Poverty, Graft at Root of Philippine Tragedy
MANILA/REAL, Philippines − Saturnino Monreal remembers when there were more large trees than people around his village on the eastern Philippine coast, close to where hundreds have died in floods and landslides this week.
Now, over 2,000 families live here on subsistence rice and coconut farming and the huge trees he remembers from the 1960s have disappeared.
"As the number of people here increased, the trees started disappearing," said Monreal, a 72-year-old farmer, whose village escaped the landslides and floods that devastated nearby communities that have also suffered from deforestation.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo turned her anger on illegal loggers as the week's toll of death and missing rose over 1,000, ordering a nationwide crackdown on the activity.
But experts say the problem is more complex and warn the environmental cost is likely to rise without a more comprehensive policy approach.
Poverty drives many farmers and other rural residents to cut trees with little regard for the law.
Hernando Avellaneda, the mayor of badly-hit General Nakar town, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that 40 percent of his constituents relied on illegal logging.
But legal loggers are also responsible for much of the damage, and often cut trees outside permitted areas while corrupt officials and local politicians turn a blind eye.
The country's rapidly growing population -- set to double over the next 50 years from a current 84 million -- is also raising demand for farmland. But the staunchly Roman Catholic Arroyo has refused to back tougher birth control policies.
"There's hardly any difference between so-called illegal loggers and legal loggers," said Orlando Mercado, a former senator who tried and failed to pass bills banning logging in the 1990s.
"The only difference in this country is that the legal loggers have political clout and that's the reason they can get the timber licence agreement."
Under a selective logging ban imposed in the mid-1990s, licensed loggers are only allowed to cut trees in areas that have more than 20 percent forest cover.
The country's forest cover has fallen to less than 18 percent, mostly located in the large southern islands of Palawan and Mindanao, from 64 percent in 1920, forestry statistics show.
Some environmentalists forecast that primary forest could have vanished from the Philippines within 20 years at current rates.
"The government just needs to implement the law, particularly for these big illegal loggers," said Annabel Plantilla, head of the Haribon Foundation, a Philippine environmental group.
"How can you possibly blame carabao loggers?" she added, referring to the water buffalo used by Filipino farmers.
In some ways, the Philippine experience mirrors the situation in neighbouring Indonesia, where corruption has also gone hand-in-hand with the disappearance of rain forest.
Environmentalists there have blamed large-scale deforestation for deadly floods in rural areas as well as in Jakarta, where trees on nearby hills and mountains have given way to housing tracts and golf courses.
A flash flood in November last year in the Gunung Leuser national park in northern Sumatra devastated a resort village and buried many victims under mud.
By one estimate, Indonesia has lost more than 75 percent of its forests over the past few decades, leaving only 60 million hectares (148 million acres).
Philippine environmentalists say the consequences of deforestation go beyond the landslides that have become a regular tragedy in recent years.
Loose hillsides mean that water and soil rapidly slide into the sea, leaving a growing number of areas facing water shortages and damaging coral and fish stock.
"We cannot continue to satisfy the loggers," said Mercado.
"As far as I am concerned the economic benefit is far outweighed by the destruction to agriculture and our own lives." (Additional reporting by Jerry Norton in Jakarta.)