Whenever they apprehend illegal loggers, kaingineros, and wildlife poachers, forest officers like Forester Arnil Junia are undoubtedly risking their lives, and it is often up to them how they will defend themselves to continue the job.
“It’s demoralizing for a field officer to face armed environmental law violators without any tool but pen and paper,” he said.
But Junia and other forest protection officers of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) had a sigh of relief after attending a training on proper gun handling, operation, and firing by the Philippine National Police last week.
This was part of the week-long training on law enforcement and forest protection held for 143 forest officers from across the province.
Apart from gun handling and test firing, the training also included lectures on challenges to environmental protection, human rights, and arrest protocols, among others.
DENR MIMAROPA Regional Director Natividad Bernardino said this pilot training was even more relevant as the trainees are tasked to protect the country’s last ecological frontier.
The training was prompted by recent violent incidents against forest officers in the province.
Last August 23, Forester Joselito Eyala was wounded when he and his team were ambushed while patrolling the mountains of Puerto Princesa City.
Not a month ago, the chairperson of El Nido Environmental Law Enforcement Council (ENELEC), Barangay Captain Ruben Arzaga, was shot dead on September 14 by illegal loggers whom he and his colleagues were about to apprehend.
“More often than not, we encounter violent resistance when we apprehend violators. With these two fateful incidents, it’s high time to increase our capacity to defend ourselves,” said Mark Anthony Gabuco, another forest protection officer.
DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu earlier announced the plan of arming forest officers during his visit in the province last September.
“The agency is looking at the possibility of arming forest rangers while patrolling and conducting apprehension to defend themselves, if needed,” he said.
In his message to the trainees, Cimatu yet again stressed the need to equip forest watchers, especially in illegal logging hot spots like Palawan.
“Empowering our field personnel has always been [my] top priority,” he added.
The DENR is working out the modalities of allowing its forest officers to use firearms during operations, on top of providing them with better monitoring equipment.
Meanwhile, the agency is forging closer cooperation with the military, police, coast guards, and civil society in order to improve forest protection.
The training, on one hand, is also set to be conducted in other logging hotspots in the country