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A Call to the Philippine Army: Respect for Press Freedom in Word and Deed

STATEMENT: September 27, 2021

The Freedom for Media Freedom for All (FMFA) a coalition of press freedom advocates, condemns the Philippine Army’s Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) cyberattacks on the websites of two alternative media organizations, Bulatlat and AlterMidya, as assaults on press freedom and free expression.  

We call on the press and the media community as well as free expression groups to join their voices in the collective resistance of these violations of Constitutionally-protected rights.

Philippine Army spokespersons have denied responsibility for the attacks. But the government’s own Department of Information and Communication Technology (DICT), through its Computer Emergency Response Team has traced these actions to the Internet Protocol (IP) address assigned to the PA.

DDOS attacks overwhelm websites with fake traffic and makes them inaccessible. It is no more than a form of censorship repugnant to any society that claims to be a democracy. 

Information has always been crucial to the exercise of a people’s sovereign will that is the core of a democracy. A free press must provide a diversity of views so that society can engage in the decision-making process, debate and argumentation that is crucial to good governance.  

It is specially vital today when, besieged by a pandemic and in preparation of national elections in 2022, Filipinos must be able to decide who will lead them for the next six years after the end of this administration. The Filipino people are called to make one of the most important decisions in the country’s political history. 

The Philippine Army is sworn to defend the country and protect the people. Its service does not operate in the political sphere. In contrast, the press in providing news is necessarily engaged in political affairs. The Army’s interference in the conduct of news organizations over reaches the military mandate. Even as it claims to respect press freedom, these recent actions have directly attacked the press, an institution protected by nothing less than the Constitution. 

Since the military by its function is not a repository of democratic values, we call on our soldiers to cease forthwith this insidious campaign to silence media and its members; to limit citizen access to views and perspectives that may differ from those held by the government in power. 

The Philippine Army should demonstrate the respect for press freedom in deeds as well as in words. 

Signed,

National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP)

Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR)

Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ)

Mindanews

Philippine Press Institute (PPI)

44M kilos of fertilizer from South Korea shipped to Philippine landfill

It was intended as an ‘alternative daily cover’ for the sanitary landfill of Carrascal town in Surigao del Sur, but a local environment officer points out there is no study that it is suitable for such use. Rep. Prospero Pichay says it is not fertilizer but waste, and wants South Korea to take it all back.

BY CARMELA FONBUENA/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism


At a glance:

  • A huge volume of “CMP inorganic fertilizer” from South Korea was shipped to a landfill in Carrascal town in Surigao del Sur in June 2021. 
  • Cebu-based consignee Nano-Platanos Corp. bought the fertilizer for $660,000 or about P33 million, then donated it to the municipality of Carrascal.
  • Carrascal wants to use it as an ‘alternative daily cover’ for its sanitary landfill, but a local environment officer says there is no study that it is suitable for such use.
  • The chief of the Carrascal Municipal Environment and Natural Resources claims the fertilizer is also intended for the rehabilitation of mining areas.
  • Rep. Prospero Pichay says it is not fertilizer but waste, and wants South Korea to take it all back. 

Forty-four million kilos of “fertilizer” from South Korea were shipped to a sanitary landfill being built in Barangay Bon-ot of mining town Carrascal in Surigao del Sur, prompting a new foreign waste dumping investigation in the Philippines and calls to return it to South Korea.

Documents obtained by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) showed that Cebu-based Nano-Platanos Corp. bought a huge volume of “calcium magnesium phosphate (CMP) inorganic fertilizer” from South Korean company Korean Gypsum Inc. for $660,000 or about P33 million. The company then donated the entire volume to the Carrascal local government unit (LGU), which intended to use it as an “alternative daily cover” for its sanitary landfill.

It is not proven to be suitable for such a purpose, however.

“There was no existing study on the CMP as an alternative cover of residual waste,” read a June 22 report prepared by Kenneth Salvani of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) field office in nearby Cantilan town. 

The report recommended further study on its use on landfills.

The Environment and Management Bureau (EMB) Central Office of the DENR has begun an investigation into the shipment.

CMP inorganic fertilizer is a type of soil conditioner used to correct the acidity of soil. The shipment from South Korea received certification from the Fertilizer and Pesticides Authority (FPA) of the Department of Agriculture (DA), but the local field office of the DENR and Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay Jr. raised concerns about foreign waste dumping.

The DENR in Cantilan town cited the extraordinary volume of the shipment that was shipped to the landfill. Pichay was also suspicious of the “small company” from Cebu that donated the fertilizer.

“I cannot allow the Province of Surigao del Sur to be used as a dumping ground of the waste materials of Korea,” said Pichay. He said South Korea should take back the shipments. 

The chief of Carrascal’s Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (Menro), Lawrence Brion Cortes, said they accepted the donation thinking they could use it as soil cover. He told the PCIJ they would wait for the studies to be completed before using it in the landfill.

 ‘Low to moderate toxicity’ 

Mountains of the greyish powdered solid now sit on the grounds of the “Eco-park” inside the area of the sanitary landfill, drawing concerns that runoff from the huge volume of fertilizer during the rainy season will pollute nearby waterways.

The DENR tested samples from the shipment and found that the fertilizer was neither hazardous nor dangerous. However, a material safety data sheet issued by Farm Hannong in South Korea, the manufacturer of the fertilizer, gave instructions to “avoid contaminating waterways if possible.”

“Fertilizers, particularly those containing phosphorus, can stimulate weed and algae growth in static surface waters,” it said.

Cortes said they would cover the fertilizer to prevent leaching. 

The toxicity of the fertilizer is “low to moderate,” based on the safety data sheet. In an extreme scenario where it is inhaled at high levels, it “may cause methaemoglobinemia, where the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity is reduced.”

If stored in the open, a tarpaulin cover was recommended to reduce dust, although the landfill is far away from residential areas. 

The fertilizer will sit on the grounds of the landfill unless actions are taken to remove it or the municipality finds use for it.

Cortes told PCIJ they could also use the material to rehabilitate mining areas in the town, citing a similar shipment that arrived in October 2019. 

Hindi naman po soil cover lang ang purpose nito. Bale tinanggap po ito ng LGU kasi if ever na hindi ito suitable for soil cover e pwede naming ibigay sa mining company para magamit nila sa kanilang mining rehabilitation (Its use is not limited to being soil cover. The LGU accepted it because it can also be used to rehabilitate the mining companies if it is not suitable soil cover),” said Cortes. 

“Either way naman po  talagang magagamit. Hindi naman po talagang masasayang (Either way, we will use it. It will not be wasted),” he said.

The 2019 shipment, which was also donated by Nano Platanos Corp., was received by Marcventures Mining and Development Corp. It was one of the mining companies that the late Environment Secretary Regina “Gina” Lopez sought to close down.

The fertilizer received by Marcventures is unutilized or underutilized. 

“It is worthy to note that the first batch of the donated CMP given to the [Marcventures] last 2019 was allegedly unutilized until to date due to the Covid-19 pandemic based on the report of the [Marcventures] dated January 15, 2021. As of to date, there are still no updates relative to the utilization of the CMP,” based on a July 5 DENR report. The report also recommended returning the fertilizer to South Korea.

Pichay, who himself used to be president of nickel mining company Claver Mineral Development Corp., said there was no mining area that needed rehabilitation in the province “because most of the area is not yet mined out.”

‘UNUTILIZED.’ Weeds grow on a mountain of ‘CMP inorganic fertilizer’ sitting on the mining area of Marcventures Mining and Development Corporation in Surigal del Sur since late 2019. Photo taken in June 2021 courtesy of Rep. Prospero Pichay. 

 Foreign waste dumping 

The investigation underscores the challenges of policing international trade of waste between countries.

Some cases of foreign waste dumping are more obvious, such as the notorious “Canada waste” in 2015. The shipments of household wastes that arrived in the Philippines were declared as plastic recyclables. South Korea also figured in a waste controversy in 2018, when assorted wastes were declared as synthetic plastic flakes. Both countries eventually took back the waste shipments. 

Less obvious is the technical smuggling of agricultural wastes, said Bureau of Customs spokesperson Vicente Maronilla. 

“People have this impression that if it is organic or chemical based, if it relates to use in agriculture, then it is okay. It is less toxic. Apparently, hindi ganoon (it is not the case),” Maronilla told the PCIJ.

“Even the ones they claim are organic fertilizer, we’re now discovering through DENR that it also ruins certain balances [of the soil] if you don’t use it correctly,” he said.

These kinds of agricultural imports also fall under waste trade, Maronilla said. “It is technical smuggling. Because of multi-use products, nagiging technical na rin ang smuggling e (technical smuggling can happen)…. Sometimes it’s waste. Dina-dump na lang sa atin (They dump it in the country),” he said. 

Customs is also investigating the shipment in Carrascal, although Maronilla said the DENR was leading the probe. 

A July 5 report of the DENR field office in Cantilan took issue with the fertilizer going to a landfill. 

“The volume of the questioned ‘fertilizer’ does not justify their excuse that it will be used as ‘fertilizer.’ In fact, the alleged ‘fertilizer’ was only dumped in a landfill in Carrascal. Clearly, their intention is to make Carrascal, Surigao del Sur a dumping ground,” according to the report signed by environment officer Marslou Bonita.

The report cited communications between the DENR office and the South Korean supplier. “In fact, the Korean principal when asked if the said ‘fertilizer’ can be distributed to farmers, he alleged that it can only be used to cover landfills. Thus, the following circumstances strengthen the undersigned’s belief that they are only making Surigao del Sur a dumping ground,” the report added.

Roldan said fertilizer is a general term that does not necessarily involve farm use. CMP inorganic fertilizer is material intended to be a soil conditioner. “These are soil elements that can be used to amend the soil – if the soil is lacking in some texture,” he said.

Asked about issues raised against the volume of the fertilizer and the purpose for importing it, Roldan said those were no longer FPA’s concerns. 

“Number one, it (Nano-Platanos Corp.) is duly registered. Number two, the analysis is the same as what they have submitted to the FPA. Number three, there are no heavy metals in a level that is deleterious to environmental hazard,” Roldan said.

This attitude is problematic, however, and has made monitoring foreign waste shipments difficult, according to government officials privy to the investigation but were not authorized to speak publicly on the investigation.

Agencies in government cannot work in silos, they said. They said the DA should have alerted the EMB given the huge volume of the fertilizer, scrutinized how it was intended to be used, and anticipated possible problems.

The moment an agricultural product is certified by the DA, there’s little that can be done to stop the Bureau of Customs from releasing the shipments. 

Wala rin kami magawa kapag ganiyan kasi may permit e. (We can’t do anything in that case because it has a permit.) It was given the go signal,” Maronilla said.

 Pichay’s complaint 

On the ground, the investigation has become political because of Pichay’s involvement as complainant. The mayor of Carrascal, Vicentel Pimentel III, is the nephew of Surigao del Sur Gov. Alexander Pimentel.

Pichay filed a complaint with Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu and Customs chief Leonardo Guerrero in a letter dated July 13.

He demanded immediate investigation. “[C]onsidering the volume of said fertilizers, it is obvious that these are wastes being dumped in our country,” he said. 

Pichay said the Cebu company, Nano-Platanos Corp., was suspicious. “Ikaw Filipino businessman, mag-import from Korea ng fertilizer. Tapos ido-donate niya? Ang liit-liit na kumpanya (You’re a Filipino business. You import fertilizer from Korea. You’ll donate it? It’s a very small company),” he said. 

PCIJ tried to reach the company through its office in Cebu twice, but was unable to reach its representatives. The author left her mobile number with two personnel from another company, which apparently shared the telephone number indicated in the customs papers. 

PCIJ also reached out to the South Korean embassy in Manila, but did not receive a response as of posting. Any comment from the embassy will be added to this report. 

Pichay said he was familiar with the fertilizer. He earlier helped the same Cebu company in persuading Marcventures to receive the first shipment in 2019, which he said was a mistake. 

The first shipment was reportedly about 20,000 tons or 20 million kilos, based on a 2019 DENR report, although PCIJ did not obtain documents on the shipment. 

Pichay said he was surprised that another shipment arrived in June when Marcventures had yet to utilize the first shipment.

While DENR laboratory tests showed that the samples were not hazardous or dangerous, Pichay echoed concerns about the volume of the shipment. 

Kapag uulan… sa dami ng volume, madami din ang toxic… (When it rains… given the huge volume, a significant amount of toxic [materials will be released]),” Pichay said. 

 20 million kilos in 2019 

Cortes said the LGU was surprised by the complaints. “Hindi po namin naiintindihan bakit maraming complaints e noong sa Marcventures na unang shipment e na-prove naman na hindi po ito toxic (We don’t understand why there are many complaints when it was proven from the first shipment with Marcventures that the material is not toxic),” he said. 

Kaya po tinanggap namin ito kasi ‘yung 2019 na fertilizer is na-prove naman na okay siya. Same source kaya po tinanggap namin (The reason we accepted it was because the fertilizer back in 2019 was proven to be okay. It came from the same source so we received it),” said Cortes.

The first shipment arrived in October 2019. It was the subject of a Facebook post that raised concerns against toxic wastes, prompting protests in the province and a succeeding DENR investigation. 

The material was found to be non-hazardous, but the circumstances surrounding the donation raised questions even then. 

A 2019 DENR report showed that the fertilizer was originally supposed to be delivered to Libjo Mining Corp., operating in the province of Dinagat Islands, for the purpose of rehabilitating its mining areas. Nano-Platanos was unable to provide a document to prove that the mining company, which was also in Lopez’s list of companies to be shut down, agreed to receive it. 

Pichay said several mining companies, including one operated by the incumbent mayor of Carrascal, were offered to receive the donation but they supposedly refused because they feared that their mining permits would be compromised if the shipment turned out to be problematic. (PCIJ sought the mayor to comment on the probe, but his staff referred us to the MENRO chief.)

Pichay said the shipment was eventually unloaded on a lot owned by his brother in Cantilan town. It prompted complaints from the neighborhood because of the dust, which caused itchiness, he said.

He then persuaded Marcventures to take the fertilizer, which was moved to its mining grounds in Brgy. Pili and Brgy. Sipangpang in Carrascal, where its reforestation activity and nursery are located. 

Pichay said the shipment must be returned to South Korea or more shipments of the fertilizer – he claimed seven more shipments were due to arrive – would be dumped in the province.

Following the complaints, Cortes said he would not recommend receiving more donations of the fertilizer. “Kung sa akin lang siguro, huwag na (If it were up to me, we shouldn’t receive more shipments).” END

*Top photo courtesy of Surigao Rep. Prospero Pichay Jr. 

*This report was produced with the support of Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism had full editorial independence. Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines, their officers, and employees accept no liability for any loss, damage, or expense arising out of, or in connection with, any reliance on any omissions or inaccuracies in the material contained in the report. 

Potential bets start advertising on Facebook as 2022 campaign shifts to social media

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, former senator Antonio Trillanes IV, and many local politicians are top ad spenders on Facebook a year before the polls. The Commission on Elections is drafting rules to govern online campaigning.

BY CHERRY SALAZAR/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Potential candidates have started advertising on Facebook more than a year before the May 2022 elections, spending several thousand to a few million pesos since August 2020, data from the social media platform showed.

A significant shift to online campaigning is expected during the 2022 elections, especially with mobility restrictions imposed during the pandemic, although in-person activities will remain a staple of the campaign, according to Eric Alvia, secretary general of poll watchdog National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel).

“Less people now read newspapers, and with the shutdown of ABS-CBN, there are less media outlets covering the news. People are gravitating towards social media,”  Alvia told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian has spent P4.5 million boosting more than 600 Facebook posts over the past eight months, while former senator Antonio Trillanes IV and his supporters spent more than P1 million to promote a total of 45 posts.

They are the two biggest ad spenders so far on the social media platform among potential national candidates. It’s an average of P562,250 in ad spending a month for Gatchalian and about P130,000 a month for Trillanes.

Gatchalian’s Facebook ads were mostly about his stand on issues, particularly on the education and energy sectors. These were pushed through Gatchalian’s official Facebook page “Sen. Win Gatchalian,” which has more than two million likes and followers, as of this writing.

Trillanes advertised his page and his posts accusing President Duterte of corruption. One of the pages supporting the senator — “We support Trillanes 2022” — also showed bills he authored and sponsored. In some posts, both pages used the same graphics.

Other potential candidates have also started advertising on television and radio. Taguig Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano ran an ad that called for the passage of House Bill No. 8597, which seeks to provide each family with P10,000 in cash assistance.

Several ground activities have also been arranged nationwide, including gatherings in support of the presidential candidacy of the survey frontrunner, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter. On Facebook, a few supporters paid for ads to promote her, too.

All these advertisements outside the official campaign period, which begins three months before the polls for national candidates, are not considered premature campaigning. They are not covered by election rules limiting campaign spending based on a 2009 Supreme Court ruling on a petition that sought to ban these early advertisements.

Many local pols

Other early advertisers on Facebook among potential national candidates included Antique Rep. and former senator Loren Legarda, who spent over P400,000; and Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, who spent more than P200,000 although his second term in the Senate will not end until 2025. 

Supporters of Sen. Imee Marcos, Public Works Secretary Mark Villar, and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles also paid for ads to promote themselves. Marcos’s term also ends in 2025.

Among members of the House of Representatives, Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte, Jr. spent nearly P1 million and Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza spent over P700,000.

The Digital 2021: Global Overview report showed that Filipinos spent more time than any country in the world on the internet, particularly on social media. The report was conducted by creative agency We Are Social and social media management platform Hootsuite. 

The report also showed that Filipino netizens used social media more than four hours on average daily or nearly double the global daily average of two hours and 25 minutes.

More candidates will be relying on social media for advertising, said Rona Caritos, executive director of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente). She noted how online campaigning, which was previously only used by national candidates during the 2016 polls, has been tapped by local candidates beginning the 2019 midterm polls.

“[Political advertising] will no longer be concentrated at the national level, especially as most Filipinos are scrolling down their Facebook feeds and are on their phone screens because of the pandemic,” she said. 

Indeed, many local politicians have paid for Facebook ads. Camarines Sur Gov. Migz Villafuerte spent nearly P1 million while Gatchalian’s brother, Mayor Rex Gatchalian of Valenzuela City, and Cebu Rep. Pablo John “PJ” Garcia both spent less than P200,000. 

PCIJ image

Facebook Ad Library

These are data available to the public through Facebook’s Ad Library, a searchable database of ads across Facebook and Instagram, showing the posts that were boosted on the social media platforms and who paid for them. 

There are 4,000 ads in the Facebook database so far, although product placements such as those by Chowking PH, the World Food Programme, and Spotify were included in the database. 

Clare Amador, Head of Public Policy of Facebook Philippines, said the tool is intended to make advertisers accountable. (READ: Q&A: ‘Facebook tool to mitigate foreign interference, make 2022 polls transparent)

It is also intended to mitigate foreign interference in elections. “We’ve been involved in more than 200 elections around the world since 2017. We know that every election is different,  so we take this experience and work closely with local experts to learn what’s most useful to mitigate risks and prevent interference,” Amador told PCIJ. 

Facebook uses artificial intelligence to review all ads before they are shown on Facebook and Instagram. 

“In certain cases, if an ad is already running and it’s about elections or politics, it can be flagged by automated systems or reported by our community. These ads will be reviewed again and if found to be violating our policy by missing a disclaimer, we will also take it down and require they complete authorizations to continue running it,” Amador said. 

James Jimenez, Commission on Elections spokesperson and director for education and information, said he welcomed the activation of the monitoring tool in the Philippines. 

“It’s very important,” he told PCIJ. It will be useful in monitoring election advertising online and make sure candidates will follow spending limits, he said.

“It’s inescapable that Facebook will be a major factor [during the campaign], but hopefully it’s not the only social media platform that people will use,” said Jimenez. 

Amador said Facebook will work with Comelec to “find ways to support them in their efforts to hold political advertisers  more accountable.”

Comelec Resolution No. 10488, detailing rules and regulations implementing the Fair Elections Act, provides rules to govern online campaign spending. 

Candidates are mandated to register their web sites and social media pages, including those that endorse the candidates, and report how much they have spent on advertising. However, monitoring was impossible in previous elections and candidates did not report it, said Lente’s Caritos. 

Jimenez said Comelec would release more guidelines for online campaigning before the start of the official campaign period in February 2022. 

While the Facebook Ad Library shows how much the candidates spend on the social media platform, it is not clear yet how Comelec will treat the ads paid for by their supporters. 

“That’s the challenge. What happens if you are a supporter and you boost your blog post that’s promoting someone’s candidacy? We’re still making the rules for that,” Jimenez said. 

Monitoring YouTube, too

Beyond monitoring the candidates’ spending, Jimenez, Alvia, and Caritos expressed concerns about misinformation and disinformation spreading online during the campaign. 

Other than Facebook, Caritos sees the need to also monitor YouTube as she expects candidates turning to the “largely unregulated” platform for unscrupulous activities. 

Facebook is only next to YouTube as the most popular social media platform among Filipino netizens.

“They will be uploading YouTube videos that spread disinformation, change the narrative, and show ‘alternate realities’. That’s something we will see,” Caritos said. 

Namfrel’s Alvia said even short video formats, like those on TikTok and Instagram, would likely be used in online campaigning to boost engagement and recall.

He said the 2022 campaign might particularly see a lot of discourse on Covid-19-related assistance from politicians, including, but not limited to, social amelioration, access to vaccines, and livelihood support.

“Social media is more accessible to a lot of people and the content is easier to digest but not necessarily correct,” Alvia said. “Kanya-kanyang version ng katotohanan (People will be coming in with various stories of their own).” #

7M hectares of Philippine land are forested — and that’s bad news

The country has been vulnerable to massive flooding linked to deforestation. The coronavirus pandemic is also a catastrophe that arose from populations occupying wild animal habitats.

By Karol Ilagan/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Key findings:

  • Forest loss persists in the Philippines even with a log ban and protection laws in place.
  • Forest cover has remained the same since the first Aquino administration as losses in some parts of the country have eclipsed gains in others. 
  • The Mimaropa region – covering Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan – has seen the worst deforestation in recent years.
  • The Duterte government excluded reforestation efforts among its commitments to mitigate climate change under the 2016 Paris Agreement.
  • Bills that are meant to address legal gaps in protecting forests are languishing in Congress. 

Mindoro is the seventh largest island of the Philippines. It sits at the bottom of Luzon, where the country’s capital is located, and stretches toward the northern tip of Sulu Sea. Large ships pass through its unpredictable waters, and on its seabed lie the wreckage of vessels that didn’t survive it. 

On land, a spine of mountains runs across its center. Its forests are home to the tamaraw, dwarf buffalos whose images once graced once-peso coins. They used to be widespread, but are now critically endangered.  

Land conversion has wiped out most of the habitat of the tamaraws. The lush expanse of forests where they liked to wallow in mud pits undisturbed have been flattened to make way for human settlements.

The same fate has befallen a species of pigeons called Mindoro bleeding-heart, named so because their breasts resemble a puncture wound with a blotch of orange at the center that deepens to dark red.

The rate of deforestation, which in turn drives the endangerment of species on the island, has been alarming, said ecologist Neil Aldrin Mallari, who studies the Mindoro bleeding-heart as president of the Center for Conservation Innovations.

The birds are also found on the islands of Negros, Panay, and Mindanao but the lowland forests where they used to live — the temperature there is right and fruits are aplenty — have drastically thinned through the years.

Mallari said the few remaining pigeons try to adapt, retreating to high altitudes where there are still trees to offer refuge. Those trees are their last stand. 

Mindoro lost more than 200,000 hectares of forest cover from 2003 to 2015. That’s about the size of land that 3,000 SM Mall of Asia complexes would cover if they stood side by side. The neighboring tourist haven of Palawan also lost nearly 30,000 hectares of forest land during the same period, based on government data. 

The losses of Mindoro and Palawan in terms of forest cover make Mimaropa the most deforested region in the Philippines, even if other islands in it such as Marinduque and Romblon had recorded some gains.

Mimaropa is also a microcosm of the state of forests in the country. Some provinces have successfully expanded their forest cover, but the gains were erased by consistent losses in others. 

A log ban and a number of laws have been in place for decades to restore the forests, but the absence of a coherent policy on forest management has resulted in various forms of land conversion that continue to drive deforestation at an alarming rate. 

The country’s forest cover is only about seven million hectares or 23% of the country’s total land area, based on official numbers, although experts are afraid that this number is overestimated. 

That’s a lot of forest lost from the early years of the Spanish colonial period, when forest cover was over 90%. The first Christian missionaries saw trees extending from the shores to the mountaintops, and likened the country to a paradise.

Abuses of the countrys’ forests eventually harmed the population. The massive floods brought by typhoons “Uring” (international name “Thema”) in Ormoc in 1991 and “Ondoy” (“Ketsana”) in Metro Manila in 2009 were just two of the disasters blamed on massive deforestation. Lush forests and watersheds could have held large amounts of rainwater that otherwise flowed into the communities, experts said.

The coronavirus pandemic that is taking its toll on the world — rich and poor countries alike — is also a stark reminder of a catastrophe that happens when populations occupy the habitats of wild animals. Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease that experts said likely jumped from a bat, then to another host species, before it infected humans.

It’s a cycle of tragedies where humans are both the culprits and the victims.

Mallari predicted that Mindoro’s bleeding-hearts would soon vanish. It’s time to think seriously about the impacts of human activities on nature, he said. 

“Extinction of species is not just about the cuddly animals,” he said. “We care because they are the building blocks of our ecosystem. ‘Pag nawala sila, wala rin tayo (If they are gone, so are we).”

The Philippines is one of the world’s very few mega-biodiverse countries and one of the most vulnerable to climate impacts. The stakes are higher for the country.

The vanishing Philippine forests: Extent of forest cover loss in the last century
Source: Dolom, 2006; Adopted from Environmental Science for Social Change (1999)
Courtesy of Dr. Neil Aldrin Mallari, Center for Conservation Innovations
Threatened and endemic species are retreating to mountains where forests offer refuge.
Source: Dr. Neil Aldrin Mallari, Center for Conservation Innovations

Dwindling forests

Forests made up 27.5 million hectares or 92% of the country’s total land area in the 16th century, when Spanish colonizers arrived. Forest cover dropped to 15.8 million hectares during the last years of the American occupation and to 10.6 million hectares just before the declaration of Martial Law.

It further shrank to 6.4 million hectares just after the 1986 People Power Revolution. Since then the country’s forest cover hovered at just under 7 million hectares on average.

The Americans systematized logging, which worsened during Martial Law when dictator Ferdinand Marcos rewarded relatives and cronies with Timber License Agreements (TLA). The country recorded one of the worst deforestation rates in the Asia and Pacific region during those years, losing 316,000 hectares of forest annually on average. The TLA holders did not adopt selective logging, a sustainable way of harvesting timber. They cleared forests, did not replant, and even went beyond their concession areas. 

Each administration drew up policies and programs to restore forests. Rehabilitation efforts have been in place since the 1910s, and there’s a long list of acronyms and agreements between and among national and local governments, communities living within and near forests, as well as the private sector. 

But these efforts were mired in allegations of mismanagement, corruption and power play.

Following the fall of the Marcos regime, the Cory Aquino government prioritized reforestation with support from bilateral partners and multilateral institutions. Timber exports were banned in 1992 and community-based approaches were introduced following the devastation brought by Typhoon “Uring,” whose heavy rains submerged Ormoc City and killed over 5,000 Filipinos. 

Jose Andres Canivel, executive director of the Forest Foundation, said massive deforestation stopped when the government halted the issuance of TLAs. No conclusive data was available, but the shift to Community-Based Forestry Management Agreements might have helped ease the pressure on forests, he said. It’s a tenurial instrument that allows qualified upland communities and people’s organizations to develop, utilize and manage portions of forest lands and resources. 

Forests recover if left alone, and conversion to agricultural land, timber poaching, and forest fires are stopped. They regenerate with the help of bats, birds, and other animals that disperse seeds, Canivel said. 

He cited areas in the Sierra Madre and Apayao, which were once logged over but now have closed-canopy forests. “Nag-logging d’yan, natigil (They used to log there), now the forest has taken it back,” he said.

The second Aquino government also embarked on a massive reforestation program, the National Greening Program, which aimed to double the country’s forest cover by 2028. Funded by taxpayers’ money, it sought to rehabilitate 7.1 million hectares of unproductive, denuded, and degraded forest lands. 

President Benigno Aquino III also banned logging across the country entirely, in the wake of severe floodings that also claimed many lives. Prior to the executive order, the impacts of Tropical Storm “Sendong” (“Washi”) in December 2010 and Typhoon “Ondoy” (“Ketsana”) in September 2009 were linked to deforestation. 

Despite these efforts, however, the country’s forest cover has not grown from 7 million hectares since the first Aquino administration. It hit a plateau because gains from restoration efforts in some parts of the country were erased by losses in others. 

The steady numbers betray the alarming rate of deforestation in many parts of the country, according to experts. The geographical breakdown of 12 years’ worth of data showed that half of all provinces registered losses totaling more than 154,000 hectares, based on the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority’s satellite survey.

The real situation is probably worse. Canivel said satellite imagery should be verified on the ground because plantations might have also been scanned. Many forests had been cleared to make way for plantations, which did not count as forests, he said. For instance, forests in the Caraga region had been planted with timber, and in Palawan, oil palm.
Samson Pedragosa, Haribon Foundation advocacy officer, also questioned liberal definitions of forests adopted by the Philippines. A half-hectare land with a tree canopy cover of more than 10% is considered a forest, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Mallari said this global definition did not quite match the characteristics of tropical rainforests, which should be dense and diverse. An increase in forest cover might not necessarily be due to growing trees, but because of the way forests were redefined, he said.

Philippine forests are also defined by their physical attributes – more than 1,000 meters above sea level and/or with an 18% slope – rather than their ecological function, Mallari said.

PCIJ requested an interview with the Forest Management Bureau (FMB) to verify the data it had provided as well as understand the country’s forest management strategy. The FMB acknowledged PCIJ’s letter, but could not respond to questions as of writing.

Global Forest Watch (GFW), a US-based monitor of global forests, has an alternate barometer of annual forest loss showing that more than 7,700 hectares of forest cover, equivalent to nearly 20 basketball courts, were lost every hour in the Philippines last year.

This adds up to an area the size of Iloilo City in over a year. The loss was 2% higher in 2020, mirroring the global trend. Last year, forest destruction increased 12% worldwide. 

GFW also uses satellite imagery to measure deforestation, but its data cannot be compared with FMB’s. The former monitors not just forest loss, but all other indicators of deforestation, like tree loss, tree gain, and fire alerts.

From 2002 to 2020, the country recorded 150,813 hectares of primary forest loss, GFW data also showed.

Alarming rates of deforestation are happening worldwide. GFW recorded 4.2 million hectares of forest loss, an area the size of the Netherlands, occurring within tropical primary forests around the globe. Some progress, however, has been recorded in Southeast Asia as forest losses in Indonesia and Malaysia have declined for the fourth year in a row in 2020.

Read about Malaysia’s declining forest loss by Rainforest Investigations Network fellow Yao Hua Law of Macaranga.

Greening Program

The Duterte government continued Aquino’s reforestation program. The Enhanced National Greening Program (E-NGP) seeks to rehabilitate 1.2 million hectares of denuded forest lands before President Rodrigo Duterte’s term ends in 2022. 

More than 1.74 billion seedlings have been planted from 2011 to 2020 in more than 2 million hectares of land area, FMB records showed. The program likewise generated more than five million jobs.

The E-NGP is among the programs designed to achieve the country’s REDD+ objective – results-based climate change mitigation strategy – under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “REDD” stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.” The plus sign represents the expansion of its focus to the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.

The Philippines drew up its National REDD+ Strategy in 2010 but an update published by the FMB in June 2017 showed that the country was still in the “readiness phase” and taking “readiness steps” to establish demonstration sites, as well as  undertaking studies to implement it. 

FAO’s 2015 Global Forest Resources Assessment ranked the Philippines as fifth among 234 countries with the greatest reported gain in forest area annually from 2010 to 2015. The FMB attributed it to the then four-year-old National Greening Program.

Researchers have raised red flags on the implementation of the program. In 2019, the Commission on Audit (COA) found several issues with the DENR’s fast-tracking of the program as it led to the imposition of targets beyond the capacities of officials; the lack of survey, mapping, and planning; and the inclusion of far untenured areas, which will be abandoned after the term of the maintenance and protection contract, among others.

“Instead of increasing forest cover, fast-tracking reforestation activities only increased the incidences of wastage,” the COA said.

State think-tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies found that the survival rate of the trees planted under the NGP stood at just 61% in 2016 or below the 85% goal.

Moreover, University of the Philippines researchers found that forest cover loss in three sites in the Sierra Madre mountain range declined from 2011 to 2015 but increased from 2016 to 2018. Using satellite data, the study found that the net effect was a balance of reforestation and deforestation, or no significant gain.

Mallari, Canivel, Pedragosa and former environment undersecretary Antonio La Viña all raised concerns over the implementation of the NGP and the E-NGP. They said the efforts to protect the seedlings, the kinds of trees planted, and where the trees were planted needed to be scrutinized. 

GFW data from 2002 to 2020 even showed that forest loss in the Philippines had reached a record high during the Duterte administration. The country lost more than 10,000 hectares of primary forest on average every year during his term. This was higher than the annual averages during the terms of Gloria Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III. 

In a span of 18 years, forest loss reached its peak in 2017 during Duterte’s second year in office. The decline continued in the following years although the figures remained within the annual average of about 8,000 hectares.

Pockets of success, however, can be found in rehabilitation efforts done by nongovernment organizations, community groups and the private sector in areas such as the Ipo Watershed, Upper Marikina Watershed, and the Masungi Georeserve. At the center of these efforts are the communities that live in or near the forests.

Forests and climate change

The Duterte government excluded reforestation efforts from its list of commitments under the 2016 Paris Agreement to mitigate climate change. Instead, it was included among adaptation measures, in which Manila pledged to “pursue forest protection, forest restoration and reforestation, and access to results-based finance in forest conservation.”

Mitigation is aimed at addressing and minimizing the causes of climate change, while adaptation is focused on reducing its impacts. 

This was curious, according to La Viña, also a former climate change negotiator for the Philippines, and Ian Rivera, coordinator of the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice.

La Viña said he was still studying why the government did not include forests to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in its list of commitments. The sectors included in the country’s mitigation efforts are “agriculture, wastes, industry, transport, and energy.”

Loss of forests is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. At least 20% of global emissions come from deforestation. Addressing the problem is crucial to avoiding the dangerous impacts of climate change.

“We should be looking at enhancement so we can go back to at least 10 million (hectares), for instance,” said La Viña.

Neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia are good examples as they have placed forests front and center to mitigate emissions. Indonesia imposed a moratorium on the clearing of primary forests, prohibited the conversion of remaining forests, and adopted sustainable forest management measures. Malaysia committed to conserve its Central Forest Spine, which supplies 90% of its water, and the 220,000-square-kilometer “Heart of Borneo,” said to be Asia’s last great rainforest.
The Paris Agreement is an international treaty that aims to avert climate catastrophe. A total of 196 parties were expected to submit action plans last year.  The commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are detailed in documents called nationally determined contributions or NDC.

financial mechanism was also established, in which high-emitting developed countries provide funds to less industrialized countries. This will help developing countries like the Philippines, which emitted an average of 1.98 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita in 2020 or about half of the global average of four metric tons, bear the brunt of climate change.

Duterte initially aired his misgivings about the Paris climate agreement, questioning how developed countries had dictated the terms of the collective fund that would be used to help developing countries achieve climate goals. He eventually signed it in March 2017.

Based on the NDC it submitted to the UNFCCC on April 15, 2021, the Philippines is targeting to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 75% by 2030. Accomplishing 72.29% of this goal depended on funding and assistance from the international community, based on its report to the UNFCCC on April 15, 2021. 

No greenlight for the ‘green bills’

Just maintaining the country’s forest cover is not enough, said La Viña, who is now executive director of the Manila Observatory, a scientific research center. “[There’s] no major initiative or nothing significantly negative comes to mind,” he said.  

He said proper management of the country’s forests is key, but laws that seek to do this have been languishing in Congress. 

The country’s primary forest code is a Martial Law-era presidential decree that essentially promotes commercial logging, La Viña said. Although P.D. 705 has since been modified with the passage of the National Integrated Protected Area System in 1992 and the Indigenous People’s Rights Act in 1997, a different law is needed to set the criteria on how forest resources should be managed and utilized, he said. 

“There’s no criteria when you can cut or not because we’re still using the old forestry code,” La Viña said. 

Canivel said P.D. 705 promised an industrialization scheme where forests would contribute to the economy, but this didn’t happen. He made the same call to pass “green bills” pending in Congress. The log ban that Aquino issued in 2011 is only an executive order.

Experts have identified at least three urgent “green” bills – the National Land Use Act (NLUA), the Sustainable Forest Management Act (SMFA), and the Alternative Minerals Management Act (AMMA). 

Passage of the NLUA is needed to delineate forest boundaries and protect them. Land conversions are the main threats to forests, said Haribon’s Pedragosa. 

“Hindi pwedeng gamitin sa agriculture. Hindi pwede gamitin sa iba pang uses kung hindi forest lang talaga (It cannot be used for agriculture. It cannot be used for other purposes but it’s supposed to be just for forests),” he said. 

The SMFA is needed to set criteria for allowing logging, and settle debates on whether or not the government should allow selective logging or commercial logging. It should not be preoccupied with issuing timber-cutting or tree-cutting permits, and should set aside areas for conservation and management, restoration, and sustainable use, Canivel said.

“The new law has to be mindful of what we need to protect, what we need to restore and what we need to allow,” he said. 

Intended to replace the Mining Act of 1995, the AMMA seeks to ban extraction in environmentally critical areas such as small-island ecosystems and primary and secondary forests and watersheds. It also seeks to prohibit dumping of mine wastes into water systems.

All these laws are urgent, said Canivel. “We are faced with different realities. We understand forests better now. We certainly need a new policy framework.” FIN


This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network (RIN). 
To learn more about forest stories across the globe, visit the RIN fellows’ page here.
Infographics: Joseph Luigi Almuena