‘Overwhelming Force’ to Save the Nation’s Last Great Forest

Perez said that after 16 years of work as a forest advocate, he was gratified that the most successful campaign of all was organized without foreign funding. “Tayo-tayo lang ito,” he said. He said that the critical factor was the leadership of Padaca. “She gave it moral force, will and credibility,” Perez said. Having known the activist through years of often frustrating anti-logging campaigning, I know that he doesn’t make that kind of assessment of politicians lightly. — Howie G. Severino, GMA News.TV

SAN MARIANO, Isabela — Seen from the air, the evidence was clear-cut.

Jagged roads running through the green mountainsides ended in ugly brown gashes — torn up ground that marked where trees once stood. In the rivers floated fleets of freshly cut logs. In assorted compounds lay vast piles of wood. It was a comprehensive aerial view of rampant illegal logging in the Northern Sierra Madre mountain range.

When I flew over this forest last year, I was with the provincial governor, Grace Padaca, her NGO allies, and military officers who took in the environmental destruction below with the determined gaze of war planners.

My own attitude bordered on cynicism. I had been visiting this mountain range – flying over it, walking in it, sailing its bordering sea – for more than 15 years. During that time I’d heard of countless plans to enforce a log ban in the range, the nation’s largest protected area and easily the biggest remaining block of ancient forest in the Philippines. Yet the annihilation had always continued.

But around the time of that chopper flight in the middle of 2008, the tide began to turn. A task force formed by Padaca and backed by the military started to hike up the Abuan River and seize illegally cut wood left behind by bugadors, the river men who make a living riding the logs down the treacherous rapids to middlemen in the plains. The wood was left on the shores, often hidden haphazardly beneath leafy tree branches. The bugadors had fled, the chopper warning them that troops were coming.

My documentary team and I accompanied Padaca’s anti-illegal logging task force up the Abuan River on one of its first sorties, fighting the currents that pulled at our legs as soldiers scanned the slopes for the New People’s Army guerrillas who have long made the mountain range their haven. Environmental activists recruited by Governor Padaca gave the task force its gung-ho energy on the ground, while agents of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources provided manpower and legitimacy for the timber confiscation.

When I flew over this forest last year, I was with the provincial governor, Grace Padaca, her NGO allies, and military officers who took in the environmental destruction below with the determined gaze of war planners.

My own attitude bordered on cynicism. I had been visiting this mountain range – flying over it, walking in it, sailing its bordering sea – for more than 15 years. During that time I’d heard of countless plans to enforce a log ban in the range, the nation’s largest protected area and easily the biggest remaining block of ancient forest in the Philippines. Yet the annihilation had always continued.

We recorded men from the lowlands brave the unknown dangers of the jungle, find and seize contraband wood of the finest quality, and ride these down a perilous river to a military checkpoint for triumphant measurement and land transport to a government gym for safekeeping. Behind all that was a disabled woman governor who spoke in soft tones but carried a big stick.

I felt a rush from witnessing such a dramatically uplifting story in depressing times. The Northern Sierra Madre mountain range contains one of the most important forests on the planet and what has been called the nation’s “last great forest.” Unique upland ecosystems, rare plants, and majestic tree species exist here, in addition to the Philippine eagle and the Philippine crocodile, two of the most endangered large animals in the world. Saving all of that would be a milestone for the planet.

Yet I also needed to sober up from the adrenalin and withhold judgment. Too many other efforts to save our forests began with a splash and ended up barely a ripple, often sucked into a vortex of corruption and politics.

A succession of foreign aid agencies has pumped resources into forest protection programs here in the past two decades – to no avail. An entire economy based on contraband timber and protected by local politicians has evolved there to keep logging interests entrenched.

A forest clearing in the Sierra Madre yields illegally cut logs that feed Isabela’s thriving trade in wooden furniture.

A forest clearing in the Sierra Madre yields illegally cut logs that feed Isabela’s thriving trade in wooden furniture.

But the campaign in Isabela continued long after my team and I left and aired our story. One sortie was shot at in June and task force member Jay Lim of the NGO Tanggol Kalikasan was wounded. He went back to the operation as soon as he healed.

In the first months of the anti-logging campaign, more than half a million board feet of wood was seized from the river banks.

It turned out that the river operations only set the stage for the real drama this year. After sweeping the rivers of contraband wood, the Padaca task force continued its aerial surveillance and pinpointed the stockpiles of narra and other prime wood cut illegally from the forests. Some of these were in compounds owned by families of local politicians, a few of them Padaca’s own political allies.

Beginning at the end of May and continuing for more than a week, the task force conducted lightning raids of these compounds, arrested their owners, and seized nearly a million board feet of wood, nearly doubling in eight days the volume of seizures from the previous ten months.

The job of law enforcement in a protected area such as the Northern Sierra Madre actually belongs to the DENR, which found it more convenient through the years not to disturb a thriving wood industry. But when Padaca mobilized the military, the church and NGOs, and her own considerable resources as governor, the DENR had little choice but to go along.

Nearly 900,000 board feet of illegally cut wood were confiscated in one week of raids in June 2009, a scale unheard of anywhere in the country.

Nearly 900,000 board feet of illegally cut wood were confiscated in one week of raids in June 2009, a scale unheard of anywhere in the country.

Task force members had told me that they pleaded with DENR secretary Lito Atienza in a private meeting to take a more active role in the campaign. I tried to contact Atienza about his views on what was happening in Isabela and finally got a reply via Twitter:

“Gov Padaca’s campaign is gaining ground since they have been able to confiscate the biggest haul of illegally cut logs in the province’s history. I’m just not sure as to the exact volume.”

According to environmental lawyer Asis Perez, a Quezon province-based NGO activist who has been advising Padaca, the nearly 900,000 board feet in confiscations in little more than a week in 2009 is actually more than any previous amount for any other anti-logging operation anywhere else in the country.

“This has never happened before, not on this scale,” he said of the record-breaking volume, citing the 140,000 board feet seized in Quezon in 2006 as a previous high.

Flying recently over the same Isabela range where all that hard wood came from, Perez said he didn’t see any more cutting, perhaps the first time in decades that illegal logging there has stopped.

Perez said that after 16 years of work as a forest advocate, he was gratified that the most successful campaign of all was organized without foreign funding. “Tayo-tayo lang ito,” he said.

He said that the critical factor was the leadership of Padaca. “She gave it moral force, will and credibility,” Perez said.

Having known the activist through years of often frustrating anti-logging campaigning, I know that he doesn’t make that kind of assessment of politicians lightly.

Over 200 soldiers and policemen took part in the raids. “We used overwhelming force,” Perez said. “Hindi nakapalag ang mga ‘untouchables.’”

Among those so-called “untouchables” allegedly financing and protecting the wood industry were family members of local politicians, including Mayor Edgar Go of San Mariano municipality, the illegal logging center of the Northern Sierra Madre.  (Mayor Go reacts to the raid of the task force last June in the video below)

The DENR is recognizing the gains up north by using the campaign as a forest protection model in Mindanao. “The impact is far-reaching,” said Marlo Mendoza, the director of the DENR’s Forest Management Bureau. “The scale of this is different in terms of volume of (wood) seizures and yung nababangga niyang mga tao. Kailangan mo ng tapang dito.”

Mendoza explained that he’s urging the DENR and local politicians in Mindanao to emulate Isabela and collaborate with different sectors. But he acknowledges that for this approach to succeed, “it needs a champion like Governor Padaca.”

Interviewed about the campaign and her motivations several times since last year, Padaca is reluctant to couch anything in grandiose terms. “We are just trying to enforce the law,” she said. “This is an opportunity to prove that nobody can be above the law.” But she does have practical ecological considerations: she describes the dependence of the productive rice plains of her province on the protective watershed of the coastal mountain range.

As the campaign has progressed, she said that it’s become easier to get intelligence about where the contraband is stockpiled, with reliable information simply coming in via text from private citizens.

Gov. Padaca joins the task force in lightning raids, showing her determination to end illegal logging in Isabela.

Gov. Padaca joins the task force in lightning raids, showing her determination to end illegal logging in Isabela.

Padaca was given a Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2008 for government service, citing her victory over a political dynasty and injecting a rare ethos into local politics. But that was even before what may prove to be an even larger achievement: Far from media’s glare in the remote canyons of her province’s mountain wilderness, the rivers now run free of the precious carcasses of big trees.

Often mentioned as a possible senatorial candidate, Padaca has admitted to wanting to move on to other pressing problems. “This is taking about 60% of my time. I need to focus on other things,” she sighs.

But she’s well aware that stopping illegal logging creates another problem: unemployment. Tens of thousands depend on logging in Isabela and its downstream wood industries, including fine narra furniture for export. What will they do now?

As Padaca wins on one front of this battle to save Isabela’s forests, another front has opened. –GMANews.TV

Source: Severino, Howie G. “Overwhelming force to save nation’s last great forest”. GMA News.TV, 21 July 2009. http://www.gmanews.tv/story/167866/Overwhelming-force-to-save-the-nations-last-great-forest. Accessed 26 July 2009.

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