environment 3: forests gone

(In Defense of Kaingineros)

Junie Kalaw

In 1863, after three hundred years of free access to forests for all, natives and Spaniards alike, the Inspeccion General de Montes was created by royal decree to keep track of, and control access to, the forests that blanketed the archipelago.  It was charged with all matters that had to do with the cutting of timber, the opening up of virgin forests, and the selling of forest land.  The discernible goals of forest policy were to (1) provide for Spanish civil and naval needs for timber, (2) contribute to government revenue, and (3) perpetuate forest resources. These goals were not met. Revenues from commercial timber exploitation and forest use were low. Timber could be used freely under a permit but few bothered; illegal cutting of trees and clearing of forest lands for cultivation increased among the natives.  In 1874 kaingin farming was banned and commercial cutting a crime.

Fortunately the population was small and forest loss negligible.   In fact, when Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States in 1898, the islands were still covered with forests, plains and mountains alike.   According to a report of the U.S.-appointed director of the Forestry Bureau, the forests of Mindanao, Palawan, Samar, and Luzon were intact, “waiting to be explored.”

The forest industry flourished under American rule, thanks to America’s huge demand for Philippine hardwood.  Soon enough the forests started to suffer from both destructive logging and kaingin farming.  By 1934 only about 17 million hectares or 57% of the country’s 30 million-hectare forest remained. By World War II the lumber industry ranked second in employment and fourth in value of production among Philippine export industries, with annual government revenues from forest charges averaging Php 2.5 million.

During the occupation, the Japanese took every opportunity to exploit Philippine forests.  Forest stations in occupied territories were made to continue operations, resulting in severe destruction of forests and the devastation of the industry, with 141 out of 163 sawmills completely destroyed.

Upon independence, the state’s ownership of all forest land was affirmed.  Projecting a bias for social justice and equity and envisioning democratic participation, the Philippine Constitution mandated that natural resources belong to the state.  In practice, the “state” has meant politicians and their business partners, and the doctrine has been “what is good for business is good for the general welfare.”

The forestry industry was rehabilitated and mechanized with American help and the exploitation of timber institutionalized through the concession system used by most governments of the tropical world.  Set up for the private management of commercial forests and to allow public authorities to collect revenue, the state controls exploitation through (1) a system of licensing that limits the area and duration of concession to 50 years, including renewals; (2) the collection of fees based on the volume cut; and (3) the enforcement of a maximum allowable cut derived from estimates of sustainable productivity.  Firms capable of setting up or linking with a complementary sawmill or wood–processing operation are more likely to be granted licenses.

In response to U.S. market demands, and to raise revenues for industrialization, the country resumed exporting forest products, with exports valuing Php 3.3 million in 1949.  Early in the next decade Japan stepped up its imports of Philippine hardwood, lauan in particular; from half a million cubic meters by 1952 to 4 million cubic meters by the end of the decade.  Forests were then clear-cut, large-scale, without concern for the future, until 1954 when government imposed the selective logging system on commercial loggers.   Designed as a “sustainable yield management scheme,” it requires the logger to refrain from cutting a certain proportion of trees in the concession, as designated by the Bureau of Forest Development, the residual stand to be managed by the logger, who arranges a second cycle of cutting after a specific growing period.

In the 1960s the Japanese government decided to develop its own wood-processing export industry, treating the forest resources of the Philippines and other South Seas countries as a singe resource base.  Hardwood imports, mainly logs, were processed into plywood in Japan and the best-quality production exported to the U.S.   This trade enjoyed special government privileges since it helped obtain precious currency for the Japanese economy and fueled the development of its plywood manufacturing industry.

In 1969, the peak year of the “logging boom,” the Philippines exported 8.3 million cubic meters of logs to Japan.  Two co-existing systems facilitated the process.  The first consisted of local concerns (Chinese timber merchants who generally managed the logging for the well-connected Filipino concessionaires) borrowing large capital from Japanese trading houses for the purchase of logging equipment; loans were repaid with log shipments.  The second system consisted of joint ventures between local capital and Japanese trading houses, with the Japanese supplying as much as 30% of the capital investment through the back door.

In the early 1970s log exports started to decline.  Despite the selective logging policy, Mindanao had been largely deforested, its high-density dipterocarp stands in accessible areas exhausted.  Logging continued but mostly in Luzon.   In principle, a ban on exports and a ban on logging in seven provinces, later reduced to six, were introduced in 1976.  However, government repeatedly delayed their implementation for “economic recovery” reasons.

Deforestation took place most rapidly under the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos.  The Japanese system of processing imported Philippine hardwood and then exporting the best products to the U.S. not only earned the Japanese government scarce currencies but also permitted the excesses of Marcos cronies.  When the Aquino administration came into power in 1986, several large concessions, some of them directly connected with Japanese interests, were canceled and a number of people, including government officials, were charged with corruption.

President Corazon Aquino, on whom the hopes of the 1986 revolution were pinned, did not fare much better, unfortunately.  By 1988, according to the latest nationwide inventory survey, Philippine forests had shrunk to 6.3 million hectares or 21% of their original area, with as much as 80% of these remaining forests partly logged over.  The most severely affected type is the naturally-grown dipterocarp forest.   Once dominating the country’s silvicultural pattern, it now stands marginally in (only) 4 out of 12 regions. From 1934 to 1988, the size and proportion of this type of forest declined between 11.1 and 13.6 million hectares to about 1.04 hectares.   In other words, almost 90% of the natural dipterocarp forest existing in the mid-’30s had been either cleared or transformed into residual forest areas, unproductive mossy fields, and open cogon lands by the 1980s.

The problem is essentially an institutional one, having to do with rules of access and control.  The red tape and complicated requirements involved in acquiring a Timber Licensing Agreement (TLA) or forest concession effectively squeeze out small-time operators or community interests in favor of big and influential concerns.   Besides, the prices assigned to standing timber are so low relative to their true market values that logging concessionaires make a killing in “rents,” which is the “surplus” profit available to a logging company once labor, equipment, and marketing costs are accounted for.   Since they incur no costs in producing the timber, loggers’ profits are often far higher than normal capital remuneration, which has led to the overexploitation of the resource.

This would also explain why the selective logging system has not worked for Philippine forests.   It has been shown that while the first cutting cycle is profitable for the private logger, the timber-stand improvement phase is not, due to the long period of time involved in waiting for the second cut.  Thus loggers tend to maximize revenues from the first cut, and then forego the second.   Invariably, when the loggers move on, “informal” forest users follow in their wake to clear logged-over areas for kaingin farming. These are mostly migrant farmers from lowland communities, numbering some 14 million Filipinos.

It is important to recognize the critical nature of this population pressure on the forest areas, which are now mostly in the uplands.   Unlike indigenous tribes that have long adapted to the environment, migrant farmers tend to overexploit the land quickly, using technology suited only for lowland agriculture.  It is therefore not surprising that government has singled out these kaingineros as the major culprit in 75% of forest destruction.

But if there is anything that the ecological crisis teaches us, it is to have a systems view of life, from which perspective everything is interconnected and interdependent.  We need to ask why we have 14 million kaingineros in our uplands and why they were forced to migrate in order to survive.  And we need to ask why only a few well-connected people are benefiting from forest resources.

From 1979 to 1982, loggers made a profit of US$ 820 million (roughly Php 16.4 billion) and the government earned approximately US$140 million (Php2.8 billion) in taxes.  Clearly now, this centralization of access to and benefits from forest resources has directly contributed to the poverty and environmental degradation in the countryside.  At a national level, benefits from forest resources have been used to finance political power through the dispensing of patronage to an impoverished electorate and the buying of military protection.   This has produced a basic anomaly in our democratic system.  Authentic democratic elections are not possible when the voters are poor and depend upon the patronage of a powerful few for their survival.  Ecological consciousness points to the necessity of acknowledging that the right to a life-support system from our natural resources is an inherent human right that must be given to people before the rights of the state and political leaderships can be voted on.

After the authoritarian Marcos regime, any other administration would have had to cope with the problem of poverty and democratic access, including Marcos himself, had he won the snap election as he claimed, and come to terms with the assault unleashed by an outraged civil society.  The history of primary-resource exploitation in the Philippines is replete with the names and interlocked fortunes of politicians and foreign interests, as left-wing ideologues have not tired of repeating.  These ideologues, however, seek to impose a political solution to what is at the core a problem of ecological relationship.  Until this is understood, poverty, as well as the aggravations created by insurgency, will continue to bedevil us.

Philippine Daily Inquirer 26 July 1988