The pitfalls of the logging ban EO
BY: ERROL A. GATUMBATO
True to his words, President Benigno S. Aquino III issued last week Executive Order No. 23, relative to logging issues in the Philippines. I believe EO 23 is one of the rightful recognitions on the profound impacts of the changing climatic conditions and the importance of ecological services and functions offered by the forest ecosystems, more than the short-term economic benefits from the massive exploitation of forest resources. The critical condition of the Philippines’ forests, which unfortunately have been recently described by Conservation International as the world’s 4th most threatened forests, requires concrete and bold steps, although I hope it is not yet too late for the country.
I am particularly emphasizing that EO 23 refers to logging-related concerns because I found inconsistencies and pitfalls on how it was actually crafted in relation to its main intent of imposing a logging ban throughout the nation. The Executive Order offers some promising provisions, but there are disturbing circumstances and questionable sections associated with this supposedly a milestone policy declaration of the Aquino administration.
Last February 3, I browsed the website of the Official Gazette and immediately noticed the posted title of EO 23 was “Declaring a Moratorium on the Cutting and Harvesting of Trees in National and Residual Forests and Creating Anti-Illegal Logging Task Force”. When I further scrutinized the EO, I discovered several sentences stating that cutting and harvesting of trees in “national and residual forests” are indeed prohibited. I wondered then why the term “national” was used when referring to a forest. With the advent of social media, I posted my observation as a status in my Facebook account with a link to the Official Gazette’s website. The following day, Rina Bernabe of Conservation International called my attention, pointing out that the website of the Official Gazette has already corrected all the “national forest” to “natural forest” in EO 23. Such development makes me speculate on what really the exact words provided in the signed EO.
For some of us the term may not be that important at all, but for an executive order, I think, every term used is very relevant because it will be subjected with numerous interpretations, particularly when it comes to technical matters. For more than two decades of my involvement in environment and natural resources management, both in government and non-government institutions, I am not aware that there is a classified “national forest” in the Philippines, although in some other countries it is used to describe a forest under the management of a national government. Obviously, with the corrections made in the Official Gazette’s website, the intention of EO 23 is to impose a logging moratorium in “natural and residual forests”, which refer to forests that have evolved naturally. I could only wish the EO 23 signed by the President was accurately worded, otherwise, there is no point of issuing a regulation for a non-existing matter, like “national forest”. Much more, I would like to be optimistic that it was just an encoding error on the part of responsible personnel in the Official Gazette because legal questions may come out against the said EO.
The second important issue in EO 23 I found ironical is in Section 2.2 that states, “The DENR is likewise prohibited from issuing/renewing tree cutting permits in all natural and residual forests nationwide, except for clearing of road right of way by the DPWH, site preparation for tree plantations, silvicultural treatment and similar activities, provided that all logs derived from the said cutting permits shall be turned over to the DENR for proper disposal”. The exemption on tree cutting and harvesting in natural and residual forests for road clearing and construction is very alarming because there are in fact existing issues of forest destruction due to road projects of government and some private corporations. It is just like saying the government is allowing itself to wipe out natural forests for purposes of road development while imposing a total log ban.
I don’t find it logical, too, that permits for tree cutting maybe issued for site preparation of the so called “tree plantation”. Do we need to cut natural-growing trees to plant more trees? I am not sure what the intention of this provision is, but I am apprehensive that it will be used particularly for industrial tree plantation purposes. Most of the Timber License Agreements before are now converted into Industrial Forest Management Agreements. The IFMA is a production sharing agreement between the DENR and qualified applicants, usually wood producers, granting the latter with exclusive right to develop, manage, protect, and utilize a specified forestland primarily intended for industrial tree plantation.
I am afraid the exemption on cutting naturally-growing trees provided by EO 23 shall be invoked by IFMA holders for their industrial tree plantation, which in a way, would become another logging in a different form. In the same manner, other forestland tenure instruments, such as Socialized Forest Management Agreements and even Community Based Forest Management Agreements, may take the opportunity of the EO’s exemption in requesting permits with the DENR in cutting naturally-growing trees for purposes of tree plantation. These exemptions defeat the very objective and essence of Executive Order 23 to impose a total log ban in the Philippines.
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