized as a large-scale land use conversion and grabbing scheme. Under the guise of reforestation, NGP contractors encroach in ancestral lands and forcibly evict indigenous people and settlers who have long occupied and cultivated these.

Floods and forests, plunder and profit