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Author Biography: Robin Broad is Assistant Professor of International Development at American University and the author of Unequal Alliance: The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and thePhilippines (California, 1988). John Cavanagh is Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author, with Richard J. Barnet, of Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order (1994).
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Our environmental problem is not a problem of trees and of water. It's a problem of politics, of economics. Dr. Delfin Ganapin, Jr., Assistant Secretary, Republic of the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources
About 22,000 years ago, Palawan was already inhabited by man. This is proven by the discovery of fossil remains ... Where he came from ... is not known ... perhaps he was one of those born in the Garden of Eden and wandered to Palawan. Or it could have been that the Garden of Eden was right here in Palawan instead of in the valley of the Tigris-Euphrates as supposed. Province of Palawan, National Census and Statistics Office, Facts and Figures About Palawan, 1985, p. 1
As recently as 1900, lush tropical rainforests carpeted most of the Philippine archipelago. At the current rate of deforestation, however, the country will enter the twenty-first century a barren landscape, with nearly all of its rainforests destroyed. No province better illustrates why the Philippine tropical rainforests are disappearing than the long, narrow island of Palawan, some 350 nautical miles southwest of Manila. There, an unfolding drama of people, power, and politics has turned Palawan into a microcosm of the rapidly vanishing tropical rainforests throughout the country and in many parts of the world.
Palawan is the Philippines' last frontier. Its relative isolation from the rest of the archipelago spared many of its resources from the systematic exploitation practiced elsewhere. As the planning and development coordinator for the province phrases it to us, "Palawan has been thrown out into the China Sea." Indeed, its closest neighbor is not even another Philippine island, but the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. It is said you can use a five-battery flashlight to signal between Palawan and Borneo. In fact, we are told, in the Pleistocene period a land bridge linked the two islands.
Until recent decades, the rest of the Philippines viewed Palawan simply in terms of its isolation; the island has long hosted a leper community and a convict colony. As transport costs fell, however, and as the other islands were increasingly overlogged and overfished, it became only a matter of time before Palawan was "discovered" by thousands of poor farmers and fishers from other islands- and by big commercial loggers.
Today, Palawan is covered with one of the Philippines' largest continuous tracts of tropical rainforest. But the forest's days are numbered if the present rate of logging continues. As a result, Palawan has become the center of one of the fiercest environmental battles in Southeast Asia, a battle taken up in early 1988 by one of the Philippines' most influential environmental groups, Haribon (a contraction of the Tagalog words haring ibon, meaning "king bird," in reference to the endangered Philippine eagle).
Among the first Palaweños we interview are a group of local environmentalists, who in 1989 are in the process of setting up in Palawan Haribon's sixth chapter. But they defer answering many of our questions; they insist that the only way to understand what is happening to Palawan is first to hike into its rainforests. We agree to do just that, with some of these local environmentalists as guides.
A hike into Palawan's rainforests requires both time and patience. We wake up early to catch the one daily jeepney that runs from the provincial capital of Puerto Princesa to our first stop, Baheli. Jeepneys in the province are just like jeepneys in Manila-except that they are often several times more crowded. Initially we perch on a thin piece of wood that is balanced across the back of the vehicle, where passengers get on and off. Luck is with us, however: after about half an hour we get seats inside the jeepney. True, the jeepney is a bit crowded: there are eight people on each side, as is usual, but added to that are three young children standing in the center, two women who replace us on the board, and three men who dangle rather precariously off the back, their feet balanced on the running board, plus several live chickens (feet tied) and one very scared, squealing piglet in an old rice sack. On the roof, rattling around with the baskets of food and wares, cling another twenty or so men and boys who enjoy the view and endure the blaring tropical sun.
After a couple of hot, dusty hours (roads in the provinces are seldom paved), we arrive at Baheli, a small fishing village on a river. Here the jeepney route ends. Now we are confronted with a typical Palawan problem: no more roads. We talk the owner of a banca-a fishing boat, in this case, small and motorized-into carrying us on our journey's next leg, down the river. A young boy stands at the boat's bow, a long bamboo pole in hand, to help guide us along the narrow, shallow river. Exchanging constant banter, he and the driver maneuver the boat between the incredibly thick mangroves that line the river on both sides.
We have read of such mangrove forests, which once bordered much of the Philippines' coastal areas, creating rich breeding grounds and shelters for fish. These days, however, it is unusual to find such dense mangroves in the Philippines. According to Philippine government statistics, 92 percent of the virgin mangrove swamps that existed in 1920 had been destroyed by 1985: victims of coastal development, local demand for firewood, and, increasingly, "fish-pondification," that is, conversion to commercial fishponds and prawn farms.
After an hour we reach the point where the river spills into a spectacular bay that feeds the South China Sea. We hug the northern coast of the bay, gliding over transparent water, until we reach another mangrove-lined river and turn inland.
Soon thereafter, at a grouping of a few huts, we disembark. An old logging road runs from this community to the area where we will spend the night. But the noontime tropical sun is fierce, forcing us to respect siesta hours. We stop at the open hut of an old farmer (whom, out of respect, we call tatay, "father") and ask if we can take refuge until the heat subsides.
When we begin our hike, we do so accompanied by a sled-like cart drawn by a carabao (water buffalo), rented for the pesoequivalent of $2.50 from tatay's neighbor to pull our food and belongings. Carabao are the main work animals and the only technology most Philippine peasants ever dream of owning. (At a cost of about the equivalent of $250 per animal, however, even carabao remain an unaffordable dream for many.) They are said to be very dependable animals. But, as we discover, because they do not sweat and therefore have to be bathed every few hours, be it in a river or a mud puddle, as a means of transport they are slow.
As the sun sets, we stop for the night in a small barrio nestled between two mountains. The next day, we hike in the morning and then board another fishing boat for the final leg of our journey. The scene from the water looking landward is magnificent. Tall mountains, blanketed by lush forests, plunge dramatically to the shimmering sea. It is, we remark, much like the scenes all around the country that would have greeted Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century or the Chinese traders centuries before.
As we trek, we see few signs of civilization. Virgin forests of ipil, almaciga, balete, and other majestic trees surround us, peak after peak. Monkeys chatter over our heads, stopping to stare in silence when they spot us, as interested by us as we by them. At intervals, narrow waterfalls cascade from limestone cliffs into the emerald waters below. We pause occasionally to pay our respects to trees so huge that when three adults circle the trunks, arms outstretched, fingers barely touch. Underneath an enormous mountain, with a cathedral-like dome so grand it has acquired the name of St. Paul's, we paddle a small banca up a long underground river, its caves illuminated solely by the light of our kerosene lantern. Thousands of bats and swifts soar and dive overhead.
The surrounding forests, as one of our Palawan-born guides proudly tells us, are "one of the world's last living libraries of ecology." Yet, as we hike, the singing of the birds is often disturbed by the roar of chain saws, even as we enter areas near the underground river that have been declared part of the Philippine national park system and therefore officially off-limits to logging.
At one point, our guides point to thin green saplings growing alongside the trail. These are falcata (Albizzia falcataria), fast-growing non-native softwoods planted as part of the logging concessionaire's reforestation program to replace native hardwood (Dipterocarp) species that have been cut down. One guide silently motions us to follow him off the logging road and into the falcata. We find that the falcata replanting simply hugs the trail. About ten feet off the road, the reforestation ceases abruptly. The reforested strip is designed to give the impression that, as is required by the logging concessionaires' license agreement with the Philippine government, which "owns" this forest land, reforestation has been accomplished.
Instead, nestled between that reforested strip and mountain-sides still green with hardwood forests lies a large, flat expanse that has been clear-cut. Scruffy green bushes dot a field scarred with tree trunks and brown debris, dead branches and leaves. Here and there, felled but unwanted logs crisscross it. (The scene reminds us of a statistic cited by Nicholas Guppy, who has studied tropical rain-forests the world over for more than thirty-five years: "Frequently 90-98 percent of trees are left unused when an area of rain forest is logged ... Where 10 percent of trees are extracted, around 55 percent are usually irreparably damaged.") 2 "This area was clear-cut in the early 1980s," says one of our guides, adding that it worries him, because it is the source of water for the underground river.
The major fear of Palaweños such as our guides, as they watch their forests disappear, is not the loss of beauty. Nor is it the globalwarming effect, of which many have no knowledge. In a country where the majority of people live close to the margin of survival, the main concern is more immediate. According to the Palaweños, the rampant logging is drying up the island's watersheds, threatening municipal drinking-water systems as well as irrigation for low-land farmers. Palawan is encircled by the nation's richest fishing grounds; we are told that approximately two out of three fish sold in Manila come from its waters. Yet, silt from denuded mountains is flowing down rivers into the sea, smothering coral reefs and thus depleting fish resources. The deforestation has also threatened the survival of the Batak, indigenous Filipinos who live by gathering resin from almaciga trees. They are being driven into extinction as that giant of hardwoods-supposedly a protected species-is hauled out of Palawan's forests.
Later, as the sunset brings a surreal glow of reddish pink to the mountains, we ask our guides more questions about the forests of Palawan. They know the statistics well: Although forests still cover an estimated 54 percent of Palawan, some 19,000 hectares of trees are being torn down every year. The main culprit, we are told, is Palawan's biggest logging company, Pagdanan Timber Products, owned by Filipino timber baron and businessman Jose "Pepito" Alvarez. A man who became rich exporting timber from Indonesia in the 1970s, Alvarez owns two logging companies with concessions in Palawan. His forest concessions are estimated to cover about 61 percent of Palawan's productive forest, with as much as two-thirds of the concessions in virgin rainforest. Most of Alvarez's harvest is exported to Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, nations which now carefully control the cutting of their own forests.
Ultimately, however, the problem is not just Alvarez. Like all logging and mining concessionaires in the Philippines, Alvarez is beholden to the Philippine government since, by Philippine law, all lands above eighteen degrees of slope (and all minerals found within) belong to the state and are managed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. This has turned fully one-half of the Philippines' 30 million hectares into so-called "public land," including almost all its forests and most of the ancestral domains of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. As a Philippine indigenous-peoples' support group notes: "Simply put, lands of the public domain include mineral and forest lands, public parks and reservations, as well as other lands which the government has failed to classify. All in all, these constitute some fifty-three percent of the total Philippine land mass, making the State the greatest landlord in the country."
In return for what have historically been some of the world's lowest logging fees and flimsy promises to reforest cut lands, the government has granted such loggers as Pepito Alvarez concessions to log specified areas for a specific period of time. To say that the power to distribute forest concessions gives DENR (and the president, if she or he wants it) a great deal of clout is an understatement. For a government that is chronically short of cash, forest and mineral concessions become a prime government instrument for rewarding allies and engendering patronage. As Haribon's president Maximo "Junie" Kalaw, Jr., notes, "Forest resources and land resources were given as political patronage and as a source of resources to keep people in power and to buy electoral votes." Not surprisingly, timber and mining concessionaires have historically been some of the main electoral financiers of the candidates.
Alvarez is a player in this patronage game. His Palawan concessions, Pagdanan and a sister timber company, were granted in the early 1980s by then-president Ferdinand Marcos. As Pagdanan's executive vice-president tells us, the firms began to "log in earnest in 1981" in Palawan. By one account, "the logging companies are cutting round the clock so the forest continues to dwindle as each month passes." According to Haribon calculations, Alvarez's Palawan operations provide him annual revenues of some $24 million. That figure by itself may not immediately convey a sense of Alvarez's power in Palawan, but two comparisons put it in better perspective: it is equivalent to three-quarters of the total income of this entire province of about 500,000 people, and it is 24 times the provincial government's annual budget of $1 million.
These comparisons are important, our guides stress, in understanding who is and who is not to blame for the deforestation in these last rainforests.
Excerpted from Plundering Paradise by Robin Broad John Cavanagh Copyright © 1993 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Foreword, by Barbara Ehrenreich
The Last Rainforests
"The First Environmentalists"
Life Along the Death March
Hearts and Minds
"The Bastards of Bataan"
From Plunder to Sustainability