Criminal deforestation

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas -
Yesterday’s newspapers showed pictures of men and women crying their hearts out as they recounted their experience when floods and mudslides struck their homes and villages in Leyte last Friday. The STAR’s headline story said that severe deforestation, days of rain and mountainous terrain triggered landslides that crashed down on several towns in the province, burying entire communities.

As of press time yesterday, 200 people were reported dead or missing after tons of mud slammed into villages near the remote towns of Liloan, Maasin and San Francisco in southern Leyte, and on the northeastern part of Mindanao island.

The report said government weather forecaster Leny Ruiz told the news agency AFP that before the heavy deforestation, there were no problems of flooding or landslides in the area. But heavy deforestation had reduced the water-holding capacity of the land, making it sloppy and leading to mudslides. Heavy logging and upland migration and agricultural expansion have steadily cut back the Philippines forests, the report said.

It will be recalled that a few years ago, the city of Ormoc, in northern Leyte, experienced massive flash floods, killing nearly 4,000 people and leaving about 50,000 others homeless. Deforestation was blamed for the tragedy.

We note that every time there are heavy floods, and people get killed or maimed, and properties and agricultural crops destroyed or lost, deforestation is blamed for the calamity. This is one important aspect of the environment that needs the utmost attention by the government and the whole citizenry.

For many years, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has been brandishing lavish plans and programs for sustained forest development through reforestation. But the department has failed miserably in its assigned task or mission ˆ particularly in the preservation of the ecological balance, and prevention of calamities such as the one that happened in Leyte.

Its plans and programs seem to be only good on paper because it has not been effective in controlling indiscriminate cutting of forest trees by loggers, the "kaingin system" of tilling the soil in the uplands, and worse – and the allowing of cutting trees along watersheds. What happened to the countless tree farm leases and hundreds of millions of government investments that were poured in the scheme intended to keep an ecological balance of our natural resources? How many illegal loggers, and scrupulous loggers – who think only of profits and do not care about the havoc and destruction they inflict on the environment – get jailed? How many kaingineros who are mostly uplanders are taught to farm the right way in order to prevent soil erosion and floods? What have the foresters and forest rangers employed by the done in this regard?

In fairness to the present DENR secretary and her subordinates, it is understandable that they inherited this "deforestation" problem. But they should not be lenient in their dealings with the loggers, and they should undertake effective forest extension education in the case of kaingineros.

The public perception of inefficiency and ineffectiveness in supervising holders of logging permits and licenses and tree farm lease contracts can be minimized, if not eliminated when the public is informed about the over-all status of development of tree farms leases. Are these tree farm lease contractors really planting trees of economic importance? Or they are just busy trying to figure out ways and means on how they can justify the conversion of areas falling under the public domain into alienable and disposable lands that is preparatory to further converting the land for housing and other commercial purposes? In the case of indiscriminate loggers, very few are jailed or fined.

Urbanization or conversion of lands into residential, commercial and industrial projects is not bad at all. But spare the mountain ranges that are classified as forest reserves and potential sources of floods. Spare the watersheds which are the primary sources of potable irrigation waters for agriculture.

Unless really serious efforts are conducted to refo-rest our forests, more floods in the future will result in the loss of lives and property as what has just happened in Leyte, where the surviving relatives of flood and landslide victims are mourning instead of enjoying the joys of the Christmas season.
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E-mail: [email protected]

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