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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Philippine bishop pushes to block illegal logging to curb flood damage

QUEZON CITY, Philippines (UCAN) – The bishop in a recently flooded northern Philippine vicariate wants lasting solutions to recurring floods that he says illegal logging has made worse.

"Nature, of course, is the major villain, but the floods were aggravated by man," Bishop Warlito Cajandig of Calapan told UCA News Jan. 5. He said that when people "destroy our forests," they "rob nature of its resources" and this takes its toll on people.

Speaking from Calapan, he noted that after local floods at the end of 2005, cutting of trees has resumed in the province's protected mountain areas.

The Apostolic Vicariate of Calapan serves the civil province of Mindoro Oriental from its base in Calapan, some 135 kilometers (about 85 miles) south of Manila.

Bishop Cajandig said communities in five parishes were swamped with "murky" water Dec. 7-9, Dec. 17-22 and Dec. 27-Jan. 2. He reported that "rampaging waters" from incessant rains breached a part of the Bucayao Dike near Naujan, 16 kilometers (10 miles) from Calapan, on Dec. 7 morning, spilling water into neighboring towns. Two bridges also collapsed during a Dec. 17 typhoon, he added.

A 2-year-old girl drowned in the floodwaters and at least 25,289 people fled their homes at the height of the calamity, reported the government's national disaster coordinating council. As of Jan. 9, known damage to agriculture, fisheries, irrigation and infrastructure had reached about 3.5 billion pesos (US$ 6,669,207), council officer Olive Luces Civil told UCA News.

After successive typhoons submerged Mindoro Oriental towns in floods in 1993, the bishop's concern over illegal logging in the vicariate intensified. In 2004, he convened a forum with religious and lay Catholics, ecumenical groups, nongovernmental organizations, police, military and government officials to discuss joint efforts against flooding and campaigns to protect the environment, which evolved into Kalikasan (nature) Care Council, an anti-logging task force.

The Mindoro Oriental provincial government has since authorized task-force members to capture and file criminal charges against illegal tree cutters.

However, when task-force members apprehended loggers, the loggers filed countercharges against the task force. Also, some Calapan priests who joined in anti-logging campaigns have received death threats, Bishop Cajandig said.

He added that the loggers are natives of Mindoro, mostly from wealthy families. Only about five "influential" individuals in the province benefit from the logging, and they hire indigenous Mangyan people to cut trees for them, the bishop said.

In December 2004, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo suspended all logging in the country after flash floods accompanied typhoons and killed or washed away more than 1,000 people in Central Luzon, northern Philippines. The ban was lifted three months later in three regions and select provinces, not including Mindoro Oriental, according to Samuel Danganan of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Danganan told UCA News that in Manila, he had not personally received any reports of illegal logging in Mindoro Oriental. "By illegal logging we mean a large-scale operation ranging from 10 to 100 hectares," he clarified.

Danganan, who is the department's anti-illegal-logging task-force head, said there might be "small-time" or "guerrilla-type" timber poaching operations using unregistered chain saws.

Bishop Cajandig believes a "lasting" solution to flooding could be achieved if the national government allotted idle mountain lands for a relocation site for families in low-lying areas and to those living near rivers and lakes.

He said the state must also "levy the highest possible tax" on private lands of "absentee owners" so landowners will be compelled to use or sell their land. Were idle land to be sold, the church could help find foundations that would offer grants for purchase of the properties, Bishop Cajandig said.

After the 1993 floods, the vicariate bought about 25 hectares of land from private owners or allotted some of its land in upland areas to 10 resettlement sites for people living near rivers and lakes.

Bishop Cajandig said part of the bishop's house currently serves as the "operation center" for the Philippine National Red Cross, local parishes and nongrovernemtal agencies. Sacks of rice, boxes of canned goods, medicine and other flood-relief material are packed into the building's first floor.

"We also converted our (cathedral) hall into an evacuation center," Bishop Cajandig reported. He said families living around Lake Naujan stay at the hall until floods recede. They expect the water will remain high until late February. However, most families from Calapan and neighboring communities returned to their homes after the weather improved in early January.

Father Antenor Hernandez from Naujan said rain showers continue and farmers cannot mill the wet rice grains. He commended people for their "generosity" and expressed gratitude to parishioners in Makati, the commercial city just southeast of Manila, for a truckload of donated rice.

Father Jeronimo Perez, Calapan seminary rector, coordinates donations from dioceses. He said the Calapan church has stopped asking for donations and has begun rehabilitation work. Remaining relief goods are being given to hundreds of resident volunteers sandbagging the damaged section of the dike.

On Jan. 3, Arroyo ordered the release of 66 million pesos for the repair of public facilities destroyed in the flood.

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