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Archive for February, 2008

Just saw this story in Inquirer.net, which immediately transported me into a state of nostalgia and melancholy:

Help save Sierra Madre, tribe leader urges media
By Delfin Mallari Jr.
Southern Luzon Bureau

LUCENA CITY, Philippines — Using a borrowed mobile phone, a tribal leader in Sierra Madre in northern Quezon asked for media’s help to stop the renewed illegal logging operation in the mountain ranges.

On Monday evening, Eric Avellaneda, vice chairman of mountain tribe association called “Adhikain ng mga Grupong Taong Katutubo na Nagtatanggol” (Agta), sent a text message to the Philippine Daily Inquirer and reported that more than 30 chainsaws were sneaked into the mountain and were now being used by unidentified groups in their renewed unlawful cutting of trees.

In a follow-up phone interview, Avellaneda said he just borrowed the mobile phone from a lowlander to contact the media to ask for help to stop the illegal activities.

“The media is our only hope to stop and prevent the further destruction of Sierra Madre. Illegal logging stops every time it was reported in the media,” he said in Filipino.

Full story here

I guess there’s a bright side to this. That a tribal leader is actively engaged in protecting his ancestral domain, that the ubiquitous mobile phone has given him access to media, that the reporter who got the message actually wrote about it, that the government initiated action on the complaint. It shows the power of the individual, the power of the media, the power of, well, texting.

Just what the extent of that power is, I don’t know.

Illegal logging has been systematically wiping out the Sierra Madre for years, even decades. It’s one of those situations where the problem seems so big that one is tempted to just despair and give up hope that it’s ever going to go away. The loggers are rich, powerful, and armed. The government officials are on the take. A lot of upland residents are too poor to have much livelihood options other than the destructive slash-and-burn farming. And the felled logs continue to float down the river, continue to breeze through the checkpoints.

Three years ago, the Sierra Madre was the scene of heartbreaking tragedy as the denuded mountain slopes broke loose after days of heavy rains, triggering landslides and flashfloods. The disaster killed more than a thousand people, destroyed property and infrastructure, and rendered farmlands useless.

I had the opportunity to listen to some of the victims during a forum we organized at the Haribon Foundation about half a year after the tragedy. I wrote about their story for the Haribon website, where I now go back to go over it once again.

The article was one of the most difficult I’ve ever had to write. I remember sitting in front of the computer listening to the tape from the forum, trying to hold back tears as I listened to the speakers.

“Hanggang ngayon maluwag sila sa pagbibigay ng permit para mailabas ang kahoy na dapat sana’y tulong na sa amin. Masakit para sa aming tanggapin na yung mga kahoy na yon ang pumatay sa mga mahal namin sa buhay samantalang kami walang maipag-pagawa ng bahay… Tone-toneladang kahoy ang lumalabas, sabi nila total log ban daw, sabi nila ibibigay daw sa aming nasalanta, pero marami sa amin ang walang bahay.”

“Sa totoo lang po gustong-gusto naming hukayin yung bangkay ng mga mahal namin sa buhay pero wala kaming magawa. Syempre po yung mga natitirang nabubuhay may mga pangangailangan naman na dapat tingnan,”

“Ang mga ganitong pagsasalita ay mahirap para sa amin…sa bawat pagkakataong nagsasalita kami ng ganito ay para naming hinahalukay ang aming mga namatay na anak. Pero kung hindi po ako magsasalita ngayon sa harapan ninyo, para ko ng kinalimutan yung pagkamatay ng pamilya ko, ng anak ko.”

Two of the speakers very understandably broke down and cried in the middle of their talk, and it was all I could do not to burst into tears as well. But they very bravely told their stories, because they knew that the world needs to know what happened, what is still happening, in Sierra Madre.

“Huwag nilang ibaon sa limot ang trahedyang ito …kung dadaain natin sa limot ang mga bagay na ito, ilan pang bayan at ilan pang Sierra Madre ang luluha?”

It’s a sad story, it’s one that’s been going on for years, so much so that even the media entities do not put it among the big headlines. Still, Agta leader Eric Avellaneda had enough faith and determination to send in that text message, to do every little bit within his capacity, in search of solutions. It’s a sad story, but I don’t want to think, not yet, that it’s not going to have a happy ending.

Photos by Don De Alban

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