Ignored Counsel

by Juan L. Mercado

President Aquino may have clamped a log ban by the time newsboys delivered this copy of the Inquirer. It follows non-stop rains that pummeled 24 largely denuded provinces. Over 1.34 million persons are affected And the toll on crops and homes is still climbing. “There must be a long-term intervention,” PNoy cautions.

“Bans constitute a highly-visible political response,” says the Asia-Pacific Forestry Commission study: Forest Out of Bounds. “Born from crises, after long periods of passive tolerance or neglect, ( bans) tend to deal with immediate problems…(But) bans alone are insufficient…to correct underlying problems of misuse” .

The 2001 report is anchored to case studies of six countries : New Zealand, China, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. Floods to loss of whole forest ecosystems rachet pressure, in Asia and the Pacific, for “swift and major changes”. To work, bans require complementary reforms and firm hands.

“We’re not optimistic that another log ban will solve…continued forest rape,” says the Save Sierra Madre Network. In March 2005, then-President Gloria Arroyo lifted the ban she imposed after Typhoons “Unding” and “Violeta” savaged Aurora and Quezon provinces. “It’s been business as usual at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.”

Flash back to the 2004 killer floods. In nasty weather, a tricycle brought Fr. Charlito “Cha” Colendres to Infanta Carmel,” a cloistered Carmelite nun Lorenz Teresa Bautista recalls. (Viewpoint – Dec 28/04). He couldn’t believe what he saw: 548,000 board feet of “hot” lumber, waiting for release. He was restless in his homily…

By 11:30 pm, the town is flooded “up to the waist.” The lights go out. Soon, 30 evacuees bang at the monastery door. Sister Lenie opens the chapel, by flashlight, to stunned grown ups, crying children, wet, muddied, unshod. More follow. “There was little time to run.”

“We turn the monastery inside out for clothes, bedding, medicines, etc. Everything we can give, we give: food, program costumes, finally our own clothes. Non-stop cooking, non stop treatment — and non stop stories of grief.

“While trying to save stranded children, a log hit Father Chia and swept him to his death. Lucy tells of 9-year old daughter Therese, torn from her by floodwaters. Huge logs mix with corpse. Will our eyes see tomorrow?

The storm swerved and spared Carmel. But “there are reasons to get mad…This calamity was man-made. There were good people who helped. Perhaps, their stories will see light someday.

“Danny who kissed the body of his four-year old daughter Casai, before burying her in a mass grave, composes songs. He might capture these events better in song. He said he’d try.”

Greater numbers of people today raze tree cover to plow the thin marginal soil. Over, 11 million huddle within official forest lands. Temperatures, meanwhile, surge as glaciers melt. Metereological Organization reports 2001 through 2010 as the “warmest decade ever.”

The combination is lethal even as La Nina weighs in. Amuck weather savaged wide swaths from Agusan del Norte to Sri Lanka. The human cost has been extortionate. Over 564 died in Brazil’s mudlslides. Refrigerated trucks for fish doubled as morgues.

To look ahead, it’s useful to look back. “Tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it,” an African axiom says.

In 1595, forests blanketed 27.5 million hectares here. A bare quarter (7.17 million has.) is now left . The only natural forests standing are in Samar. For how long? Juan Ponce Enrile’s firm, San Jose Timber, logs there.

“The Philippines was effectively the first Asia-Pacific country, in the post World War II era, to extensively liquidate it’s forest wealth,” “FAO regional forestry officer Patrick Durst wrote. (That) experience offers a poignant lesson for still-forested countries from Cambodia to Vanuatu..

Loggers cut as if there was no tomorrow in concessions that blanketed a third of the country. That created timber barons. Few reinvested in wood-processing or in plantations. New Zealand, Australia and Korea did.

Log exports topped 11.1 million cubic meters in 1974, then slumped to a mere 841 thousand cubic meters a decade later. They never recovered. Our timber imports today, from New Zealand and Sabah, cost the country 10 times what we scrape to sell. “

When 2003 flash floods and mudslides swamped Ormoc and San Francisco/ Liloan in Leyte, forest cover had dropped far below the 30 percent safety benchmark. “Only 0.33 percent of reforested areas could be seen by satellite due to neglect and low survival rates”.

What will we see in 2020?

Here are some educated guesses from the “Philippine Forestry Sector Outlook”. It forms part of an FAO study for Asia and the Pacific.

Patchy achievements, graft, population surge, oil prices and OFW remittances, will radically alter the forestscape a decade hence. Over 90 percent of logs will be harvested from plantations, an increasing number by private firms..

Shreds of natural forests will be folded into today’s 77 protected areas Overdue rehabilitation of watersheds will help nudge forest cover upwards, ever so slightly. Jatropha and coco-fuel plantations will rise

“Sunset” industries, like saw mills and finishing plants, remain comatose. Biology will deny increases in global trade. Trees from plantations take 10 to 12 years before they can be tapped.

To rebuild demands sterling political leadership. This is a country that ignored, for too long, the counsel of it’s farmers: Ubos ubos biyaya/Pagkatapos ay tunganga. “Use blessings wastefully, and you’ll be left with nothing”.

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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