Forest Guardians

On one of the Philippines’ most densely-forested islands, a small team of dedicated park staff struggle to fend off illegal loggers and miners.

photo of a tropical mountaintop, backpackers climbingphoto Isaac PearlmanSibuyan’s forests are unique in a country that has been besieged by deforestation. Most of the island – about 50 percent – is still covered in forest, including large swathes of primary-growth woodland.

Malvin Rocero, superintendent of Mount Guiting-Guiting Natural Park, has a problem. Near the park headquarters, an open shed, about half the size of a basketball court, is overflowing with seized forest products and the tools used to illegally harvest them. Motorized tricycles piled high with bags of charcoal lie among tall mounds of illegal lumber cut from 100-year-old dipterocarp and heavy ironwood trees. In front of the shed, a broken-down bus-sized jeepney is parked – it was full of poached timber when confiscated several years ago.

“We should spend our effort preventing logging, rather than confiscating illegal lumber,” Rocero says. Andy Regla, a park forester and member of the local Tagabukid indigenous group, agrees: “We need to continue and increase patrolling in order to prevent people from cutting trees in the first place.”

This is a common line of conversation in their small office. As employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Rocero and his team are tasked with protecting the forest of Sibuyan, a small island in the central Philippines. Monitoring an area roughly the size of Manhattan, they contend with illegal loggers on a near-daily basis, and struggle to balance patrols with confiscation work and public education efforts. The forest is dense, the surrounding communities are poor, and the incentives for timber poaching are high. When I arrived to Sibuyan in 2014, this arduous task of protecting Sibuyan’s forests was left to a small team of just seven people.

Sibuyan’s forests are unique in a country that has been besieged by deforestation. Most of the island – about 50 percent – is still covered in forest, including large swathes of primary-growth woodland. A significant portion of these rare and invaluable forestlands is now protected in Guiting-Guiting Natural Park, which spans 15,700 hectares of the 44,500-hectare island.

photo of tall, rugged, tropical mountains with a stream in the foregroundphoto Isaac PearlmanGuiting-Guiting Natural Park earns its name from the saw-toothed appearance of several jagged peaks near the top of the mountain range

The forest is humbling both in its scale and diversity. Rare lowland dipterocarp forest rings the outer fringe of the island, reaching to within meters of the coast before giving way to mangrove forest or, more often, developed land. The soaring lowland canopy, which reaches heights of up to 40 meters, climbs the mountainous island to 1,000 meters or so, and then subtly transitions into the smaller 15-to-20-meter resin-bearing trees of the montane forest.

Higher up, at 1,500 meters, a more obvious boundary of smaller, gnarled trees marks the beginning of the mossy forest. This almost-Dr. Seussian habitat, composed of plants listing at odd angles in search of light, is home to seemingly incongruous species like pumpkin-orange freshwater crabs, startlingly electric blue earthworms, and a variety of birds such as the mountain white-eye and barred buttonquail that somehow manage to stay well hidden despite the lack of cover. Near the top of the mountain range, several jagged peaks earn it the name Guiting-Guiting or “saw-toothed,” and high-elevation forest falls away to reveal sparse heathland and rough bare rock where cracks hide grasses and ground orchids.

The Philippines is known as a global biodiversity hotspot, and small Sibuyan Island is no exception. Two species of civet cat and a native wild pig skulk in the forest undergrowth. The wily long-tailed macaque is frequently heard but rarely seen in the overhead canopy, where it shares space with more than 100 bird species and more than 15 types of bats. Dozens of different reptile and amphibian species crawl and hop through the densely packed trees, chasing insects yet-undescribed by science. The estimated 700 types of plant on the island include 54 species endemic to Sibuyan, and 180 that are endemic to the Philippines. When measured in 1995 by researchers from the Philippine National Museum, Sibuyan’s forest was proclaimed to be the densest recorded in the country at 1,551 trees per hectare, and – as was often said to me with true Filipino grandeur – perhaps the densest in the world.

photo of a golden spotted beetle on a leafIsaac PearlmanThe Philippines is known as a biodiversity hotspot. Sibuyan alone is home to some 700 types of plants, more than 100 bird species, and dozens of different reptile and amphibian species.

In a country that has demolished more 80 percent of its forestland, it is a treasure to have not one, but four forest types remaining in one region in any quantity. Of these jewels, the Sibuyan lowland forest is the brightest: It is one of the few remaining intact lowland forest tracts in the entire 7,000-island Philippine archipelago.

Unfortunately, the rest of the country is not so lucky; the word “deforestation” utterly fails to capture the ravaging and pillaging of the Philippines’ old-growth forests that took place in the early and mid-twentieth century. During the 35-year American occupation of the Philippines – which formally ended in 1946 – an estimated 6 million hectares of virgin forest were decimated and the timber exported, much of it to the United States. Later, in the 1970s and ‘80s, some 7 million hectares of additional forest were cut to fuel General Ferdinand Marcos’s brutal US-supported regime, compounding the nation’s loss. Sibuyan was mostly spared from this destruction, primarily due to the island’s isolation and steep slopes.

By the early 2000s, the pace of forest destruction in the country had slowed, though an area twice the size of Manila was still being deforested each year. In 2011, in a belated attempt to preserve the few forested areas left in the country, then-President Benigno Aquino III banned all logging on public lands via executive order.

Unfortunately, this laudable action has had unintended consequences: Park staff say the nationwide ban has made lumber harder to obtain and thus, more valuable. And in places around the country, including the protected forests of Sibuyan, high prices are encouraging poachers to illegally harvest timber.

There are two types of ilegalistas – or illegal loggers – on Sibuyan. The first and most common is the campesino: the rural farmer or resident who is simply harvesting resources for personal use and consumption. Maybe a few poles, or thatching for a house. Logs for firewood or resin to use for building a small fishing banca. An occasional animal for dinner.

In addition to its unique biodiversity, Sibuyan holds some 50,000 people, and most are unemployed, hungry, and living right at the forest’s edge. There are also thousands of indigenous people living in and around the protected area, people whose habit of harvesting from the forest long predates the 1996 establishment of the park. To these rural people there is no concept of a protected forest. The forest is right there in their backyard, a free bounty of lumber for their houses, fuel for their kitchens, medicinal and edible plants for their bodies, and meat for their tables. It is hard to begrudge those who have so little the use of forest resources.

Everyone working with the park service has been on the receiving end of hostility from people in town.

But then there is the more concerning type of ilegalista: the high volume lumber poachers who target tracts of large dipterocarp and old-growth ironwood trees. Usually hailing from larger neighboring islands, they coordinate with local contacts, bring chainsaws, and often mill the wood right in the forest, leaving piles of fresh sawdust alongside new stumps. They use hidden back trails to access the protected area, and move timber out of the forest at night when they are less likely to be caught.

In addition to those harvesting trees, illegal miners uproot giant mounds of earth digging for gold, which they find in large quantities in the park. The mining camps discovered by park staff are usually strewn with trash and the mercury used to bind the gold. Sometimes the miners are armed.

Rebecca Mayo-Delgado, a forester with the Mount Guiting-Guiting Natural Park Service, leads me into the forest in her usual field outfit of light hiking pants, long sleeve shirt, hat, and a sweat cloth wrapped around her neck. Out of her backpack sticks the worn wooden handle of her bolo, a two-foot machete infamously used by Filipino guerrillas during World War II. Mayo-Delgado uses hers to slash back brush from the trail, cut kindling for fire, and slice vines for rope. She never uses her bolo as a weapon. For that, she carries a gun.

photo of a woman hiking in a tropical forestIsaac Pearlman

Up ahead, a noise freezes Mayo-Delgado in her tracks, and she holds up her hand to silence me. I follow as she continues on, stepping quietly through the trees with her head cocked to the side. We step into a clearing and hear voices coming towards us.

A man and woman come into view, accompanied by a massive carabao, or water buffalo, head bent to the earth, dragging a bundle of cut poles lashed to a simple makeshift wooden sled. The couple stops when they see us, and the man smiles, clearly uncomfortable. He and the woman are both barefoot, and their calloused feet comfortably grip the red clay soil of the forest floor. Their clothes are worn and dirty, and their dark skin and the deep lines on their face show the rigors of a hard life outdoors. They speak to Mayo-Delgado in Visayan, the regional indigenous language, and she angrily replies, raising her voice.

It is obvious that they have illegally cut and taken the poles from the protected area. These poles, about two fingers width in diameter and 10 feet tall, are popularly used for fencing but are also used as firewood, for fishing poles, and for construction. The several dozen they have collected can be sold illegally in town for 250 pesos, or about $5.70 US – enough money on Sibuyan to feed a family for a week.

Mayo-Delgado finishes her conversation with the couple, the man flicks the carabao with his stick and it lurches forward, dragging the sled behind it. Mayo-Delgado tells me that she has given the couple instructions to go to the protected area office and seek permission from the superintendent to take the poles. I have my doubts that they will willingly turn themselves in, and she shrugs and says at least she has their names and can follow-up if they don’t. There isn’t time to escort every offender out of the park.

Poaching poles from the protected area is a common infraction and local villagers caught taking a small amount of forest resources for personal use are mostly given warnings, at least until they become repeat offenders. They generally offer no resistance when caught. Sometimes, they are legitimately unaware that they have harvested from a protected area.

Park staff work to combat this small-scale poaching by engaging local communities in educational activities – they collaborate with schools to integrate conservation into curricula, for example, and hold educational workshops in neighborhoods adjacent to the protected area. “Most of the people who cut the trees and make illegal activity in the forest are poor,” explains Thelmo Hernandez, the assistant park superintendent and Rocero’s second-in-command. “That is why education is important, to provide people information about the park regulations, programs, and the benefits [of the forest] to the community.”

Combatting the more organized, high-volume ilegalistas is more difficult. Park staff rely in large part on an informal network of friends and family. Informants are paid by staff to alert them when people are trying to move large amounts of illegal lumber from the forest to storehouses in town or to boats along the coast. (From the coast, traffickers transport the forest products off the island, where they can’t be traced.) But even with informants, an operation to bust organized timber poachers requires precise timing, enough manpower to confiscate the lumber and truck it back to the park office, as well as the availability of relevant authorities to detain people and their equipment, including chainsaws, trucks, and boats.

Illegal logging in the protected area has held steady during the past year, but illegal mining is on the rise.

This type of coordination is more often a fantasy than a reality on Sibuyan. Usually the park staff has no backup when they come upon an illegal operation. Ilegalistas may hear them approaching and hide in the forest, returning later to complete their work. Often, the tips don’t pan out. In fact, this happens frequently enough that informants are paid only for successful tips. And I suspect that several times during my nine-month stay the staff were given bad leads, sent to patrol areas far away from where the illegal loggers actually operate – a suspicion shared by several park employees as well.

But ingenuity plays a role too, and was key to one of the largest successful busts to date. In 2009, several staff members stumbled across a huge illegal mining camp inside the protected area, composed of more than 70 people. Approaching such a large group poses a particular challenge – the ilegalistas are likely to run, or worse, turn on the staff. So, as Regla explains in the practiced manner of a story that has been re-told often, the park staff strolled into the miner camp announcing that they represented the provincial governor’s new “alternative livelihoods program,” enacted to support local industries. By registering for the program, the miners could enter a lottery to receive subsidies and government support. The park staff then proceeded, without event, to obtain the name and photo of every illegal miner present.

Of course, even with these success stories, there are obstacles: The miners were all charged, but six years after this incident, when I arrived on Sibuyan, the case was just making it to the judge for a pre-hearing. It is still making its way through the court system today.

These hard-earned victories come at a steep cost. At least four park staff have been shot at, though none have been injured, and both Rocero and Hernandez have received repeated death threats. Hernandez tells me that this past June, after he led an operation to apprehend an illegal miner, he received a text telling him to stop all monitoring and enforcement operations or one of the park staff would be killed. “It’s normal to receive threats,” he says, somberly. “We always have to be careful.”

Everyone working with the park service admits to being on the receiving end of occasional hostility from people in town, either from the ilegalistas themselves, or more often, from those whose family members or friends have been fined or jailed by the park staff.

The danger involved in combatting the ilegalistas creates an interesting mix of blasé fatalism and grim determination amongst the park team. Crisamel Pastor, one of the two youngest staff members, hopes she can save enough to buy a gun. The other, the voluble Henry Carbonilla, never mentions it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he already has one. What is clear, however, is that Carbonilla works hard to cultivate a support network around the island – a network that he waters often with gifts of food and money, and for which he occasionally looks the other way when a few small trees are harvested for local use. In addition to her gun, Mayo-Delgado carries with her a rechargeable flashlight with a Taser built into it. She has never had to use her weapons, but told me that she prays to God for protection. Another staff member keeps a homemade gun, called a sumpak or cigarette gun, in his room at the staff house.

Though park staff are issued some equipment – including military-style sleeping hammocks and other simple camping gear for nighttime stakeouts – many bemoan the lack of government-issued guns for self defense. “In the United States, your forest rangers have guns,” says Rocero, frustration creeping into his voice. “I don’t know why the government says we cannot have guns.”

Some days, after a confiscation of illegal lumber, it seems as if the resilient park team is winning the battle against resource extraction on Sibuyan. But most days it seems like the barriers are too big, the reality too harsh, the uncoordinated effort not enough. Locals continue to slink through the forest edges carrying poles on their shoulders. Smoky charcoal pits are found less than 100 yards from the park office. And regularly, rather than catch poachers in the act, rangers find freshly-cut stumps, wood shavings, and the smooth indentation of heavy trunks dragged out of the forest on muddy trails.

Staff say their challenges are compounded by a lack of resources. “It’s very simple,” says Hernandez. “First, we need more staff. Second, we need the local governments to step up and contribute to education and enforcement. And people’s livelihoods need to improve; there are no job opportunities for them.” Regla agrees. “I think we have to do more education for everybody. Continue patrolling and prevention. And get more resources from the government.”

The problem is exacerbated every January, as agencies large and small struggle to reconcile their books before the start of a new fiscal year. Paychecks for government workers are often delayed as a result, particularly those of contract workers, including the extra forest rangers sometimes hired by the local Sibuyan government to help with patrols. Unlike the park staff, who are employed by the national government, these locally hired rangers have no job security. Understandably, they refuse to work until they are paid. In reality, this means the already skimpy patrols dry up every January like clockwork, and illegal logging increases noticeably.

Illegal logging also picks up significantly when higher-level staff leave the island. Rocero, who often travels between Sibuyan and the Philippines’ largest and most populated island, Luzon, where his family lives, deliberately keeps his travel plans secret so no one knows when he is on Sibuyan or when he isn’t. He hopes this secrecy serves as a deterrent to illegal loggers who might take advantage of his absence.

Despite these many challenges, park staff remain dedicated to the task at hand. One night when we are both working late in the office, Rodriguez tells me that he has no illusions about the danger of his position, yet he remains committed to the work. “Myself and the park staff will always fight the illegal activity in the forest,” he says slowly, his brow furrowed with the effort of speaking English. “It is in our heart that we protect this island.” I ask him about the threats he faces, but he remains steadfast in his dedication: “I’m not going to stop. I may die protecting this forest, but it is my job and it is one that I have chosen. It is up to God to decide.”

When I speak to the park staff a year after leaving Sibuyan, there is a cautious optimism in their voices. In 2014 and 2015, there were only seven full-time park staff – mostly foresters with college degrees who had passed the government civil service exam. Only five of them had permanent positions. When extra funding became available – which was rare – the office would hire local community members as part-time rangers to assist with forest patrols. In 2016, staff received funding to hire 15 part-time rangers for the entire year, a massive improvement from the seasonal hiring they were limited to previously. And for the first time in five years, the government opened more permanent positions. After 15 years of working for the park Regla finally became a permanent staff member in May, and now receives health care.

photo of a woman standing in a forest, nearby a smoky firephoto Isaac Pearlman An illegal charcoal operation in the protected area. Some ilegalistas smoke wood to turn it into charcoal.

“We have better coordination with the army,” Hernandez says, recalling how in May, park staff apprehended 10 ilegalistas with the help of local military. “We have been conducting education campaigns in the communities with support from local officials,” he continues, ticking off the positives. In some illegal activity hotspots, this involves going house to house to talk with residents about the protected area’s benefits and regulations.

But their hope is tempered by pragmatism. “There has been no change in illegal logging, it’s not better or worse, just steady,” Rocero says. “But illegal mining is reviving in the protected area; it is a bigger problem now.” I ask him why, and he sighs. “I think for the mining in the lowland there is no more gold, so they go uphill into the protected area.”

Hernandez agrees. “I think the problem is worse because someone is financing the illegal mining,” he says.

“There is a big volume of gold there, and lots of people looking,” Regla explains. “A very shallow deposit of gold was found inside the protected area, whereas on the private lands where mining is allowed the deposits are [buried] very deep. We hear that the miners can make as much as 300,000 pesos in a good week.” Equivalent to a little over $6,000 dollars, 300,000 Philippine pesos is no small sum on an island where $6 a week is considered by some to be a living wage.

As I talk with my friends about how our lives have changed during the past year, I am reminded that December marks the end of the rainy season on Sibuyan. The incredible biodiversity of the forest depends upon the cycle of the seasons, with species like the local warty pig moving down the mountain in summer in search of freshwater, and then back up when the rains come. For a naturalist like me, the rainy season is a magical time when trees and ferns drink greedily from the skies, animals shift through the underbrush, birds sing and coo, and bats flit about chittering.

The rain also portends a reduction in large-scale illegal logging, which becomes more challenging during the wet months. But as the season shifts from wet to dry, the animals foray a little further down the mountain, the ilegalistas grow even more bold, and the park staff prepare themselves to continue the fight to protect Sibuyan’s forest.

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