By Rommel F. Lopez

A teacher of Tuganay Elementary School uses a boat to survey the damage caused by the January 2024 flooding. (photo from Tuganay Elementary School Facebook page)

Coloring books, encyclopedias, stuffed toys, a refrigerator, and computers float on murky waters after torrential rains submerged Tuganay Elementary School in Carmen, Davao Del Norte in January.

Lorelei Sesaldo, the new school principal, could not help but cry recalling the ordeal that left both the school and her home destroyed. She immediately rushed to the school at about 8 in the evening upon learning of the rampaging floodwaters in the area. In the end, though, nothing was saved except for the school’s land title placed inside a floating plastic bag.

”When we arrived here, flood waters were high. We tried to do everything until 2 a.m. but to no avail. Only the guard and I were here because the other teachers couldn’t get out of their homes. They were trying to save their own houses from the flood,” Sesaldo said.

 

Tuganay Elementary School principal Lorelei Sesaldo salvages what she can inside a classroom destroyed by the January 2024 floods. (photo by Rommel F. Lopez)

 

This is not an isolated case, as floods and landslides have become increasingly common in the province and the greater Davao Region (Region 11) in recent years, according to Office of Civil Defense (OCD) data obtained by PressOne.PH.

In mid-January, three provinces in the Davao Region were put under a state of calamity due to landslides and massive flooding triggered by a shear line, affecting hundreds of thousands of families. It did not help that a northeast monsoon and the trough of a low-pressure area (LPA) brought heavy rains at the end of the month, which worsened the situation.

Rapid deforestation and illegal logging, which remain rampant, are the main culprits, officials and experts said. Along with an increasingly unpredictable climate, these have caused deaths and damage to millions of residents in the region. Data and interviews done by PressOne.PH revealed that policy gaps, corruption, and politics accelerated these problems.

Here’s what the data revealed.

 

1. Davao Region is home to illegal logging hotspots

According to the Philippine Forestry Statistics (PFS), five towns in the Davao Region are considered illegal logging hotspots. These are the municipalities of Laak and Nabunturan in Davao de Oro and the towns of Baganga, Cateel, and Boston in Davao Oriental. These two provinces, alongside Davao del Norte, declared a state of calamity in January.

 

 

 

The nearby Caraga (Region 13) is also home to eight illegal logging hotspots.

Hotspots are determined by the location of apprehensions, said Mari Antoniette Andulana, the officer in charge of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Region 11 office’s enforcement division. 

“So wherever the apprehension happened, that’s where the hotspot will be recorded. It depends on the frequency and how many apprehensions were done. That’s the criteria provided by the Forest Management Bureau of the Central Office,” Andulana said.

While most of the seized logs come from Caraga, there are still cutting and poaching incidents in the Davao Region, though smaller in scale. These are usually done by members of the community for livelihood, according to Andaluna. They directly sell and deliver these logs to wood processing plants.

“Of course, Region 13 is recognized as the source. But we are the market in Region 11. The majority of our data here are really apprehensions through transport,” Andulana said.

Based on government data, almost half of the market value of seized undocumented logs in the country came from Mindanao. Caraga region was the top source of seized illegal forest products amounting to nearly P50 million, followed by Northern Mindanao with P25 million, and Davao Region with P10 million.

When it comes to log production, Caraga also registered the highest nationwide for 2021 and 2022, reaching about 643,000 cu. m of logs and 557,000 cu. m, respectively. No wonder it has earned the nickname the Timber Corridor of the Philippines.

Approximately 643,000 cubic meters of logs can produce more than 32 million school chairs. 

In 2021, Davao Region ranked eighth with 12,125.30 cu.m. But this went up three-fold in 2022, jumping to the third spot.

 

2. Davao de Oro has the fastest shrinking forests in Mindanao

 

 
 

Davao de Oro is the province with the fastest shrinking forest in Davao Region, according to the PFS. 

The province lost 7.5% of forest cover between 2010 and 2020. It is the only province in the region that lost forest cover, while other provinces gained some. Davao Oriental gained the most cover in the region with 9.51%, followed by Davao del Sur and Davao Occidental with 5.82%, and Davao del Norte with 4.14%. 

But according to data from Global Forest Watch (GFW), a US-based organization that monitors global forests, Davao Oriental lost the most cover (9%) in the Davao Region during the same period. It was followed by Davao De Oro with nearly 8%, Davao Del Norte with 6%, and Davao del Sur with 3%.

(The PFS and GFW use different methods. The PFS tracks the total forested area across different years, while the GFW reports forest gain and loss separately.)

The losses are higher in the illegal logging hotspots at the municipal level, PFS data showed. The municipality of Cateel in Davao Oriental lost the most forest cover, over 20%, among hotspots in the region. It was followed by Baganga in Davao Oriental (16%), Laak in Davao de Oro (14%), Boston in Davao Oriental (13%), and Nabunturan, Davao de Oro (6.12%)

In Davao del Norte, the provincial government, together with the DENR, the military, and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), confiscated about 70,000 boards of premium lumber during a joint operation against illegal logging in January.

 

Some of the illegally cut logs were seized in Sitio Pipisan, Gupitan, Kapalong, Davao del Norte by a raiding team composed of members of the Philippine National Police, Armed Forces of the Philippines, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources regional office and provincial government officials. A total of 7,000 board feet of logs were confiscated. (photo from the Davao del Norte provincial government’s official Facebook page.)

 

Davao del Norte Governor Edwin Jubahib said the intensified campaign against illegal logging was a direct response to the severe flooding and landslides that hit the province. 

The confiscated logs were found deep within the Pantaron Range, a 1.26 million hectare-mountain range spanning multiple provinces in the Davao, Caraga, and Northern Mindanao regions. A wide portion of it, about 1,600 ha, is within the Davao Region, particularly Davao del Norte.

Jubahib said illegal loggers have become more clever, conducting their operations deep within the forest to avoid detection.

“That’s where they use chainsaws. There are no houses there so no one can hear it. Then they would bring the logs to the stream, they would make them float to reach [down] here,” he said in an interview.

The DENR’s regional office is pushing for the designation of the Pantaron Range as a protected area.

“The forest there might soon be gone because of logging. We think it has already reached the upstream, because of course, they will first target the trees down here because it’s easier. If you don’t protect the Pantaron Range, we won’t have protection anymore. There is an immediate need to protect the range,” said Andulana of DENR Region 11.

Jubahib said the range, which is located in the province’s upstream, “is the only one protecting us from the waters.”

Aside from being a home to biodiversity, Pantaron Range is also the source of the two largest watersheds in Mindanao, the Pulangi and Agusan, contributing to the consistent stream of fresh water in the region.

In 2020 and 2022, Davao del Norte Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez filed bills seeking to declare the mountain range as a protected area and national park. The bill is still with the House committee on natural resources. It is unlikely to become a law, as it has no counterpart measure in the Senate, a step needed in the legislative process.

PressOne.PH sought the office of the governor of Davao De Oro for comment but it did not respond.

 

3. Davao Region, with its shrinking forests, suffered the most from disasters in recent years. Those living in illegal logging hotspots are at risk of floods and landslides.

From 2017 to 2021, Davao Region experienced 22 landslides and flooding incidents, the highest in Mindanao, data from the OCD showed.

 

 

The region recorded the highest number of people affected by floods and landslides in Mindanao from 2017 to 2019: one million residents including eleven deaths. These are higher than the casualties recorded in the nearby Caraga region, which also has multiple illegal logging hotspots: one death and 147,000 affected residents. 

In January 2024 alone, at least 21 residents died in the Davao Region due to landslides and floods caused by a shear line, according to the government.

The region also suffered the highest losses due to disasters from 2016 to 2021, with P11 billion total cost of damage or an average of P1.8 billion per year. This was way higher than the damage reported in Caraga region, about P138 million for the same period.

 

A Davao del Norte provincial government all-terrain rescue vehicle ferries stranded passengers along a flooded portion of the national highway connecting Tagum City and Carmen municipality (photo from the Davao del Norte provincial government’s official Facebook page.)

 

Among the provinces in the Davao Region, Davao del Norte suffered the most infrastructure and agriculture damage, amounting to P10.8 billion for the same period. 

Davao del Norte also recorded one of the highest numbers of people affected by floods and rains for the years 2017 and 2019 – nearly 500,000 or about one out of five of its residents. In Davao Oriental, meanwhile, three out of 10 residents were affected by rains and floods annually from 2017 to 2019.

Jubahib, the governor of Davao del Norte, said the recent heavy floods in his province were “the result of deforestation.”

“I really can say this is because of the logging concession that operated here in Davao del Norte and they didn’t do tree planting. This is the result of [both] illegal logging and logging concessions with permits,” Jubahib said.

Those living in Region 11 municipalities, which have been identified as illegal logging hotspots, are at risk of either flooding or rain-induced landslides, according to the government risk assessment portal GeoAnalyticsPH. 

The risk of flooding is highest in Nabunturan, Davao de Oro, where more than half of the residents are living in flood-prone areas. It is followed by Cateel in Davao Oriental, with nearly half of its residents at risk of floods.

 

 

 

Meanwhile, almost all residents in the town of Laak in Davao De Oro face the highest risk of landslides. It is followed by Boston in Davao Oriental, with at least eight out of 10 residents facing such a risk.

 

 

 

 

4. Despite some improvements, reforestation in the region remains slow and inadequate

From 2010 to 2020, forested areas in Mindanao increased by 5.29% – from 2,221,192 hectares to 2,338,723 hectares, according to PFS data.

In the same period, the Davao Region gained 2.51% total forest area, the least in Mindanao. 

 

 

From 2011 to 2022, the region replanted nearly 110,000 hectares, representing a fifth of the national total, according to the government’s National Green Program accomplishment report.

The program, implemented in 2011, seeks to increase forest cover while helping reduce poverty and promote the food security of people in the affected communities.

The results, however, are inadequate, according to the Commission on Audit. Its 2019 performance audit report of the NGP found that forest cover only had a marginal increase of nearly 200,000 hectares after five years of implementation. This was nearly 88% below the target of 1.50 million hectares. 

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

 

5. Big gaps in law enforcement vs illegal logging: poor apprehension, national vs local policy mismatch

Interviews with government officials and experts revealed big gaps in the actual implementation of the law against illegal logging. These include poor apprehension of perpetrators and the mismatch of policies between the national and local governments. This leads to a protracted game of cat and mouse. 

Going after the masterminds behind the illegal logging operations remains to be the biggest challenge, according to Andaluna of the DENR Region 11’s enforcement division.

“We apprehend the drivers, helpers. And when we ask them who owns the transport and the vehicle, all they say is they were just ordered to do it. They don’t speak up. It’s a challenge for us to build up cases. Although we have case hearings, we don’t have evidence. It’s hard to accuse others without providing any evidence,” Andaluna said in an interview.

DENR enforcement teams are undermanned and ill-equipped. They are not allowed to be armed with weapons. At present, one forest ranger monitors about “a thousand hectares in the Davao Region,” she said.

“Our forest rangers are doing a very difficult job. Although there are efforts in the central office to push for the increase of the salary of forest rangers, still they are unarmed and have no sufficient training and capability,” Andaluna said in an interview.

“We are just civilian personnel. So we heavily rely on our police and army partners to provide us with security if we ever have to engage with illegal poachers or violators. So, it’s really a challenge for us to enforce the laws. This is why even when we strategize, the poachers are always one step ahead of us,” she said.

Locating the illegal logging sites is getting more difficult for the DENR as many operators have started to use portable sawmills, locally called bansuhan

“When they go down the mountains, it’s already lumber and is ready for distribution to the lumber yards or lumber dealers for processing. It’s hard to run after them because they can easily hide the lumber in closed container vans.” Andaluna said.

Dolores Valdesco, chief of the Davao Oriental Province Environment and Natural Resources Office (Penro) also pointed to the lack of authority of local government units in the granting of permits, particularly to mining companies. The national government allows these companies to cut and use timber in tenement areas around their mining sites.

“Miners are given auxiliary rights over the trees growing in their tenement areas. It pains us because they cover thousands of hectares. The DENR allows them to do that because that’s within their authority,” Valdesco told PressOne.PH.

In Davao Oriental, three large-scale mining companies cover thousands of hectares of tenement areas, according to Valdesco. In November 2012, Boston town was devastated by Typhoon Pablo (international name Typhoon Bopha) with most of its trees uprooted by massive landslides. Valdesco said the damaged forest land was converted into agricultural land.  Soon after, mining companies came in to build tenement areas.

“If the national government allows that, we cannot do anything because the decision on these large-scale companies lies with the national government, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau,” Valdesco said.

Another issue is the lack or absence of comprehensive land use plans. Even if the local government has one, it is effectively powerless due to the overreaching authority of the DENR, Valdesco said.

“There is still an issue with the conversion of forest land into agricultural land. After conversions, these areas become a place for people to live despite being uninhabitable,” Valdesco said, adding that this increases the vulnerability of people living in non-residential areas to disasters. 

Valdesco sees the devolution of land use plans to the local government as a possible solution to this problem.

 

6. Corruption perpetuates illegal logging and related problems

Davao del Norte’s Jubahib sees a big conspiracy between businessmen and politicians. But he admitted it was difficult to obtain evidence. (In April, Malacañang ordered the 60-day preventive suspension of Jubahib over a complaint, which according to the Department of the Interior and Local Government or DILG, “raises concerns regarding the alleged misuse of authority, potential oppression, and the utilization of government funds to advance the interests of a private company.“ He has denied the allegations.)

“There’s businessmen, politicians, both from here and outside. But we cannot establish it yet because nobody wants to become a witness,” he said.

In 2020, the DILG disclosed, without naming names, that several politicians were involved in both illegal logging and mining in the country. Then Interior secretary Eduardo Año, now the national security adviser, earlier said that these illegal operators might have “funded their [the politicians’] campaigns or supported their candidacies.”

In October 2021, a court ordered the arrest of Mayor Jose Relampagos of Panabo City, Davao del Norte for his alleged involvement in illegal logging. PressOne.PH reached out to the court handling the case but it declined to give an official update on the case’s status.

Corruption has also penetrated local communities, as Valdesco of the Davao Oriental Penro said the members of the local community allegedly accept bribes or payment from companies.

Under the law, before a mining company can renew its 25-year license to operate in its tenement area, the local community must agree to it.

“These tenement operators are wise because the powerful people in the local, even in tribes, such as the tribal chieftain, they are under the companies’ payroll. So, when the time comes that the company needs to renew its license, of course, the locals will want to go for renewal because their leaders are for that company,” Valdesco said.

PressOne.PH was unable to independently verify individual cases of corruption. 

 

7. Perennial battle between development and environment

There is a perennial tug-of-war between economic development and environment protection in the Davao Region, exacerbating the problem of deforestation according to experts.

In Davao Oriental, local environment officials opposed some infrastructure projects because these would cut through the remaining closed canopy forest. Development usually follows infrastructure, Valdesco said, which could render forest areas vulnerable.

Another problem is the subpar quality of infrastructure projects, according to Butch Dagondon of GREEN Mindanao, a non-profit organization that promotes environmental conservation and sustainable development.

“In the Davao Region, I’ve seen the mountains there, near the boundary of Maragusan or Mati. They have intensified road-widening projects there but the quality is poor. You can see in the drainage, the slopes, substandard. So these have worsened the floods,” Dagondon said.

The local community, however, usually supports these projects as these would make their lives easier. 

“You will be torn between the needs of the people for accessibility and the need to protect the area because building roads render the area vulnerable to encroachment. But if there are no roads, then those living in the area would have a hard time living and earning a livelihood,” Valdesco said.

For locals who live in forest areas, cutting trees has been a traditional source of income. But convincing them to stop is difficult.

“This is what they always ask us: Why is it that those living near the seas can get and earn from fish? Why are we, those who live in the mountains, not allowed to do the same?” Valdesco said.

“Until such time those who live in lowland areas, until they realize the value these trees in the forest do for us, they would rather make money out of it than leave it standing,” she said.

The government is trying to stop indiscriminate logging, particularly in the upland communities, by providing alternative livelihood under the National Greening Program. Under the NGP, people are compensated for planting new tree saplings or new agroforestry products like bamboo, rattan, coffee, cacao, rubber, and abaca. But it has not been easy.

“This is all-encompassing, you cannot just use the law and apprehend them. Because you also have to help them, they just do it out of a need to feed their families. For many in the upland communities, stopping hunger is the top priority,” Andaluna said.

“This has become a challenge for the government, for us. Because instead of just focusing on enforcement of forestry law, we now have to look into the social aspect of it, jobs, poverty, etc,” she said.

Until such actions generate a wider impact to gain lost forests and curb corruption, ordinary people in Davao Region are left alone. 

“It feels so sad. Illegal logging should be stopped because it’s now payback time for nature. Others don’t think of the impact of their actions. Everyone, including us, will be affected,” said Sesaldo, the school principal.

Tuganay Elementary School equipment, learning materials, and school records destroyed by floods (photo by Rommel F. Lopez)

Methodology

This environmental data story examined the link between forest cover loss, illegal logging hotspots, and the flooding and rain-induced landslides in Mindanao, particularly in the Davao Region, its frequency, and its devastating impact on the lives of its residents.

We downloaded the 2010 to 2020 editions of the Philippine Forestry Statistics from the website of the Forest Management Bureau of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. We lifted data sets of various forest statistics relevant to our investigation. Forest cover data sets were also downloaded from Global Forest Watch.

Estimates of the proportions of populations at risk of flood and rain-induced landslides in identified illegal logging hotspots were obtained from GeoAnalyticsPH. The portal utilizes 2015 census data from PSA and 2018 flood data from DENR-MGB and assumes uniform population density in the areas analyzed.

Other datasets were obtained through the government’s eFOI portal. 

Additional data from the Office of Civil Defense was courtesy of Samuel Yap of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Google Sheets was used to compile and analyze the data.

The data sets used for this story can be accessed here

This story is a collaboration between the author, and his data and story mentors from Thibi, Lu Min Lwin and Camille Elemia, respectively.