OCTOBER 13, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 40 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
A priest's fight against illegal logging in a Philippine timber town puts him in the firing line
By PETER FREDENBURG San Mariano
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It's a bad sign when an altercation between the mayor and the parish priest ends in gunfire. That's just what happened in the northern Luzon township of San Mariano a sign of how deeply a fight against illegal logging divides the Philippine community. Mayor Jesus Miranda ordered the dismantling of a roadside checkpoint which the priest had set up to intercept contraband timber. And when Father John Couvreur had the gall to ignore his directive, the mayor opened fire. No one was hurt (it later emerged that Miranda aimed six of his seven shots into the ground). All the same, the incident nearly set off a firefight between the mayor's posse of police officers and soldiers manning the checkpoint. Mayor Miranda was later suspended from office for one month, and the entire police force was dismissed.
Tensions in San Mariano have eased somewhat since February 1999, when the shooting took place. Even the "traffic hazard" that so riled Mayor Miranda was removed in July, after Couvreur and his partners decided that a mobile checkpoint would be more effective. The mayor and the priest agree that if they are to halt illegal logging in their impoverished community, they must raise its green consciousness and offer alternative income sources. Both lament that corruption including within in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources undermines their efforts to enforce the law. And each accuses the other of conniving with illegal loggers.
Timber used to be a mainstay in San Mariano, about 40 kilometers by road from Ilagan, the capital of Isabela province. When large-scale, mechanized logging was whizzing at full speed in the 1980s, there were 19 companies working concessions in the adjacent Sierra Madre mountains, attracting job-seekers from near and far. San Mariano became a boomtown full of restaurants and beer houses. Then in 1991, alarmed at the rate of deforestation nationwide, Manila banned logging in virgin forests. The easy money evaporated and many migrants moved on. The town has never been the same, even though the population has recovered to the current 40,000. Now the industry that put San Mariano on the map threatens to wash it away.
Couvreur recalls a warning when he was sent to San Mariano about seven years ago. "[The church] advised me never to get mixed up with logging, or I would be in trouble." But the 55-year-old Belgian priest, who has served in northern Luzon for two decades, quickly concluded that it was part of his mission to stop illegal loggers. He saw how much environmental damage was being inflicted. "Everyone suffers because of the greed of a few."
Two licensed timber concessions remain on the slopes of the Sierra Madres; both are slated to close in 2007. (Officials declared the remote range, a biodiversity hotspot, a natural park in 1997 although its status has yet to be confirmed in law.) Smaller but more pervasive carabao (buffalo) loggers, however, continue to poach wood from protected areas, using the beasts to haul logs to roads or river banks to be picked up by smugglers. Their impact on the environment is no less devastating. Today, when typhoons lash northern Luzon (an average of four per year), the degraded watershed can no longer soak up the rainfall. The result: increasingly severe flooding. "Houses are washed out because of erosion and the harvest is destroyed, with many hectares of fields [usually corn and rice] swept away," says Couvreur. "Then we have the drowning of people and livestock."
A 1993 typhoon swept the priest into battle. Not only did it pummel the town, the storm flushed piles of illegally cut logs down from the mountains. Environment officials subsequently agreed at a town meeting that the seized lumber would be used to rebuild San Mariano. At least that's how Couvreur remembers it. Two years later, he spotted the hoard being loaded on to two large trailers. His heart sank. One truck was already filled. The priest didn't think he could do anything and went home and found his flock filing in to complain. Until then, "I'd felt I was alone," he says.
So when he could not convince a local judge to issue a restraining order, Couvreur opted for people power. He met some young parishioners and asked them to muster support. "Four or five jumped into my car, and I parked in front of the trucks. In less than 30 minutes, there were more than 400 people," he recalls.
Couvreur sent word of the human barricade to a local radio station. Before long, the station was broadcasting live interviews with the protesters and tracking down then regional environment chief Leonardo Paat for comment. (Paat suggests there was a misunderstanding at San Mariano: It is not the department's policy to allocate seized timber to local communities, he says, and there was no pact with the town.)
By a happy coincidence, the protesters managed to meet provincial governor Benjamin Dy in a neighboring town and explain their predicament. "He gave us 5,000 pesos [$200 then] so we could buy food," Couvreur says. "The blockade turned into a fiesta. We cooked. Some had guitars. It was a happy gathering." In the end, officials agreed that San Mariano could keep 40% of the seizure. The victory turned out to be somewhat hollow. Two thirds of the lumber had rotted by the time it was distributed a year later.
But there is a more enduring legacy mobilization. The people of San Mariano first organized themselves under a forest protection committee, which the provincial environment department deputized in 1995 to take on some of its policing duties. Officials probably expected them to do little more than elect office-bearers, Couvreur says. "But we were active, confiscating wood and exposing anomalies in the department." Strained relations with officials were inevitable. To gain autonomy, the band reorganized itself as a diocesan action group. This, too, won accreditation from the national environment authorities as a local watchdog in 1997. Acting on tips from paid informers, the group seized 23,874 boardfeet (55.6 cubic meters) of hardwood that year.
Couvreur and his band ratcheted up the surveillance. Working with forest rangers and the army, the group set up two checkpoints, one along a major road into town, and another beside a river confluence. By 1999, seizures climbed to 63,977 bft (149 cubic meters). Their hauls are a mere fraction of the contraband wood that passes through San Mariano. All the same, the anti-logging group believes their effort has significantly reduced the flow. "Now [the timber poachers] are afraid of me," Couvreur says. The priest has to be wary too. There have been three attempts on his life since 1996. These days, he visits his parishioners in the barrios accompanied by two armed soldiers.
The green guardians face plenty of resistance, even from within the municipal council. Couvreur claims half of San Mariano's barrio (neighborhood) representatives and some municipal officials are involved in illegal logging "directly or indirectly" through kin and cronies. Once a logger himself, Miranda says he has been "100% out of that kind of business since the early 1990s." Besides his job as mayor, he now runs a pilot organic farm. But other "people must find ways to make ends meet, so illegal logging continues," adds Miranda. The halt to timber concessions put many out of work. Indeed, a councilor from an outlying village estimates that a quarter of his constituents supplement their farm income with jobs in the clandestine trade, for instance, by serving as bugadors, who pole timber down the rivers flowing from the mountains. It's a common situation across the township.
Corruption undercuts the fight to protect the rainforests of the Sierra Madres in many ways. With environment officials' agreement, seized wood is placed in San Mariano's church compound for safekeeping before being used to renovate public facilities. Previous impounds kept in the municipal compound or police station have tended to vanish mysteriously. The rot is pervasive itself. Retired provincial environment chief Paat recalls that he was "nearly laid off" for condemning his own men. "Some personnel are not doing their jobs."
Some of Couvreur's helpers aren't above petty bribery either. Soldiers and forest rangers allegedly turn checkpoints into cash points. "They don't like checks, they like cash," the priest says wryly. The biggest blow: His "best collaborator" was caught with illegal wood last December. "It was hard for me to accept," he says.
Critics like mayor Miranda insist that the activist priest profits from sales of confiscated wood to the town's two licensed lumber dealers. (Under an unusual 1995 agreement with provincial officials, the group is allowed to keep a portion of the wood that it intercepts.) Couvreur denies any wrongdoing. His band sells its share of the seizures to end users, for example, a cooperative of small furniture makers, to raise money for hauling and other expenses. He keeps detailed records of transactions and invites scrutiny. No one has yet taken up his offer.
Even so, Miranda complains that Couvreur and the environment department are usurping the local government's role in protecting natural resources. "Father John must concentrate on his given task here as priest, giving moral orientation to the people on the negative effect of cutting trees," he says. "He shouldn't be apprehending people or having his own business with the raw materials that he confiscates."
In any case, Couvreur's anti-logging activities are likely to come to a halt when his term as San Mariano's priest expires in 2002. He expects to be transferred as his order's presence in the Philippines declines. "If they want to place me somewhere else, I won't object," he sighs. "It's a hard struggle here and sometimes very discouraging. Like fighting a typhoon." But, as he has learned, to do nothing is to invite destruction.
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