Dispatch

If a Tree Falls Without a Permit…

One year after Typhoon Haiyan wreaked havoc across the Philippines, the country is turning to illegal loggers to help bring one of its most important industries back from the brink.

TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

LEYTE, Philippines — The roar of the motor drowns out the patter of raindrops. Joemar Macaro, a rugged 43-year-old wearing an orange jacket, blue jeans, and silver New Balance sneakers, picks up a 40-pound, gasoline-powered chain saw. Scrunching his face, Macaro tears into one of the coconut trees uprooted by Typhoon Haiyan, the tropical cyclone that tore through the Philippines on Nov. 8, 2013.

His posture is textbook: Macaro’s sturdy legs are spread apart to maintain balance, and his thumbs and fingers are wrapped around both of the chain saw’s handles. He yanks the saw up to full speed before making the first cut. Smoke wafts across the mountain on which he stands, which sits 10 kilometers away from Tacloban, the capital of Leyte province and ground zero of the cyclone disaster. After just two minutes, the tree gives — the trunk splits in half.

"This is how you have to cut it," Macaro says to a handful of chain-saw operators gathered around, clad in yellow hard hats and baggy pants. They smile in acknowledgment.

In the fall of 2013, record-breaking winds pushed ashore a wall of water up to 25 feet high, damaging or destroying an estimated 44 million coconut trees across the central Philippines. Prior to the storm, coconuts were the country’s main agricultural export, with sales totaling more than $1 billion a year. Roughly 16 million of the trees were wiped out by Haiyan and need to be cleared, according to Roel Rosales, a deputy administrator at the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), the government agency responsible for overseeing the development of the coconut and palm oil industries. Coconut saplings take six to eight years to grow and start bearing fruit, so it is essential that the debris be removed immediately and new seedlings planted en masse if there is to be any hope of re-establishing the area’s coconut industry.

One year since the storm, however, only around 3 million trees, or 19 percent, have been cleared, according to Adam Marlatt, a senior technical advisor with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which oversees coconut debris-clearing projects in tandem with the PCA. Production losses to the coconut industry are now valued at $396 million, and they are affecting more than 1 million coconut farmers. Thousands more who used to earn a living by using other parts of the coconut tree to make products like cooking oil and furniture are also struggling. Recovery is distant.

Macaro is one of at least 5,000 Filipinos employed at any given time by international NGOs or the PCA, helping to clear or oversee the removal of trees. Some work as operators, cutting the fallen trees into millable square logs, while others provide technical assistance to teams in the field. But these men aren’t simply locals looking for a wage. Macaro, like a number of other chain-saw experts working in the typhoon-ravaged areas, was previously involved in illegal, for-profit logging.

Illegal logging is a pressing problem in the Philippines and has been cited by a wide variety of sources, from environmental activists to former presidents, as a leading contributor to the country’s loss of biodiversity, threats to its ecosystems, and, notably, high death tolls following natural disasters. (Excessive logging denudes forest coverage, making areas more susceptible to landslides and flash floods.) It’s unclear just how many of the chain-saw experts clearing coconut debris have worked on the shadier side of logging. Those who work for the PCA are contracted on a day-to-day basis, and their work histories aren’t scrutinized. Rather, potential hires are judged largely on their skills.

Macaro, a field monitor for the UNDP who works on coconut debris-clearing projects, says he thinks most of the chain-saw operators he has met on the ground have been involved in illegal logging. Their superior skill is telling. "These men can do more than the locals," he says. "They’re more experienced. Their cutting technique is better; they’re faster."

Edilberto Nierva, the regional manager of the PCA in Eastern Visayas, a region comprising a few small islands in the eastern Philippines that bore the brunt of Haiyan’s devastation, says that while he has no hard data, his "gut feeling" is the same. "I tend to believe that there is a good number of them who have been involved in illegal logging," he says. "But we have to encourage people who have adequate knowledge in sawmilling to help out."

"The PCA," he says, "can’t do this alone."

In 2004, Typhoon Winnie set off floods and landslides that killed an estimated 1,600 people, mostly in Quezon province, southeast of Manila, an area of the country known to be rife with illegal logging. Following the disaster, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took aim at the industry. The practice, she said "must be placed in the order of the most serious crimes against our people." Now those implicated in these crimes and others like them may be the Philippines’ best chance at salvaging one of the country’s most lucrative, if troubled industries.

***

Before Haiyan hit, the Philippines was one of the world’s three largest coconut producers, alongside India and Indonesia. Approximately one-quarter of the roughly 100 million people who live in the island country are directly or indirectly dependent on the industry, according to the PCA. Eastern Visayas, where Haiyan damaged or destroyed an estimated 33 million coconut trees alone, was the country’s second-largest coconut-producing region. Today locals are struggling to harvest from the few trees that remain viable, and surviving is becoming increasingly difficult for a segment of society that was vulnerable even before Haiyan hit. (About 60 percent of the Philippines’ small-scale coconut farmers live below the poverty line, according to Oxfam.)

To secure basic necessities, some people, including Robito Salili Sr., have been forced into debt just to feed and clothe their families. Salili, a 67-year-old father of six, has been a coconut farmer for more than 20 years. When Haiyan hit, it knocked down almost everything on the two hectares of land he was renting in the quiet town of Albuera. Two-thirds of the coconut debris on his land still has not been cleared, and he has no idea when it will be removed.

Like many coconut farmers in the Philippines, Salili works side jobs. He used to catch fish, until Haiyan destroyed the small boat he used. Recently he tried to plant rice up in the mountains, but rats ate his crops. After that, he planted sweet potatoes and corn on some of his cleared land.

"I’m tired," says Salili, taking a break from tilling his fields. "We’re waiting for help."

More than 120 kilometers away, at the Leyte Park Resort Hotel in Tacloban, the PCA, farmers, and representatives from various NGOs and the private sector are trying to grapple with the crisis. It’s a humid morning in late September, and the PCA is holding a two-day workshop in one of the hotel’s conference rooms to discuss a new campaign it is spearheading. It is called "Six Million in Six Months," referring to the number of trees that the PCA intends to clear in Eastern Visayas.

Shortly after the typhoon hit, efforts to clear the coconut debris were led by local governments across Eastern Visayas. Collectively, they were able to clear tens of thousands of trees, but the scale of the devastation proved too large and complex for local governments’ meager resources. So in February, at the behest of the country’s president, the PCA took control.

Millions of trees have since been cleared, but the PCA hopes that its new campaign will produce results on a larger scale. The PCA’s head office, Nierva happily reports, has pledged an additional 1,500 chain saws. Now it is up to men like Macaro to help meet the goal.

***

Before most people can legally obtain a driver’s license, Macaro knew the ins and outs of a chain saw. Born into a family of chain-saw operators living near the mountains of Isabela — a province on Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island — Macaro learned the tricks of the trade from his father, Josue, who instilled the importance of safety in his son. Lessons his father taught him, such as always rest the saw on a solid surface before starting the engine and turn off the engine when transporting the tool from one place to another, are what Macaro imparted to chain-saw operators he helped train this June.

While still a teenager, Macaro started working with his father to cut trees for one of the big sawmill companies in his hometown. But with six siblings to help support, the couple of hundred Philippine pesos he earned each day didn’t stretch far enough. So Macaro resorted to illegal logging. "I didn’t have a choice," he says. "If I didn’t kick-start my chain saw and start cutting for whoever needed my services, then I didn’t get paid and we didn’t eat."

Illegal logging has been a critical issue in the Philippines since at least the early 20th century, when the country was still a U.S. colony. The law at the time, which still exists today, mandated that a government permit be acquired to cut down any tree, even those located — literally — in one’s own backyard. But government officials have long struggled to enforce the law. Over time, aggressive logging has depleted the country’s natural forests. Today the country’s forest cover stands at a paltry 6.8 million hectares, or just 23 percent of total land area. The country’s forest cover was at nearly 19 million hectares in 1920, according to the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic, and Natural Resources Research and Development. In all, the Philippines has the second-smallest forest cover in Southeast Asia, behind Singapore.

Dominating the Philippine black market for timber is a well-connected business elite. Financiers and local officials pocket most of the profits, according to a 2011 study on illegal logging in Isabela’s Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, published in the journal Conservation & Society. The financiers, mostly comprising registered lumber dealers and timber-plantation owners, work with the officials to find poor laborers to illegally harvest timber in the forests. The officials then work as middlemen, colluding with contacts at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the government agency mandated to enforce environmental legislation, to "authenticate illegal wood through a variety of legal loopholes," according to the study. Illegally cut lumber could be claimed as old stock or salvaged driftwood and then sold legally and transported to furniture shops or construction companies, including ones in Manila.

Transport permits for the timber are forged or not used at all, and middlemen, according to the 2011 study, bribe forest guards working for the DENR, as well as representatives of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, to secure safe passage for logging trucks at highway checkpoints. In Isabela alone, the study estimates, between $160,000 and $280,000 is annually given as bribes to DENR officials.

In Isabela, Macaro says, illegal logging is a way of life. Day and night, the sound of chain saws emanate from Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park. The vast expanse of land covers almost 360,000 hectares and contains some 35 endangered species, including the Philippine eagle, one of the world’s largest raptors and the country’s national bird. There, in his youth, Macaro and his friends would hike for two days, sometimes five, until they found a few good trees to cut. They would use a water buffalo to skid the logs down to one of the park’s numerous rivers, build a raft, and pray to God the current didn’t capsize them before they landed on a designated roadside in the lowlands.

"It’s like doing white-water rafting with logs," says Macaro enthusiastically.

At the end of the journey, one of his friends would be waiting with a truck to help transport the timber to one of several sawmills working illegally.

Jan van der Ploeg, an assistant professor in environmental anthropology at Leiden University in the Netherlands and one of the main authors of the 2011 study, estimates that the people who finance the sawmills bank anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the profits from these sales. Macaro and his fellow loggers end up with little, but with few alternatives for work and income, they’ll take the crumbs.

"It’s good money," says Macaro, insisting "you earn more" than a person would working for legal logging enterprises.

Illegal logging isn’t without risks — chain-saw operators who are discovered harvesting timber without a permit can face up to 20 years in prison. Macaro admits to being caught by authorities once or twice, but was never afraid of the consequences. "In my time," he says, shrugging his shoulders, "you just had to pay the officer."

Today isn’t so different. In 2011, President Benigno Aquino III signed an executive order that established an anti-illegal-logging task force. Although the Aquino administration seems to be genuinely committed to fighting the graft that allows the practice to flourish, van der Ploeg argues that the key problem persists: a lack of enforcement on the ground.

That’s why he "feels positive" about the sudden demand for chain-saw operators to clear the coconut debris. According to his study, a skilled chain-saw operator can earn around 400 pesos per day by illegally harvesting timber. The PCA, in comparison, claims that on average, its skilled chain-saw operators earn roughly 1,600 pesos per day.

Macaro also sees the PCA’s work as a boon. He no longer lives in Isabela, but his family and friends still do, and some of them continue to rely on illegal logging. Recently, he has spotted a few of them in the typhoon-battered areas working to clear the debris. "The PCA’s giving these people a chance to make their life worth something," he says.

***

The PCA says its clearance program seems to be working. UNDP’s Marlatt is confident that the goal of 6 million trees in six months will be met. "They [the workers] just have to continue on the track that they’re on," he says. At the end of that track, destitute coconut farmers who’ve been scraping by for the past year on a combination of government handouts, loans, and temporary work will finally be able to start rebuilding their lives — thanks, in part, to the very people who have long stripped the country of prized resources.

Back on the mountain, Macaro starts chatting with one of the other operators, a lanky 21-year-old who has been using chain saws for almost half his life. Before Typhoon Haiyan hit, the young man was making money cutting down trees for whoever was willing to pay for his services, permit or no permit. Today he has already cut down six trees in two hours, slightly more than those working alongside him.

"It’s guys like him," Macaro says, contemplating the work ahead, "who will get the job done."

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