Analysis : Forest fire in Samar

Analysis: Forest fire in Samar

18 November 2005

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Manila, Philippines — THE administration is reaping a blistering whirlwind unleashed by its decision lifting the 16-year moratorium on logging in the protected forest preserves on Samar Island, giving Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile’s San Jose Timber Corp. the go-ahead to cut timber on its 95,770-hectare concession area in the 333,300-hectare Samar Island Nature Park.

The decision issued on Aug. 16 ignited a political forest fire, with wider political ramifications than the confines of Samar, where an ad hoc grass-roots coalition of outraged citizens, environmentalist groups and Catholic Church prelates has mounted a protest movement calling on Environment Secretary Michael Defensor to rescind his Aug. 16 order.

Although Samar is distant from the center of political turmoil in Manila, where the administration continues to be under siege from its opponents who question her legitimacy, the Samar political firestorm opens a new front of attack on the administration. As such, the controversy is an unwelcome

development to the government, which does not need any more enemies than it can handle. It finds the administration struggling to extinguish too many political fires.

The fact is that the administration is its worse enemy. It has a penchant for creating problems for itself, including the Venable contract over which the administration came into collision with the Senate over the refusal of National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales to reveal details of the contract. That contract, especially its feature inviting foreign financing in the study of issues on constitutional change, was utterly unnecessary.

The decision to lift the Samar logging moratorium added fuel to the controversies engulfing the administration. It has also given more ammunition to its enemies as they continue to wage their unflagging campaign to bring down the government of President Macapagal-Arroyo earlier than 2010.

The resumption of logging in Samar’s protected forest reserves has raised concerns about the safety of its people against catastrophic flooding and destruction, of which they had a foretaste in 1989 when floods and mudslides killed scores of people. Another issue it raises is patronage politics. Environmentalist groups and Catholic Church leaders in the province have charged that the decision of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) that favor Enrile’s company is payback for Enrile’s support for President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Critics have pointed out that the resumption of logging would allow the San Jose Timber Corp. to make up for lost revenue during the 16 years that the logging moratorium was in place.

The President has an opportunity to prevent the Samar political forest fire from spreading and linking up with the other issues in Manila by rescinding the DENR order as the Samar protest groups have demanded. The issues raised by the protesters are not only confined to Samar but are also catching fire with environmentalist groups in the national capital. The question is whether the President will heed the demand of the people of Samar and the protest groups or give priority to Enrile’s interests to maintain his political support. The President is paying a heavy price for her Faustian pact with Enrile. She could cut the price and control the damage by rescinding the order lifting the logging moratorium.

In this political quid pro quo, there are clearly two obvious losers: the President and the Samar forests and its people. The Samar bishops have summed up the President’s dilemma and options with their statement saying, “To say that Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and San Jose Timber Corp. have prior rights to the old growth forest is a legal assertion. It does not reflect true justice or morality. In truth, the people of Samar have more prior rights than either.”

It is hard to dispute the bishops’ argument that “Justice truly dictates that the natural wealth of Samar Island benefit Samar’s poor and not end up in the hands of the already wealthy few.”

The choices are clear for the President. If she does not rescind the logging resumption order, the issue will not only continue to fester but will also connect with other issues trumping her in Manila.

Although the lifting of the moratorium on logging exercises primarily the Samar people, it will not drive them to march to Manila to join the rabble that has been taking to the streets and demanding the resignation of the President. They are so poor that they cannot afford the fare to Makati City or Edsa highway. Their main concern is their livelihood and saving the natural resources of their island. The forest issue directly affects their daily lives. Legitimacy issues, which are the main concern of the Manila middle class, have little relevance to their lives.

But Samar should worry the President because the protest against the deal with Enrile represents an erosion of her rural constituency. Up to this point, the President has deftly played the rural card and the resentment of the provinces against imperial Manila’s dominance in political decision-making and revenue distribution to defeat efforts to oust her-especially through the impeachment action in the House of Representatives.

It was the vote of the rural constituency, represented by the votes of congressmen reflecting rural opinion, to dismiss the impeachment complaints that saved the President. The Samar forest issue sends a warning that she could lose the rural constituency once there is a conjunction between rural and urban issues.


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