THE province of Lanao del Norte was hit hard by Typhoon “Vinta” last December 22. About 130 persons were reported killed while several are still missing. Damage to infrastructure was estimated at P152 million while the agriculture sector sustained P200 million worth of damage. One of the most severely affected towns was Munai, a small town surrounded by mountains. In years past, the Philippine Army’s artillery was pointed towards the mountains, prepared to repel attacking enemy troops. This time, the deadly attack came in the form of torrents of water. More than 20 residents perished in landslides and floods when the Liangan River swelled and, filled with rocks and logs, washed out houses, schools and people.
Several other provinces in Mindanao suffered heavy damage to infrastructure and agriculture. Nineteen of 39 towns in Lanao del Sur were inundated. Ten of Zamboanga Sibugay’s 16 towns have been declared under a state of calamity. In Zamboanga del Norte, the towns of Baliguian, Siocon, Sirawai and Sibuco were devastated. In the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), 45,380 families were affected by Vinta.
Blame for the massive flooding and the subsequent destruction of homes, infrastructure and agricultural land in Zambaonga del Norte has been placed on logging, especially the logging and forest-clearing operations of the South Davao Development Company (Sodaco) and its sister company, Sirawai Plywood and Lumber Corp. (SPLC). Both operate in the Zamboanga Peninsula. Sodaco’s agro-forestry operations cover as much as 70,000 hectares in 12 towns in Zamboanga del Sur and del Norte (ABS-CBN). President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the suspension of the operations of the two companies despite a strong protest from Sodaco. The mayor of Sibuco accuses Sodaco of having flattened the hills to make way for its oil palm plantation (PTV News, January 7, 2018).
In 2004, after tropical depression “Winnie” left almost 1,600 people dead in Luzon, then President Gloria Macapacal-Arroyo issued a nationwide moratorium on logging. Interestingly, in May of 2005, some politicians—including the mayors of Siocon and Sirawai—and Catholic clergy appealed to Arroyo to lift the moratorium on the operations of Sodaco and SPLC. The companies, according to the petitioners, were responsible forest plantation operators and provided much needed livelihood opportunities and services to the remote communities in the Zamboanga Peninsula (Philippine Star, May 22, 2005).
With the decision of the president to have the operations of Sodaco and SPLC suspended—once again—the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is reviewing all forest management licenses in the entire country.
In Cagayan de Oro City (itself flooded heavily due to Vinta), Task Force Kinaiyahan spearheaded the People’s Environment Summit last January 10. Since its launch in 2014, Task Force Kinaiyahan has been going after both illegal loggers and illegal miners. A year ago, the task force identified six logging companies which have been operating illegally in Lanao, Bukidnon and Cagayan de Oro City for the last 50 years (Sun Star, Cagayan de Oro City, February 26, 2017).
Reviewing logging concessions and reporting illegal operations are important but will these initiatives have a net-positive impact on actually-affected and potentially-affected communities in the medium to long term?
TF Kinaiyahan is composed of government agencies, including the Army. While the army is there for enforcement purposes, it should remind us that environmental destruction is a threat to national security as it contributes to displacement, hunger, poverty and, thus, ultimately to conflict. Climate change is a threat with a longer-term perspective than any single environmental disaster.
The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (the US Department of Defense’s budget) describes climate change as a direct threat to US national security (www.vox.com). Syria was used as an example to demonstrate how extreme weather events triggered a local crisis that eventually escalated into a global disaster: A drought blamed on climate change hit Syria in 2006, resulting in massive migration from rural areas to the cities. But in the cities there were no jobs and no food. The social unrest that followed gave rise to the Syrian civil war and IS (Nick Stockton, July 2017, on www.wired.com).
Albay Rep. Joey Salceda is pushing for the creation of a Department of Disaster Resilience through House Bill 6075. While it might be a good idea to upgrade disaster mitigation, preparedness and response to department level, creating a new department will take away scarce resources from other important government programs. Further mainstreaming of, and giving priority to, the climate change factor in government planning, programs and policies is more doable. Logging, agro-forestry undertakings, mining and other economic enterprises and practices that aggravate natural calamities should be dealt with from a long-term perspective corresponding to their projected impact. Frequency and severity of extreme weather events have been predicted and we don’t have the luxury of time.