The Isabela oriole (Oriolus isabellae) is an enchanting little forest bird endemic to upland Luzon. It has strikingly bright yellow and olive green plumage and distinctive high and low rolling whistle calls. It is an elusive creature and lives in scattered groups in the last remaining patches of virgin forest in the Cagayan and Isabela regions of northern Luzon. One would be extremely lucky to see or hear it in the wild. For a long time the bird was thought to be extinct until it was sighted again in the early 1990s.
Today, a cautious estimate of its population ranges somewhere from 50 to 249 adults, earning the bird a place on the IUCN Red List of the most critically endangered species on the planet. The greatest threat to its survival is habitat loss. While there have been peaks and troughs in the rate of denudation over the last century, the disappearance of forests accelerated during the Marcos period. At least 300,000 hectares of forestland per year were lost to the President’s cronies.
Systematic deforestation in Luzon began in earnest in the American colonial era. Awarded generous concessions by the Bureau of Forestry, US lumbermen, often allied with local oligarchs, swiftly cut down Philippine tropical hardwoods and harvested these slow-growing trees as if they were common farm crops. Thanks to their industriousness, the Philippines, writes Marites Dañguilan-Vitug in her extraordinary work, Power from the Forest (1993), became Asia’s largest exporter of rainforest timber. When Spanish conquistadores first arrived, 92 percent of the country, or 27.5 million hectares were forestland. By the 1930s, only 17 million hectares remained.
There is a raft of legislation that, in principle, has aimed to protect the country’s forests for public interest. Yet, forests remain exposed and vulnerable to rapacious exploitation for selfish private gain. It is not because of a lack of political will that environmental policy in the Philippines so often fails. As the American academic Robin Broad observed in her book Plundering Paradise (1993), it is because “the direction of public policy is too often shaped, both directly and indirectly, by those with a vested interest in the continued mismanagement of natural resources.”
Under Marcos, logging licenses and timber concessions were given out as gifts and favors to select family members, close friends, politicians, and supporters. Shared out like a great cake, the forests of northern Luzon were sliced up in unequal portions and distributed to the privileged few. Marcos’ mother, an uncle, a brother, a sister and her husband, were concessionaires to hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest in the provinces of Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Aurora, Quirino and Quezon. They installed themselves as board members and shareholders of newly formed lucrative logging companies and timber processing plants.
Those whom the Dictator found to be particularly useful – staunch and loyal supporters such as Alfonso Lim, Juan Ponce Enrile (whom the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago once called “a mastermind of plunder”), and Herminio Disini – reaped a concession bonanza. Lim’s logging operations spanned 600,000 hectares in Cagayan; Enrile, whom Marcos had made his defense minister, similarly controlled vast hectares of forestland through various companies; Disini allegedly plundered Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur and Abra, though his logging activities met with fierce resistance from indigenous communities. In 1973 loggers racked up a record $472 million in export earnings.
Marcos eventually imposed a total logging ban in 1976 but it did not stop log smuggling and dollar salting. Complicated illegal arrangements by log exporting companies ensured the outgoing tide of logs and foreign exchange continued. At least three companies owned by Enrile were found guilty of the overshipment of surplus logs that had been spirited out of the country on his own ships.
In 1981 the Philippines joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), ratifying an international agreement that “aimed to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants did not threaten their survival.” After years of political patronage, state-sponsored logging concessions, and large scale timber exports, the survival of the country’s most iconic trees, the Philippine mahogany (Pterocarpus indicus) and the ancient almaciga (Agathis philippinensis), which has existed since the time of the dinosaurs, could be classified as severely threatened. The same could be said of the fauna of the forests and wetlands of the Northern Sierra Madre mountains. In this corridor of astonishing biodiversity, entire avian, amphibian and reptile populations, including the Isabela oriole and small-bodied riverine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis), were decimated.
Some years ago I attended a talk given by the Dutch biologist Merlijn Van Weerd at the Institute of Environmental Science, the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Van Weerd has spent close to two decades in wildlife conservation in Cagayan and the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park. There is something unforgettable about being in the company of someone who is so intimate with the forests, ravines, stream and river beds, and grassy plains, that make up the diverse wildlife habitats of northern Luzon.
With local support, Van Weerd and his team have worked to protect and document the region’s biodiversity. Through the Mabuwaya Foundation, which he established in 2003, Van Weerd nurtured the return of the critically endangered local crocodile, discovered a new species of monitor lizard, the fruit-eating Varanus bitatawa, and was the first to record the unique song of the Isabela oriole. He has shown that the endemic fauna of Cagayan and Isabela is both “far more diverse and substantially underestimated than previously imagined”.
Working in collaboration with Isabela State University, Van Weerd is currently developing a major conservation strategy that will study the little known feeding and nesting habits of the Isabela oriole and pull it back from the brink of extinction.
Thus, while Marcos cronies age and eventually pass away, this resilient bird might well outlive them all, survive the environmental depredations and the legacy of greed and destruction.