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Encroachment of forests to blame for Philippines deluge: experts
MANILA (AFP) Dec 05, 2004
Tens of millions of people armed with fire and axes are colonizing thinning forests across the Philippines, and nature is fighting back with increasingly deadly floods and landslides, officials and experts say.

A weak storm unleashed tonnes of logs, boulders and mud from the Sierra Madre range that buried four towns on the northeast coast of the main island of Luzon on November 29. Accusing fingers pointed to illegal loggers for the loss of more than a thousand lives.

But there is plenty of blame to spread around.

Slash-and-burn farmers clearing lands for agriculture as well as communist guerrillas and government officials are also culpable, officials and environmentalists say.

"Around one-third of the national population is already in the forest zone," said Environment and Natural Resources Undersecretary Ramon Paje.

He estimates that the actual forest cover is down to seven million hectares out of the total land area of 300,000 square kilometers.

"Illegal logging is very much related to poverty. As long as the people see trees as the key to getting their next meal those trees don't stand a chance," Paje said.

President Gloria Arroyo suspended all commercial logging following the latest tragedy.

"The painful lessons have come to full light. We are enforcing a crackdown on illegal loggers," Arroyo said.

Logging has been banned in the mountains around the worst-hit towns of Dingalan, General Nakar, Infanta, and Real for 30 years, but the stress from human encroachment is relentless.

The sheared hillsides are replanted with coconuts and other cash crops with shallow root structures that fail to hold the topsoil in place.

"Building a logging road opens a forest to settlements," said former senator Orlando Mercado, who proposed a total logging ban in the 1990s. Congress killed the proposed law soon after a similar disaster claimed more than 5,000 lives in the central city of Ormoc in 1991.

Mercado estimates that 25 million people out of the national population of 84 million now live in the 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of Philippine territory that is officially designated as forest land.

"We have simply run out of flat lands for habitation," Mercado added.

Blas Tablanza, a wildlife biology professor and environmental activist based at the University of the Philippines, told AFP "commercial logging had done its part already" since the 1950s, when he said forests were destroyed at the rate of 30,000 hectares a year.

"There is not enough residuals that will regenerate the trees," Tablanza said.

Motorists say the road to disaster-hit Real is lined with furniture shops that offer custom-built tables, lounge chairs and benches made of stumps of tropical hardwood cast off by nearby saw mills.

According to Arroyo, illegal logging has become a national security issue with communist rebels "involved heavily in illegal logging activities in those areas" of the most recent disasters.

Military officials say New People's Army rebels extort heavily from illegal loggers to finance the 35-year-old insurgency.

Guerrilla spokesman Gregorio Rosal rejected the charge, claiming local officials and legislators were the ones who own timber yards and logging concessions.

Paje said geological and weather factors may have also played a role in the latest disaster, noting that the terrain is steep and that a weak storm had brought rainfall levels that were "10 times the daily average" in the area in the nine days before the storm struck.

But "historically, the major cause is still conversion, meaning the old forest is turned into an agricultural area or for industrial or other uses."

The government has seized more than 300 logging trucks and filed more than 3,700 cases in court against illegal loggers, Paje said.

More than 300 people have been convicted in courts, with town mayors, military officials, and others sent to jail for unauthorized felling of trees.

But preserving forests is a deadly business; at least 45 forest rangers have been assassinated, one as recently as two months ago, Paje said.

He urged Congress to pass a law delineating forest lands that would be off-limits to conversion.

Ultimately however, "the people must be weaned off forest-related means of livelihood in favor of other sources of income."

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