Illegal Logging Blamed For Philippine Flood Toll
Treeless hills, silt-choked rivers intensify impact of tropical storms
AS Filipinos brace for a third typhoon in three weeks, concern is rising here over whether last week's heavy death toll was more a man-made disaster than a natural one.Philippine Civil Defense officials on Leyte island estimate about 6,000 persons were killed Nov. 5, hours after a tropical storm had passed through. Water roared unexpectedly through Ormoc, drowning families in their homes. The fast current dragged people, animals, and the city's fire truck into the ocean. "This flash flood was caused by illegal logging which has denuded our mountains," said Maria Victoria Locsin, the mayor of Ormoc, 60 miles west of the city of Tacloban. "Only the poor suffer," said a local reporter with unconcealed bitterness. "The illegal loggers are rich and ran upstairs in their concrete two-story houses." Although it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of the Ormoc tragedy, Undersecretary Delfin Ganapin of the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said last week the high death toll was the result of several factors: deforestation in the watersheds above the worst-affected towns, heavy localized rainfall, and rivers choked with silt from previous erosion. But under the clamor for a congressional investigation of the agency for mismanagement, DENR Secretary Fulgencio Factoran altered Mr. Ganapin's statement yesterday: "The DENR has ruled out deforestation as the main cause of the flash floods." He said the logs that washed into the city were telephone poles. A similar typhoon on nearby Samar island in 1989 led the DENR to impose a logging moratorium in parts of Samar. "There's supposed to be a total logging ban here ... but illegal logging is rampant," says the local reporter, who has received death threats for his coverage and asked that his name be withheld. "Recently the DENR confiscated a truck loaded with logs, but they were forced to turn it over to military men who were heavily armed. No one knows what became of the timber." Several people who asked not to be named backed up allegations that the military is involved in logging. Approaching Ormoc by helicopter, this reporter saw avalanches dotting the hillsides. Some hills were totally bald; others had sparse cover. What appeared to be cut timber floated down swollen silt-filled rivers. Bridges leading to the city were washed out. "Our bridges were destroyed by the logs which came crashing through," Locsin said, pointing out a huge log still entangled in what remained of a bridge. Timber has been seen floating along the coast as far as 25 miles from Ormoc since the storm. Townspeople say small-scale operators have cut trees for years, selling them to dealers who in turn sell them to larger wood industry concerns. In rural areas, logging often constitutes the only economic activity. "When they [logging companies] leave, the people are as poor as rats," DENR Undersecretary Victor Ramos told the local press. In the 1960s and '70s, lumber was one of the Philippines's chief exports. The country's virgin forests have since dwindled, covering about 2.3 percent of the country in 1989, according to the DENR. Manila bans lumber exports, but smuggling continues. Japanese and Taiwanese cargo ships are reported to load logs in the central islands. Illegal logging and wood processing contributes more than $700 million annually to the Philippine gross national product. Profits in the logging industry have bred corruption. The Philippine military, some DENR officials, local mayors, and governors are alleged to be involved in the complex network of illegal logging. But the DENR, which is tasked with enforcing logging bans and timber concessions, is ill-equipped to stop illegal logging. Less than 3,000 DENR officers police the remaining forests, and they have no guns or radios and earn about $75 per month. When the trees are gone, both drought and flash floods are the outcome. Rains during the wet season are normally absorbed and trapped by jungle vegetation, says Roman Kintanar, a Filipino scientist who heads the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Admin- istration. This moisture sustains life during the dry season. In addition, without vegetative cover, the possibility of erosion and avalanches during frequent typhoons increases. "Without trees and other vegetation, when it rains, the water simply runs off," Mr. Kintanar says. Longtime Ormoc residents say there were no floods a decade ago: In recent years, even brief rainstorms have triggered minor floods. A 25-year forestry development plan, funded by the Asian Development Bank and the Finnish International Development Agency, has been approved for the Philippines. The plan calls for protected forests and a selective ban on logging. Both foreign and local officials say political will is needed to make the plan effective.