Major players elude government’s anti-logging drive in Aurora

As the debate on logging heats up, the PCIJ is releasing a two-part article that shows how difficult it is for the government to cut down on “illegal loggers.” This report tells the story of two big-time loggers in Aurora and Quezon, provinces recently devastated by floods and mudslides linked to deforestation.

The first part of the report reveals that DENR Secretary Michael Defensor recently stood as ninong to a member of a wealthy family with logging operations in Aurora. The DENR, during Secretary Gozun’s time, suspended the logging operations of that family. But Defensor ordered their resumption when he came into office.

The report reveals how legal loggers have violated the terms of their licenses and agreements with the government and are cutting into huge swathes of forests beyond their concession areas; they are therefore logging illegally. But they have not been included in the government’s anti-illegal logging campaign. Instead, the campaign is directed at medium-sized local culprits who should have been identified, stopped and penalized long ago. As a result, the campaign is turning out to be a quick fix largely made for media mileage, than an actual long-term solution to a festering problem.

AT A wedding of a wealthy Filipino-Chinese family late last year, the bride and the groom became the privileged godchildren of a high government official who was one of their many sponsors. The event would have passed unnoticed, except that the padrino was Environment Secretary Michael Defensor and the family involved owned a company that had its tree-harvesting operations suspended by Defensor’s immediate predecessor at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

The suspension was imposed on Toplite Lumber Corporation, owned by the Chua family, in 2003, after an investigation revealed that it had been cutting trees beyond its designated area. Earlier, Toplite had been granted an Integrated Forestry Management Agreement (IFMA), with a permit to cut trees on 8,000 hectares of land in Aurora province.

No action had been taken on Toplite’s appeal for a lifting of the suspension order until the time of Defensor who, after he became DENR chief last September, had agreed to stand godfather at the wedding. Sometime after the Chua nuptial, a disaster that was later linked to logging hit Aurora and its neighboring provinces, leaving towns buried in mud, hundreds of thousands of people homeless, and some 1,500 people either dead or missing.

Toplite is one of only five firms holding timber and forestry permits in Aurora. It has appeared in environmental groups’ lists of alleged violators of forestry laws. Yet it has so far escaped investigation for its complicity in the recent tragedy, which many people, including government officials, have blamed on “illegal logging.”

DENR veterans say the lack of official interest in Toplite does not surprise them. Wood is big business, after all, and lumber and logging families have for decades tried to establish more than just formal ties with politicians and bureaucrats who can open the gates to the country’s vast forest land. The perception, at least within the DENR, is that such ties come in handy whenever the department decides to implement rules by the book, or when government decides to crack down on errant loggers-something that seems to happen seasonally and selectively, but usually after a disaster and a significant loss of lives.

In the current anti-illegal logging campaign, for example, Defensor has so far zeroed in mostly on those found in possession of “hot logs” or illegally cut trees, mostly medium-sized local perpetrators who lack the permits required for logging. In reality, however, the violators include big well-connected companies with government-approved operations covering thousands of hectares of forestland or wealthy families who use valid permits to cut trees to log in areas they are not supposed to touch.

By definition of the Forestry Management Bureau, an illegal logger is anyone who cuts and harvests trees in violation of forestry laws, rules and regulations. This then includes those who may hold legal concessions to cut trees but violate the terms and conditions of their tree-cutting permits.

DENR bureaucrats say this was exactly why Toplite’s harvesting activities were suspended almost two years ago. A team of foresters from Manila and the regional office had found the company to have committed various violations, including the cutting of trees beyond its borders in Dipaculao town, Aurora, encroaching on land that was already part of neighboring Quirino province.

The team even recommended that the DENR consider the “eventual cancellation of the Industrial Forest Management Agreement (IFMA) of Toplite” which had been issued just months earlier by then Secretary Elisea Gozun’s own predecessor at the DENR, Heherson Alvarez. The IFMA is an agreement between the government and private entities allowed to exclusively “develop, manage, protect and utilize” a specific piece of “forest land of the public domain” for a period of 25 years (renewable for another 25). Under it, the government and the private company or individuals agree to share the fruits of the land.

DENR insiders say that although the foresters’ report put Toplite in an unflattering light, the company later found support higher up in the bureaucracy. In August 2004, a memorandum to Gozun signed by one DENR undersecretary, one assistant secretary and two directors disputed the foresters’ findings, and even reproached them for commenting on matters that were supposedly outside their area of concern. The four officials were soft on Toplite, and yet played safe. “We find no serious ground that would warrant the cancellation of IFMA 2002-02…In the same vein, we find no reason to lift outright the order suspending the harvesting operations of Toplite,” they said.

The officials said Toplite’s suspension could be lifted after a review of its Comprehensive Development and Management Plan or CDMP. Any IFMA should be based on such a plan, which is drawn for the area approved by the DENR.

A DENR insider, though, says Gozun sat on the officials’ memo and decided to leave the matter for her successor, which turned out to be Defensor, to resolve.

All this time, the company had continued cutting trees since only its harvesting operations had been suspended. Toplite owner Belen Chua, however, says the firm decided to move away from the area near Quirino province, which she describes as a complicated boundary dispute. Chua adds that they complied with the requirements for a lifting of the suspension, including revising the company’s CDMP.

“Before Gozun left, we fulfilled all the requirements,” says Chua. “She just didn’t want to sign it because it would appear to be a midnight deal.”

She denies that her company is logging illegally. Although Toplite has been in the wood-processing business for the past 18 years, Chua says that it was only three years ago that her family decided to cut and harvest logs themselves in Dipaculao town in Aurora.

Chua notes that Toplite has provided employment to some 100 local residents since it started operations in 2002. “Kailangan ng mga probinsya ‘yan (Those provinces need the jobs),” she says, pointing out that provinces like Aurora are among the poorest in the country. Otherwise, Chua says, local residents resort to theft and crime, including illegal logging.

Chua says Toplite is being dragged unjustly into the issue of illegal logging, and that the crackdown has adversely affected the wood-and-lumber business. Because of the nationwide suspension of cutting permits ordered recently by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, wood has been harder to come by. Chua reveals that lumber is now 30 percent more expensive, and the illegal loggers who defy the president’s orders have been selling their produce for as much as P32 per board feet when it used to be just P26. Prior to the suspension on cutting, lumber cost P18 per board feet. According to Chua, foreign firms from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are the ones now reaping the benefits of a dearth of local wood, and are stepping up lumber exports to the Philippines to fill the vacuum.

Chua denies reaping benefits from any ties with any official; she says that Defensor was not present at the wedding that had taken place before the most recent tragedy traced to logging. But the environment secretary himself admits it, and even explains that he stood as ninong there because one of the Chua sisters, Pauline, is his neighbor at an exclusive village in Quezon City.

He says, however, that there was no wedding gift from the DENR. “Toplite was never allowed to operate,” Defensor says.

Still, the situation has improved for Toplite under his watch. His subordinates argued for the full resumption of Toplite’s activities. Regional officials recommended, as a prerequisite to the lifting of the suspension, approval of Toplite’s Comprehensive Development and Management Plan for its IFMA area.

Defensor admits having signed the CDMP but says he withheld approval on the number of trees — called allowable cut — the company is authorized. As far as he is concerned, though, the issue is “moot and academic,” since the president has imposed a suspension on the permits to cut trees all over the country.

Chua, for her part, says that Toplite was able to secure a lifting of the suspension on harvesting activities, but that such operations are now at a standstill. She also says her company has stopped cutting trees as well, in compliance with the president’s order.

In theory, holders of timber and forestry permits who violate the terms of their permits are supposed to be the easiest to catch. This is because, Defensor says, “they have clear agreements with the government, and definite areas of operations.” Besides, they are supposed to follow definite procedures when obtaining such permits.

But DENR officials are not always alert for such violations, and some even help logging companies commit these.

In early 2003, the same team of foresters who discovered the violations on Toplite’s boundaries had also recommended the filing of formal charges against the regional, provincial and community environment officers who oversaw Toplite’s IFMA application. The foresters said that for failing to fulfill their duties, these officials became responsible for “rampant illegal logging.”

Apparently, these local and regional environment officers had either missed or turned a blind eye on Toplite’s failure to hold consultations with the community as required by law. A public meeting on the Toplite IFMA was held in Barangay Dinadiawan, Dipaculao town only on April 29, 2003, several months after IFMA had already been approved by Secretary Alvarez.

The minutes of that meeting show local leaders asking environment officials why the application of Toplite was approved without public consultation. The provincial environment officer’s response: “There were resolutions passed by barangay officials… and the municipal government of Dipaculao showing support to the application (of Toplite). As duly elected officials they have the right to decide regarding the issue and this was the basis used by the DENR in approving the IFMA application of Toplite.”

The foresters, however, discovered that the resolutions from the three barangay councils concerned appeared to be identical in number and the wording. “The team concluded that DENR employees together with Toplite Lumber prepared them,” the foresters said in their report. “They had with them the prepared resolutions when they went around and consulted the barangay council members and got the respective signatures regarding the endorsement of the LGUs (local government units) for the application of Toplite for IFMA, which should not be the case.”

Toplite’s Belen Chua insists, “We have complied with the conditions of our IFMA.” This includes reforesting some parts of her company’s logging area. With cutting activities suspended, she says her company is keeping itself busy planting gemelina trees, whose wood is popular among furniture makers.