OpinionsViewpointFrom prima donna to pauper

From prima donna to pauper

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CEBU CITY — La Nina unleashed flash floods throughout much of this deforested country. They were a backdrop for the insistent call by a Church-backed network for President Aquino to impose a total ban on commercial logging.

Logging licenses have become “faí§ades for illegal logging,” claims the Save Sierra Network (SSN). Mr. Aquino should shred all logging licenses.

Signed by Infanta Bishop Rolando Tria-Tirona, Laoag Bishop Sergio Utleg, and 18 organization heads, the statement added: “Flooding and landslides focus the nation’s attention on the urgent need to address climate change.”

Whistleblowers on illicit cutting are “ being hunted down by private armies working for logging syndicates,” adds Fr. P. Montallana of the Infanta Prelature. “A climate of fear prevails”.

This is not paranoia. The track record confirms extreme measures that gunslingers, hired by illegal loggers, resort to.

We admire the integrity of church-backed groups like SSN. If there had been more of similar advocacies earlier, Philippine forests would not have been razed to their sorry state today.

In 1595, forests blanketed 27.5 million hectares here. A bare quarter (7.17 million hectares) is now left.Log exports topped 11.1 million cubic meters in 1974, then slumped to a mere 841 thousand cubic meters a decade later. It never recovered. Forest cover has long dropped far below the 30 percent safety benchmark.

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”.

So is a total log ban the answer?

“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 that fits today’s demand by SSN.

One of the Forest Out of Bounds authors is forester Patrick Durst of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. He e-mailed: “When I was in Manila in December, Department of Environment people were actually optimistic about the passage of a needed Sustainable Forest Environmental Management Bill.

“Today, there is so little commercial, industrial logging in the Philippines. It would be a big mistake for the country to totally ban logging. On the contrary, the country needs to make it far easier for small farmers to grow and harvest timber and make money from tree growing.

“Without the prospect of making money, there are no incentives for small farmers (or larger corporate investors) to give any priority to forests. Indeed, remove the value of forests to those in a position to “manage” them (de facto or de jure), and you are signing the death certificate for the forests.

Structures of bans vary. Thailand and Sri Lanka clamped total logging bans on natural forests (Here, Juan Ponce Enrile’s firm, San Jose Timber, logs the Philippines last remaining natural forest in Samar). China’s ban applied only to natural forests in specified regions, like upper reaches of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers.

Vietnam applied a mix of bans: In critical watersheds, a 30-year ban ban was clamped on. New Zealand transferred extensive tracts to protected areas. This constituted a de-facto ban.

New Zealand offers four striking lessons: 1) It was a gradual policy transition over decades; 2) Government foresaw a decline in natural forest production;3) Alternative timber supplies were provided for by establishment of plantations; 4)Government structures were reshaped to handle anticipated forestry patterns down the road.

Thus, Wellington privatized state-owned plantations. Simultanouesly, it withdrew from commercial timber production. It also set up a separate national Department of Conservation. That drafted legislation like protection of indigenous forests.

“We are saved by making the future present to ourselves,” the old saying goes. We can argue endlessly, for example, on why we didn’t display foresight that New Zealanders did. They began establishing plantations forests in 1920. “When large tracts of natural forests were transferred to protected areas, New Zealand was already harvesting vast majority of it’s wood from plantations.”

Here, did greed to make a quick buck from logging blind Filipino policy making? We don’t have much forests left . That is clear. What many overlook is we also have little of the time needed to get alternative wood sources. Population almost quintupled, meanwhile, since 1940.

“Plantations in Thailand and the Philippines have not developed as planned…Plantations provide only minor source of wood supplies in the Philippines. A prima donna of world timber exporters in the 1970s, this country is now a wood pauper.

“Logging bans are inherently neither good nor bad” as conservation and protection policy instruments, concludes Forest Out of Bounds. “They are simply one set of tools available within a spectrum of options…If adapted selectively and used with other policy instruments, they can ensure continued well being of people.”

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