By Juan L. Mercado

ENVIRONMENT AND Natural Resources Secretary Lito Atienza spiked an order that stretched for six years a permit allowing Basey Wood Industries to log, yet again, in a 57,525-hectare concession in ecologically brittle Samar Island.

The country’s last old growth forests cluster in Samar. They’re crammed with diverse wildlife and plants. It is “one of the top 200 endangered spaces on the [planet],” World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says. The UN Development Program, the Global Environment Facility and the government launched the Samar Island Natural Park to protect this resource.

But former Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes unleashed Baswood loggers anyway. “I can’t find any logic why we should allow the cutting of trees on such a massive scale,” his successor told the Inquirer. “We’re concerned about climate change.”

Atienza was referring to the report of the Nobel Prize recipient Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Abrupt and irreversible climate changes” would occur if business-as-usual practices are not decisively curbed, the report states.

The IPCC scientific analysis leaves “little wiggle room for politicians.” Yet, San Jose Timber Corp. drove an opening wedge into Samar’s 18-year-old logging ban. A politicking environment and natural resources secretary, Mike Defensor, authorized Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile’s firm to chainsaw in a 95,770 hectare concession that straddles protected zones for 16 years and five months as “restitution.” Got that?

These decisions reignite the old festering debate: Can forests be managed so that loggers, who’ve always corralled benefits with their political clout, finally share with impoverished forest dwellers? And can this be done while conserving the environment so it will meet today’s needs, without hocking future generations’ rights?

Yes, replied 155 foresters from 33 countries who met in Vietnam for the International Conference on Managing Forests for Poverty Reduction. But it’ll take an overhaul of mind-sets and policies, says “A Cut for The Poor,” the 247-page report on the Ho Chi Minh meeting.

All too often “forests have been off-limits to all but the privileged and powerful … with their chain-saw gangs, skidders and testosterone-charged bulldozers,” Food and Agriculture Organization’s Patrick Durst said. Logs are big bucks, inviting illegal, shadowy activities. “When lucrative timber is at stake, local people are invariably shut out. If involved, they are usually wage laborers, who help harvest timber wealth, hauled or floated to cities –never to be seen again.”

Does that describe today’s forest plunder in Surigao del Sur province? There, Picop Resources razes the remaining timber stands like there were no tomorrow. No. Durst was speaking of the last 150 years’ experience in Asia, showing how intractable poverty spurs the search today for ways of using forests other than bankrolling second mansions for loggers.

Forest dwellers huddle among Asia’s poorest. There are about 60 million highly forest-dependent people in Southeast Asia, Latin America and West Africa. About 11 million Filipinos scrounge on less than a dollar (P43 at current exchange rates). Rural folk often turn to forest products as a “livelihood strategy of last resort.”

Policymakers, however, claim allowing the poor to use forests results in degradation. “Forest-dependent poor are first in the line of fire for restrictive and punitive measures.” The University of the Philippines’ Juan Pulhin and Patrick Dugan, for example, document how Filipino rural families must draft complex forest management plans to harvest miniscule portions of timber.

Obsolete mind-sets buttress this unjust status quo. “Some foresters think forestry is about trees,” the FAO’s Jack Westoby wrote in 1967. “This is wrong. Forestry is about people. And it is about trees only insofar as they serve the needs of people.”

A people-centered approach is today’s quiet revolution in forestry philosophy, Durst said. The conventional wisdom that bigger is always better in forestry is crumbling, albeit slowly. Will private companies and governments allow local people to extract and process timber that’s uneconomical to remove from the forest? “Big trees have the potential to be a significant pathway out of poverty for many of the little people.”

The task ahead is to “capture opportunities in forest harvest and wood processing to benefit the marginalized. New and rediscovered old technologies, plus marketing and institutional development, open windows of opportunity…”

“A Cut for The Poor” spotlights the need for action in: (a) Policies — Rules for small-scale operators must be simplified so the rural poor can participate. Simplification also curbs graft. (b) Economic Issues — Measures must shift the poor from merely providing labor. (c) Benefits — Community-based forest enterprises need clearer sharing arrangements. (d) Information—Data on new and rediscovered technology and markets must become available.

Poverty reduction is not a by-product, “A Cut for The Poor” stresses. It should be an explicit priority of forest management that engages the private sector. “Clear property rights, stable policies and strong local institutions are essential.”

Reaching the rural poor is like “stitching sheets of loose sand,” Sun Yat Sen once said. But the alternative is continued exploitation of people by misuse of a resource they have a right to.