Saving the island’s remaining forest from human predators
posted 23-Jul-2018  ·  
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June was truly the month for the environment, as far as Catanduanes is concerned.

On June 22, President Rodrigo signed into law the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (e-NIPAS) Act of 2018, that created 92 natural parks in the country’s provinces, including Catanduanes.

Under the provisions of Republic Act 11038, the Catanduanes Natural Park covers 48,924.09 hectares, nearly double the 26,010 hectares previously covered by the Catanduanes Watershed Forest Reserve declared through a presidential proclamation.

Among the activities banned within the park are mineral exploration or extraction, large-scale or commercial quarrying, hunting, collecting, possession, killing or disturbing wildlife, cutting or gathering timber and other forest products, illegal fishing, dumping of toxic chemicals and noxious substances or wastes, operation of motor vehicles except for transportation purposes, altering or removing boundary markers, engaging in “kaingin” or slash-and-burn farming, littering, occupation or construction of structures without clearance, treasure hunting, introduction of exotic species including Genetically-Modified Organisms, and bio-prospecting.

The Act provides penalties ranging from P50,000.00 to as much as P6 million for specific violations aside from imprisonment ranging from six to 12 years or both at the discretion of the Courts. Specific human activities may only be done through prior clearance from the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB).

The passage of the bill has been described as a victory for the environment and the people by Congressman Cesar Sarmiento, one of the co-authors of the landmark measure.

Last June 29, Bato Mayor Eulogio Rodriguez and Pandan Mayor Raul Tabirara received on behalf of their respective local government units the prestigious Saringaya Award from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The LGUs were recognized for their “sustained and maintained Natural Resource Management Projects and Activities recognized nationally and internationally for their commitment to clean and safe environment.”

For decades now, leaders of this island have been trumpeting the fact that Catanduanes has the largest remaining forest block in the Bicol region. And during the same period, numerous incidents of illegal cutting of trees within that same forest land and the smuggling of forest products have been going on under the noses of authorities.

Scores have been arrested and criminal cases filed at the Regional Trial Courts, with most of those convicted later released on probation under a program that requires them to plant and nurture at least 100 tree seedlings until they are fully-grown.

But rare is the incident wherein culprits using chainsaws have been caught in the act right within the forest reserve. And this is not due for lack of effort on the part of the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO).

There simply are not enough personnel to guard these precious forests and the wildlife that depend on them for shelter and sustenance. According to a PENRO official, it has only 10 foresters available to guard every square meter of then watershed and forest reserve and often needs the help of the police, the Army, and barangay officials who are empowered to arrest forest law violators.

It has only eight forestry technicians (an unlicensed forestry graduate) to assist the foresters while Masbate, which has negligible forest cover, has four technicians and more foresters than the Catanduanes PENRO. Albay has 50 forest protection officers, who are contractuals hired on a job generation program of the provincial government, armed with cellphones while Camarines Sur and Masbate PENROs has been given funds to hire similar personnel courtesy of their House representatives.

Last year, the PENRO Catanduanes estimated that the island’s remaining forests need to be monitored by at least 30 foresters and 10 forest protection officers. Surely, with the doubling of the protected area, it will need more guardians of the forest, something which they have asked Cong. Sarmiento to insist their inclusion in the DENR budget in 2016 and 2017.

Perhaps, for 2019, the solon, who openly advertises his love for the environment through the green color of his shirts and the green hue of his multi-purpose buildings and tarpaulin signs, can strongly convince DENR to allocate funding for the hiring of additional foresters and forest protection officers.

Mere monitoring of the activities of people inside and outside the park and intercepting cut lumber in the low land would not save the island’s forest and its flora and fauna from their human predators.

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