This developer burns money and cuts trees

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 second part of the report tells the story of another politically well-connected logger in Aurora, Romeo Roxas, a banker who parlayed his connections to obtain a logging permit in the areas most severely affected by last year’s flooding.

OF ALL the companies cutting trees in the Quezon and Aurora provinces, Green Circle Properties and Resources Inc. (GCPRI) stands out. For one, GCPRI is not a wood-based company. For another, its president Romeo Roxas burns money literally.

At public meetings, Roxas shocks crowds of peasants, environment activists, community leaders and local government officials each time he sets fire to crisp cash, sometimes a P50 bill, other times bigger denominations. It’s just to make a point, and the point is, according to those who’ve heard him say it, is this: “It’s easy to make money, and easy to find funding for development projects. Money is not a problem.”

Considering that Roxas is also a director of the Philippine Veterans Bank, it’s obvious where he’s coming from. Indeed, he does not seem to run out of funds for a variety of enterprises that range from real estate and construction to banking. He could very well have a green thumb when it comes to business, because his companies are all lushly named: Green Circle, Green Square, Green Dreams and Green Earth.

Perhaps the biggest of all his businesses is Green Circle, which has a Special Private Land Timber License (SPLTL) covering 28,000 hectares in Aurora and Quezon, an area much bigger than Quezon City and bigger even than Batanes. It is the biggest privately owned land in what Roxas has called the country’s “wild, wild east.” Green Circle’s timber area is spread out over the towns of Dingalan, Aurora and General Nakar, Quezon, and is one of only five timber license holders in Aurora province.

An SPLTL is just like a timber license agreement but involves private land, alienable or forest land, or disposable land covering a huge area. Among the privileges or conditions given to SPLTL holders is that they are allowed to harvest hardwood trees.

Green Circle has become the object of ire of lawmakers and environment groups for what they say is its role in the denudation of the forests of Dingalan and General Nakar, which they believe is partly to blame for the massive flooding and loss of lives in the aftermath of four killer typhoons that hit Eastern Luzon last December. To them, Roxas’s activities in his Green land are yet another proof that the current anti-logging campaign is nothing more than a quick fix largely made for media mileage, rather than an actual long-term solution to a festering problem. Critics of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and its head Michael Defensor have also noted that the department’s much-publicized raids have managed to nab not big-time players, but only medium-sized local illegal loggers.

Judging it by its owner alone, it is understandable why many see Green Circle as one of the big-time players. Roxas is a well-connected lawyer and entrepreneur, who has brokered deals and done business with various agencies of government since the 1970s. His latest venture is the deal he made with the pre-need cash-strapped company College Assurance Plan, where he is putting in 3,000 hectares of Green Circle land in exchange for CAP shares of stock.

But Roxas has repeatedly said, “I am not a logger. I am just clearing my land!” He says he cannot understand why he and his company have become the subject of public wrath when in fact his endeavors were all endorsed at the highest levels of government. “My project has been declared a national flagship project by two presidents: Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada,” he says. “I don’t know why I am being branded an illegal logger. Government knows what I am doing. They know that I am cutting trees. How can they not know when they approved it themselves?”

The project he is referring to is a gargantuan infrastructure venture called “New Pacific Coast Cities,” which is being sold as an alternative to Metro Manila. It will include an industrial city, a government center, housing and tourism sites, as well as a university town, all of which will rise on 20,000 hectares of Roxas’s land. In January 2000, Estrada himself also signed a proclamation declaring a Special Economic and Tourism Zone in the very areas where Green Circle land is-the Umiray area, both in Dingalan, Aurora, and in General Nakar, Quezon. This whole swath is to be known as the “Pacific Coast City Ecozone.”

How Roxas managed to wangle approval from high places may not be so surprising if one looks at his background. A member of the University of the Philippines College of Law Class of 1961, Roxas counts among his classmates the banker Manuel Zamora, one of Estrada’s key supporters, as well as Magdangal Elma, who has been part of government since the time of Ferdinand Marcos, continuing on to the administrations of Corazon Aquino, Ramos, Estrada and even Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Another former classmate is Andres Gatmaitan of the top-drawer Sycip Salazar law firm. Elma and Gatmaitan, along with John C. B. Go of Equitable Bank, are in fact listed as stockholders of Green Square Properties and Resources Inc., which owns part of Green Circle.

Roxas is also a member of the influential Sigma Rho Fraternity of the UP College of Law, whose members are spread out over various branches and levels of government and the private sector. They include Senate President Franklin Drilon, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, Senator Edgardo Angara (whose family is the new political force in Aurora), Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo, and Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, to name just a few.

It was Estrada’s Environment Secretary, Antonio Cerilles, who granted Green Circle SPLTL No. 5, a permit to cut and transport trees. The document granting the permit was undated, but released sometime in late 1999. Green Circle had waited three years for that SPLTL. Cerilles’s predecessor Victor Ramos had hesitated approving the application, since the company did not just plan to cut and harvest trees. It wanted to clear some parts, develop it, even build a theme park.

Residents in and around Umiray in Dingalan and General Nakar, however, fear that Roxas’s project will destroy their environment, and are asking the DENR to revoke Green Circle’s SPLTL, because of, among others, “its grave threat and effect to the livelihood and culture of the indigenous people.” A 2001 study done by the NGO Integrated Rural Development Foundation (IRDF), says Green Circle’s area is Dumagat land, and its operations encroach on ancestral domain. The study adds, “Soil erosion and siltation are also evident as shown by the brownish color of the river. This condition proves that there are ongoing activities in surrounding mountains and hills which caused landslides and movement of the top soil that rainwater carries to the Umiray River.”

Green Circle is only the latest in a line of companies that have been logging in Aurora province. Green Circle’s land used to be owned by Don Andres Soriano, before it fell into the hands of Roberto Gopuansuy, owner of the South Eastern Timber Corporation, from whom Roxas eventually bought the property. After nearly 40 years of commercial logging, the big hardwood trees are gone and what remains is mostly residual forest. Says the IRDF study of Green Circle’s area of operations: “The actual site investigation revealed that there are not enough forest trees of allowable size within the Operational Plan sites. There is no basis for the approval of SPLTL No. 5 by former DENR Sec. Antonio H. Cerilles because most of the forest trees in the area did not reach the minimum 60 centimeters dbh tree size as required under DENR Administrative Order No. 12 issued on April 1, 1992.”

But Roxas believes that all these laws and regulations do not apply to Green Circle, since he is turning the land into real estate development, and not cutting trees for wood. “They are applying forest laws on me, but I am not within the framework of any of these laws,” he says. “I am not covered by any existing forestry law.”

As Roxas sees it, he is only being used as a scapegoat for the government’s anti-illegal logging crusade, because the DENR has been unable to make much headway in its campaign. In fairness to the DENR, though, running after loggers is a difficult and often dangerous task. Since the martial law years, when logging-legal and illegal-was at its peak, logging magnates have been roaming the corridors of the department, seeking and giving out favors. Out on field, foresters could find themselves facing armed goons who stand guard along dark and desolate logging roads, protecting logging areas against intrusive outsiders, especially earnest agents of government.

It is also an open secret that some of the country’s richest families built their fortunes on logging. The family of Senator Jamby Madrigal, current nemesis of Defensor, was among these, as were the Moratos, Plazas, Antoninos, Alcantaras and Consunjis.

All over the country, those who dream of similar wealth go into logging. Illegal loggers encountered by DENR foresters include politicians and military officials in far away places like Mindanao, while in other parts of the country, businessmen act as financiers encouraging impoverished local residents to cut trees and buying whatever they harvest. Apart from the wanton deforestation, such practices also result in government losses because forest fees are not levied on these loggers.

Yet pinning illegal logging charges on Green Circle and making those charges stick may be a huge challenge, since Roxas and Defensor are looking at the problem from different points of view, and largely because Green Circle had been given the green light by various administrations, including the present one.

Even his entry into the Philippine Veterans Bank (PVB) had government support, Roxas says. During the Ramos administration, Roxas was tapped to revive the bank that went bankrupt in 1985. “I financed the opening of the bank,” Roxas points out. He even cites the P4,000 monthly pension World War II Veterans now receive, which was a paltry P500 when he first got on board. “We lobbied, we worked for that,” Roxas states.

But a group of veterans who have organized themselves into the Crusade to Reform Veterans’ Organization (CREVO) believes Roxas used the bank to expand his businesses. CREVO members have charged Roxas and other bank officials with plunder and violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act. They said in their complaint filed before the Ombudsman: “Board member Romeo Roxas established two companies, the Green Square Properties of which he is a director, and the Green Circle Properties of which he is president as well as director. The total paid-up capital of these corporations amounted to P600,000. Yet these undercapitalized corporations were granted loans by PVB as approved by (its president Emmanuel) de Ocampo to the tune of a staggering P66.8 million.”

CREVO also cited another Roxas company, Green Dreams Holdings, where both Roxas and de Ocampo are directors, as having secured another P35 million for a real estate project in Cavite “whose collateral has likewise been bloated.”

In addition, the group says, Roxas is not really a dependent of a veteran, his father being a former education superintendent. Therefore, the veterans argue, Roxas has no legal right to sit in the Veterans board. Roxas, however, says his father was indeed a veteran, and that he is doing his father’s fellow soldiers a service by his work at the bank.

Included in the case against Roxas is Pilarica Ejercito, sister of former President Joseph Estrada, who was appointed Veterans Bank director sometime in 1999. It was during that time that the Central Bank was conducting an examination of the PVB’s practices. The Central Bank’s report made note of certain unauthorized expenses and questionable practices but on the whole gave the Veterans Bank a clean bill of health.

CREVO says its case is gathering dust at the Ombudsman since it was submitted there in 2002.