A report released this week by the Underground River management claimed there has been rampant illegal logging around the national park involving no less than the communities living around it. The report observed that the rise in the incidence of this illegal activity came in the aftermath of Typhoon Odette when people needed timber to rebuild their homes and property.

This wasn’t even the first clear evidence of man-made forest destruction exposed by Odette. Early photos of washed out forest debris along the national highway in the northern barangays of the city following the typhoon showed many trees that had been chainsaw-cut prior to Odette. The floods had washed them down from the mountains.

The laws against illegal logging are cut and dried and are in fact overlapping, as if they wanted to ensure the problem would be covered from all angles. Apart from RA 705 that serves as the mother law on forestry protection, Palawan has a unique law, RA 7611, which provides, among others, the creation of “communal forests” as a solution to illegal logging.

The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), the policy and regulatory body created by 7611, is also mandated to oversee the implementation of RA 9175, regulating the use of chainsaws. In Palawan, the regulation of chainsaws is akin to gun control, where licensing applies and penalties await those who fail to register them. After all, the chainsaw is the main tool of the local illegal logging trade.

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It didn’t take Odette long to unmask the gravity of the illegal logging problem, not only around the Underground River but all throughout the province. A close look at the basic supply and demand equation for local timber would readily show a skewed reality where the legal supply is simply overwhelmed by the demand.

The framers of the conservation policy in Palawan had foreseen this problem and provided a solution to ensure that the demand factor is met, and that is via the creation of so-called communal forests under the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) law. However, nearly three decades after the passage of RA 7611, not a single working communal forest has been established.

Nowhere else in the country is the effectiveness of legal conservation strategies being tested than here, where the last remaining forest wilderness can be found. Both the PCSD and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) need to take a more effective calibration of existing policies to ensure those conservation objectives are met. The first questions to ask are — why are communal forests not working and what changes in the policy environment need to be made?

With so many other questions concerning illegal logging remaining unanswered, we hope that Odette, along with the destruction she had wrought, was able to amplify these questions for all concerned.

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