Monday, April 23, 2007

Extra-judicial killings gone mainstream?

HAVE extrajudicial killings gone “mainstream” as a tool used by the bad guys to silence those who passionately care for this country?

We hope not, but Sunday’s killing of Audie Auchangco, a member of the National Anti-Environmental Crime Task Force (Naectaf) that enforces environmental laws in this country, seems to indicate so. It is worse enough that killers-for-hire have been blasting to pieces activists and mediamen with impunity. Now, it seems that the destroyers of the environment are using the same method to stop people who protect it.

It’s a sad fact of our national life that needs to be addressed with haste, for this matter has severe implications on the Philippine economy. Especially when one recalls that this is not the first time an extraordinarily brave and no-nonsense forest ranger was killed. Past DENR officials a few years ago had called attention to the fact that nearly a dozen such environmental stewards had been killed in line of duty in just a short time.

According to sources from environmental NGOs, Auchangco was shot by gunmen riding a motorcycle in broad daylight in Lucena City on the same day that the world was celebrating Earth Day. He sustained 11 gunshot wounds in the head and body, killing him instantly. We have yet to see the results of the police investigation but there are indications that his death may have something to do with his efforts to curb illegal logging in Sierra Madre.

Sources from the NGO movement say Auchangco was part of the team that implemented “Oplan Baykuran” that led to the confiscation of illegally cut logs from Quezon province and the Rizal portion of the Southern Sierra Madre. He had been working to stop illegal logging operations in Agusan provinces, Cebu and Mindanao during the time of his murder.

That he was murdered right during Earth Day in broad daylight shows just how these criminal elements have become so brazen—the same point that human-rights groups have been raising, to those who’d care to listen, i.e., that it’s not the numbers of victims per se that have become alarming, but the impunity with which they were exterminated.

These criminals seem to be taunting law enforcers that they can do their worst anytime and nothing can be done about it. The government, therefore, should mobilize adequate resources to track down the killers and bring them to justice.

Authorities should look at this latest murder as something that already treads on the fragile state of the economy, and our capability to bring development to people living in the hinterlands. The killing certainly wrought a chilling effect on law enforcers, employees and staff government agencies, as well as civil-society organizations working for the conservation and preservation of the forests, rivers, and mountains. Should this go unchecked, the destruction of the country’s remaining forests will accelerate, thus aggravating the economic and environmental woes.

Certainly, this problem will have an immediate economic impact, especially on the lives of the poor. On a quarterly basis, agriculture, fishery and forestry contributes 16 percent to 19 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and employs 35 percent of the country’s labor force. And because of the farm and forestry sector’s strong links with the rest of the economy, stronger growth rates generated by agriculture, fishery and forestry normally boosts both the industry and services sector as well.

But what few people appreciate is that a significant part of the farm sector’s output relies on the state of health of ecosystems that start up right there in the mountains covered by vegetation. Once this forest cover is removed by means like illegal logging and slash-burn farming, there won’t be much water left for the irrigation systems that nurture the rice fields, corn fields and orchards.

For a long time now, we have been exporting a lot of nature- and farm-based products like bananas, pineapples, rattan products, asparagus, fruits and vegetables. We have been earning billions of dollars from tourists who come to see nature’s bounty in the Philippines. These are economic activities that support the livelihood of millions of poor people.

Once the mountains and forests are destroyed simply because the government couldn’t deal with illegal loggers and other rapists of nature, we would eventually have to kiss these industries goodbye. Once the forests in the Sierra Madre Mountains, as well as other critical ecosystems like La Mesa, are gone, residents of Metro Manila will go thirsty.

Of course, most cities in the country are very much dependent on river and forest systems for drinking water, irrigation, for its factories and offices. A collapse of the country’s ecosystems would have a severe economic impact on towns and cities. That sounds like an apocalyptic warning, but even these days there are indications that many urban water sources are getting less productive due to environmental destruction. And that’s, as Al Gore puts it, the inconvenient truth.

It’s high time the government starts bringing fear to the hearts of elements that are not only murdering and maiming people but also destroying the environment, the prospects of the Philippine economy, and our children’s future. Few crimes could be as heinous. (Note: prepared as editorial for BusinessMirror, 24 2007)

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