POSTSCRIPT / December 7, 2004 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Total logging ban idea is another overreaction

IMPROVISATION: If you have anything important to say about flash floods and logging, legal or illegal, better say it aloud now.

In just one more week, the disaster that hit the Aurora-Quezon area would be forgotten. By next week, everybody from the President down to Cabinet officials and lawmakers — and even media — would be talking of something else.

Our span of attention is that short. And official concern for the poor masses is that shallow.

The only unchanging government program I know that stays and spans successive administrations is our endless IMPROVISATION from one crisis to another.

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THE LOGS VANISHED: You saw the newspaper photos and TV film clips of logs strewn around in the lowlands after they were washed down the bald mountainsides by the flash floods triggered by torrential rain and cyclonic winds.

What happened to the logs? I thought the government should have gathered them and cut them into lumber for use in public structures (like school buildings and health clinics) and social welfare projects.

Here is news for you. Some local folk have reported that as fast as the logs were piling up, unidentified men armed with chainsaws quickly cut them up and carted them away in trucks.

I would not be surprised if most of the timber and logs were taken (claimed?) by the same loggers who felled them in the highlands and by lumber mill owners operating as accessories.

Is this good or bad news? Lumber production is an economic activity generating jobs and profits. How will Malacanang classify the sawing of the stray logs based on its definition of Good and Bad News?

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PRESS RELEASE ORDER: People are asking if the total log ban reportedly ordered by President Arroyo is just a press release. It has been days, but how come Malacanang has not been able to show the Executive Order?

Is President Arroyo leaving it to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to stick its neck out and suspend all logging permits? Is it all up to the DENR and the defense department to enforce a total log ban?

Who will answer complaints that may be filed by legitimate loggers whose contracts are arbitrarily suspended or rescinded on the basis of a Malacanang press release?

If the President really means business, she should issue the Executive Order herself on Malacanang stationery, adorned by the Palace seal, the usual bar code and serial number, and her all-important signature. (She need not sign it in blood.)

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LATE ACTION: The Aurora-Quezon disaster triggered by killer typhoons again highlighted our bad habit of acting too late (if and when we do act) and then overreacting when the consequences of our negligence hit us.

We acted too late, actually did not act at all, when we failed to impose the rules governing logging in concession areas.

It appears now that nobody made sure that only mature trees of the right size and the right number were being felled in Aurora and Quezon.

Nobody saw to it that the cutting was done only inside the concession area, and that the required replanting was strictly followed.

After the Ormoc and other disasters involving runaway logging and flash floods, one would think that we should have learned that important lesson on caring for the environment so it would take care of us.

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OVERREACTION: A measure is gaining adherents in the Senate and elsewhere calling for a total log ban for 25 years. One pa-pogisenator even upped the ante by saying the ban should stay longer, say 100 years!

That is another case of overreaction. After failing the first test, we often overreact to make up for that failure the second time around.

As I understand the reasonable objections to unmitigated logging, any ban should be SELECTIVE and TEMPORARY. Note the two adjectives. I agree with them, because I cannot imagine a permanent total ban.

Conservation need not mean imposing a total and permanent ban on the cutting of trees. It means wise utilization of natural resources.

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TREE FARMS: In areas where there is a successful reforestation program in place over a reasonably long period, regulated logging can be allowed.

As long as only mature trees are cut in optimum numbers, the forest cover is not destroyed and replacement saplings are planted and cared for until maturity, we can allow the harvesting of selected trees.

We have to come up with an alternative similar to this if we want to motivate farmers to get involved in community tree farms.

We mentioned the term “farm.” That is how it should be. Organized residents should be encouraged take responsibility for a reforestation area, plant trees, take care of the farm — and harvest some of the trees as they mature.

Under “selective logging,” we do not allow logging just anywhere. We allow it in controlled areas, such as in community forests and tree farms, under strict government supervision.

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NOT PERMANENT: As for the ban being temporary, this means that a denuded area can be reopened after it is reforested under a plan involving the local community claiming a stake in the forest.

When the forest is fully rehabilitated and measures are in place for its continued protection, selective cutting of mature trees can be allowed.

Such a plan will fail without community involvement. The key is motivating enough people to take a heavily logged forest under their care and government helping them do what they are committed to do.

Unless the community is so affluent that it will not look for material benefits, the local folk involved in most projects are likely to look forward to harvesting certain forest by-products, and even cut some trees when the right time comes.

While the community agrees to wait while patiently caring for the ecosystem, it should be assured of access to the forest and its products at the right time..

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MONEY NEEDED: Another key factor aside from motivation and time, is money.

Rehabilitating a forest, like looking after a patient in the intensive care unit in the hospital, requires funds. Lots of it.

Fortunately, there are many sources of foreign assistance, some of them grants, for environment protection, including the rehabilitation of certain forests.

The United States alone is one such source of funds. It has a program where a certain amount is granted in proportion to what the recipient government invests in the protection of the environment.

The problem, last time I heard, is that we have not attended to presenting feasible projects and putting up the counterpart funds. Obviously, the US is careful not to pour in dollars that might just vanish in the bureaucratic maze.

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PUBLISH THE LIST: Before this detail is overlooked: I want to reiterate my suggestion that the government, specifically the DENR, publish the list of all loggers, legal and illegal, who have worked the mountains in Aurora, Quezon and neighboring provinces.

For several days now, there have been accusations that some influential loggers have overstepped or overworked their logging concessions in the disaster area. Some of those alluded to have denied the accusations.

It is important that the government make public the list of all persons and entities with concessions or permits to log, plus another list of those known to be engaged in illegal logging. We want the names.

The lists should be accompanied by data on area and location, production breakdown, trees replanted, and fees paid the government.

The people, especially those in the disaster areas, have the right to know who these loggers are. Further discussion can proceed from here.

If it really cares, the government should not cover up for the loggers, legal or illegal.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 7, 2004)

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