The forest and the trees
There is a well-known idiom about people “missing the forest for the trees”, i.e., by immersing themselves too much in details, people fail to see the big picture. In the case of the recently imposed moratorium on the cutting and harvesting of timber in natural forests in the country, more popularly called a logging ban, “the forest” (the big picture of the state of our forests and environment) and “the trees” (the details of implementation) are equally important. Paying attention only to “the forest” and not “the trees” will in fact be counter productive and result in an even worse situation for the country’s environment.
My position on Executive Order No. 23, issued by President Benigno Aquino III last 1 February, is clear. I support it; indeed, I wrote an open letter thanking the President for issuing this order imposing a nationwide ban on logging.
For the last 20 years, the environmental movement has demanded an absolute commercial logging ban. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we lobbied Congress for such a ban but failed because of the political influence of the timber industry. Even if we had the facts on our side, we could not win enough legislators on our side and could not get the support of the Executive branch for the ban.
In the early 1990s, environmental lawyer Tony Oposa filed a case to compel the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to cancel all Timber License Agreements. While the famous case of Oposa vs. Factoran laid down important legal principles, such as intergenerational equity and the liberalization of standing in environmental lawsuits, the Supreme Court stopped short of stopping logging and deforestation continued unabated for another decade or so.
When I was a DENR Undersecretary from 1996-1998, then DENR Secretary Victor Ramos, one of the most committed and competent among public servants I have worked with, became strict with logging companies and canceled TLAs that were not complying with their legal obligations. As a result, when we left the DENR in 1998, only a handful of logging operations remained. Indeed, when President Aquino acted two weeks ago, very little legal logging was going on in the country - making the log ban mainly symbolic in its value but important nonetheless.
I recall the history of the struggle for a ban on logging to put in context what President Aquino has done. In my view, this should have been done a long time ago. It is late, yes, but better late than never. While it would have been better if Congress passed a law to impose a log ban, it did delegate this power to the President under the Revised Forest Code. And the President rightfully acted to avert climate impacts like floods and protects forests and biodiversity.
While supporting the President’s decision, we must bear in mind that “the devil is in the details”. We have to work hard to ensure that the log ban is well-implemented, not just to enforce it but so that the ban does not adversely affect the hundreds of forest communities that depend on forests for their livelihoods. In particular, Community-Based Forest Management Agreement holders, those communities who have been given the right to manage forests that they have occupied, protected and utilized for a long time, might be unjustly affected. This includes indigenous peoples and communities who utilize forest resources for livelihood and not just for cultural reasons. If it alienates forest peoples and communities, the log ban will fail as these peoples and communities, and not (never) the state, are the ultimate protectors of forests in the country.
Executive Order No. 23 should be harmonized with Executive Order No. 263, issued by President Fidel V. Ramos in 1995 which adopted community-based forest management as the national strategy to ensure the sustainable development of the country’s forests, and Executive Order No. 318, issued in 2004 by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo which affirmed the primacy of CBFM as our forest strategy. Executive Order No. 23 does not repeal these previous orders and CBFM remains the national forest strategy. But Executive Order No. 23 must be amended to identify, under strictly defined criteria and circumstances, exceptions for CBFM areas.
Given the log ban’s potential adverse economic impacts, the Climate Change Commission should fast track implementation of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation-Plus (REDD-Plus) program under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In the recently concluded Cancun conference on climate change, the Philippines was instrumental in getting REDD-Plus approved. If designed properly with social, environmental and governance safeguards, the Philippine National REDD-plus Strategy (based on CBFM) should bring significant resources for forest protection and to support forest workers and communities. When REDD-Plus is fully implemented, we might not even have to exempt CBFM areas from the log ban.
Another priority in implementation is ensuring that the good intention of Executive Order No. 23 is not defeated by loopholes that ill-motivated persons could exploit. These include tightening the exceptions indicated in the order such as exempting road construction and area preparation for plantations from the moratorium, exceptions that could result in massive deforestation activities. One issue to clarify is whether cutting trees for mining purposes is allowed under the log ban. It is not one of the exceptions indicated, but mining companies will probably argue differently.
Finally, to thresh out the details for implementing the logging ban, extensive public consultations should be undertaken. Unfortunately, we do have an implementation gap in our country and enforcing our forest laws, including on illegal logging, have not been an exception. Among others, we have to pay attention to the role of enforcement agencies, local governments and forest communities who are the frontliners in implementing the ban. Funds must be provided for enforcement. And of course, corruption in the forest sector must be addressed.
Scientists should be also be consulted to better understand the role of deforestation in floods and other climate impacts. A more holistic response to these events should be adopted. Environmental Science for Social Change, a Jesuit institute based in the Manila Observatory inside the Ateneo de Manila campus, has pointed out that flooding will continue in areas that are flood-prone as this is the natural course of water. According to ESSC: “The response needed is to get people out of harm’s way and minimize the debris that will be brought along by the floodwaters. Major landslides will recur in areas where soil is of sufficient depth and has reached saturation point after continuous heavy rainfall. The response is to get people off of steep slopes and ensure that the appropriate vegetation is planted to regenerate water infiltration and biodiversity that will sustain the environment under average climatic conditions.”
There is much work to be done to protect our forests and environment. We must pay attention to the “trees” but as for the “forest”, this is what I have to say: Mr. President, you did the right thing. Thank you for your vision, courage and political will to protect our environment on behalf of present and future generations.