Northeastern Mindanao’s timber plantations

CROSSROADS (Toward Philippine Economic and Social Progress) - Gerardo P. Sicat - The Philippine Star


Today, those who drive the highways of northeastern Mindanao (Caraga Region) will occasionally encounter trucks loaded with uniformly cut lumber of diameter size no more than a foot.

Small trucks carry these logs from Mindanao’s existing tree plantations. They crisscross the (del Sur and del Norte) provinces of Agusan and Surigao to the Davao provinces (Compostela Valley, Davao Oriental) and the roads linking the cities (Surigao, Cagayan de Oro, Butuan and Davao).

Logging landscape five decades ago. The logging scene many decades ago was far different. Rapid exploitation of the nation’s primary forests took place during the early years of political independence.

Huge logs of long cut with massive diameters were hauled by super trucks. The region’s rivers transported part of the haul and the mouths of rivers became log ponds from the nation’s forests.

In 1940 on the eve of World War II, the Philippines had more than 20 million of its total land area of 30 million hectares, classified as forest lands. By 1975, total forest land had shrunk to 10 million hectares.

Our primary forests retreat and decline. Although the primary forest land had been exploited for its rare hardwood trees during American colonial times, this was done through selective logging and was not massive in quantity.

The products from these logs were used in local construction. A market for exports thrived in the US under the trade name “Philippine mahogany”. Classified scientifically as “dipterocarps”, these hardwoods known locally as apitong, yakal, lauan, tanguile, dao produced hardwood lumber of exceptionally good quality and commanded a high price in the commercial market.

Within a few decades after independence in 1946, these forests were heavily exploited through the grant of timber license concessions. Long before the term crony capitalism became popular, loggers were the favored inner circle of presidential political power.

Early Philippine presidents awarded their political supporters and allies with prime logging concessions to the nation’s wealth through the exercise of political patronage.

With their timber license agreements, the loggers could easily secure heavy equipment financing. High valued logs meant a quick way toward wealth and income. The logs were exported to Japan that was, at the time, resurgent and rising hurriedly back into industrial health.

Despite the requirements imposed by the timber license agreements on replanting and selective logging, the practice was far more patently different. Loggers had little interest in long term commitments as the short-term provided them immediate income, wealth and stature in the community.

Many of the loggers became the new community leaders – mayors, governors, business leaders, and leading politicians and members of Congress.

Economic consequences of rapid deforestation. It was far easier to harvest the woods and induce clean-cutting to open more lands for the country’s agricultural expansion than to religiously follow the requirements for replanting. For a time, the rapid development of agriculture in Mindanao was loosely linked to logging as an industry.

(The practice did not vary much in the many islands and provinces of the country where forests abounded before and population growth was pressing for more agricultural lands.)

In the low lands, logging opened vast new agricultural lands and expanded the coverage of new agricultural industries. In the uplands, the weakened forest areas became susceptible to kaingin agriculture in which the settlers burned the forests essentially to support their subsistence farming until they moved on to new kaingin areas.

The opening up of once dense forest lands into a larger agricultural base was helped along by rapid forest exploitation.

By the early years of independence, logs and lumber became a major export and was in the frontline of the country’s export earning industries like sugar, coconut oil and other primary exports.

During the heyday of import substitution, industrialization and highly regulated exchange controls, the under-reporting of log earnings was highly suspect. Log exporters could their park dollar earnings abroad and bring them back in the form of imports that were controlled through the backdoor.

During this period, the country’s forest lands cover retreated in area coverage, and they have not fully recovered to this day. Because of measures to ban the export of logs and other regulations that would be introduced as a result of the alarm brought about by the rapid exploitation of Philippine forests, today the country’s forests are beginning to recover.

However, the quality of this recovery is hollow and poor. Today, the country is highly susceptible to environmental disasters: landslides, soil erosion and floods and extended droughts. These are the legacy of the sins of the past.

Tree plantations: natural component of forestry conservation. The experience of rapid logging has given a warning to those who have been in the know. If the country is to exploit its natural primary forests for economic reasons, an important complementary action must be through forest maintenance and regeneration.

In the past, large scale tree plantations were being experimented on by the government. The first plantations tried to introduce fast growing varieties. Much earlier, American foresters brought in teak (Tectona grandis) and mahogany (Swietana macrophylla) from other countries.

The trial tree plantation was established in a place called Tungao over patches of abandoned kaingin areas. The new plantation schemes proved viable after five years of experimentation that started in 1954. By 1961, large scale plantations were initiated with improved results.

Several factors were at work to encourage and push for tree plantations. First was the government concern to reforest. Any major program of reforestation could only be achieved through the private sector engaged in the industry.

Those with timber license agreements could set up tree plantations as part of their reforestation work. This was a natural outcome of the agreements with the state. There were loggers who wanted a push in this direction as supporting their economic interests.

Private landowners could be induced to plant tree plantations as suppliers to larger companies with a permanent interest in logging. The latter are those operating timber license agreements.

And then there were smaller landholdings and agricultural communities that could plant trees as part of their agricultural activities.  All these components would contribute to the growth of the tree plantations that would grow in force by the 1960s in the northeastern Mindanao area, a notable phenomenon in that region

(To be continued next week: Rise and fall of PICOP)

My email is: [email protected]. Visit this site for more information, feedback and commentary: http://econ.upd.edu.ph/gpsicat/

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