IN one of his recent weekly briefings, President Rodrigo Duterte reintroduced a seldom heard theory that squatters are responsible for deforestation and, consequently, flooding in low-lying areas. The main contention people have been used to hearing is that illegal logging and illegal mining are the major causes of deforestation. It is easy to equate squatting with all things that are illegal, and somehow this makes Duterte’s theory aligned with the main school of thought.

But his idea of squatters (categorized alongside the poor in general, which, similar to rounding off in numerical manipulations, is to me a lazy way of breaking down the attributes of poverty) being a driver of demand for forest products, and therefore blameworthy for deforestation, is a new topic which social scientists may find attractive to look deeper into.

Media has quoted him as saying:

– ‘Yung average Pilipino, they cannot afford a concrete house so halos lahat d’yan, let us use the word being understood by all, ‘yang mga squatters, puro kahoy ‘yan. Bibili ‘yan, including coconut wood.

– Ang problema niyan sa bukid talagang magpuputol ‘yan ng kahoy because ang mga Pilipino, ‘yan lang [ang kaya]. Saan naman sila kukuha ng semento? Where do they cut the trees? In Canada? Or pupunta pa sila sa South America o Africa? So, kung anong makita nilang nabibili sa small-scale…karamihan ‘yan ang ginagawang bahay ng mga tao.

– As the population increases annually, so is the need to cut trees.

– Magtatayo ng bahay and the temptation to cut the trees and bring it there to the lower land ay really to build houses kaya ‘di ‘yan mawawala.

– I am in a quandary on how to solve the problem of illegal logging.

How many households are we talking about here? Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority website shows that poverty incidence as of 2015 (seems to be the latest tally) is 26.3 percent. In absolute number, this amounts to 6 million out of a total of 23 million households in the same period. Studies show that squatter dwellings average about 15 to 20 cubic meters in size, requiring roughly 250 board feet of an all-wood structure. For this need up to five trees of harvestable size must be cut. Estimated total casualty for all households is 30 million trees (yes, including coconut trees).

Of course wooden structures, unless swept away by typhoons or floods, among the more common disasters, can be of use for up to 50 years. (Our wooden ancestral house is at least 80 years old, and our family can hardly be considered as better off than the average squatter.) This means squatters have no need for wood for housing every year, even every five years. The 30 million trees that housed squatters must have therefore been “amortized” for a period of as much as 30 years. In short, the environment pays for 1 million trees every year for housing of those who cannot afford concrete materials. At this rate, this toll is something that the environment can regenerate by itself, except that external factors more rabid than squatters get in the way to disturb the peace.

The more established notions with respect to causes of deforestation that point to the poor and/or squatters as culprits have something to do with survival, such as kaingin farming. Selling individually cut logs can likewise be a source of livelihood, which I found when I visited upland barangays in Samar (this was in the late 1990s) to facilitate the conduct of a comprehensive land use plan for a local government unit. In the hierarchy of needs, these are more basic than their being recognized as end-users or consumers of timber products.

Apart from those contexts, those who point fingers see loggers and miners as obvious suspects. A side question pops up on what seems to be Duterte’s giving up on the problem of illegal logging: which, really, is the bigger problem to solve — illegal logging or legal logging? In terms of rapacity, if it were like a haircut, legal logging is to an electrical clipper as illegal logging is to a pair of scissors. It is easy to see who contributes to deforestation more.

And what makes legal logging legal? Taxes — which are not even enough to pay for rehabilitation of defiled resource bases? Compliance with legal requirements which, as in any government office that is tasked to regulate anything, is a boon to corrupt practices?

It is frustrating to see that government up to now has not harnessed on a consistent basis community participation as an effective tool to address logging and mining (both legal and illegal). Indigenous peoples and their communities have been found to have protected their environments in a sustainable manner. Yet government, supposedly in exchange for taxes paid by big business interests, allow logging and mining operations in areas where indigenous peoples live, in open conflict not only with what they consider as their sacred ancestral lands but also of their access to their sources of livelihood.

In the early 2000s there was an inter-agency cooperation called the Community-Based Resource Management Project. Designed as both an environment and poverty-reduction thrust, the project aimed to guide upland and coastal communities to take the lead in addressing ecological destruction in their respective areas. But like many projects that require coordination among many actors, this one did not attract buy-in from its stakeholders.

In the large legal scheme of things, most upland and coastal communities (beyond buffer zones) can be considered as squatters. In fact, a human invention called property rights is about the only thing that keeps all of us from being called squatters.

Squatting is a form of tax on idle lands, as suggested in University of the Philippines economics professor Orville Solon’s doctoral study on urban squatting and land development in the early 1980s. Proceeds from the tax go directly to the squatters, which is how a truly progressive tax should ideally be.


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