Chainsaws that were confiscated in Palawan’s forests have been transformed into a Christmas tree that stands all year round in front of the Palawan Environmental Enforcement Museum in Puerto Princesa.
Equipment that were used to kill trees and destroy virgin forests now reminds defenders of the environment not to let their guard down while evoking fear and awe among destroyers of the Philippines’ so-called Last Frontier.
Passersby would stop to gawk at the roof-high installation towering over other confiscated instruments of environmental destruction—jeeps, trucks and tricycles that used to ferry illegally felled timber, fishing boats (one Malaysian) that had engaged in illegal fishing or wildlife smuggling, and a collection of deadly weapons, including firearms, explosives and cyanide.
Palawan is the province with the most number of declared protected areas. It has its own special environmental laws. Considered as the country’s last ecological frontier, Palawan has a logging ban that is supposed to be strictly enforced. It goes without saying that a citizen’s arrest can be carried out against violators.
Paradox of a province
The confiscated chainsaws numbered much more than the 600 that could be accommodated to make the “deadly” Christmas tree. Many more ended up in the perimeter fence surrounding the museum.
According to the Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI), the museum “is a testament to a paradox of a province purported to be paradise yet terribly plagued with pillage and apathetic, if not corrupt, public officials.”
The museum is a showcase and proof of the organization’s unrelenting campaign to defend the environment. It is dedicated to PNNI’s band of para-enforcers—“men and women, young and old, poor but resilient.”
Showcase of violations
The museum collects an entrance fee of P20 which, with other fees and donations, goes to fund community enforcement efforts. A visit to the museum is included in the tour package of PNNI’s Pasyar Developmental Tourism program, an alternative approach to tourism that supports community-based development and conservation initiatives.
“Travel with a cause” is Pasyar’s come-on line.
PNNI states its vision thus: “a frontier with forests …, a civil society not afraid to be a catalyst and a government that is God-fearing.” PNNI is headed by Robert Chan, a law graduate of Ateneo de Manila University.
When PNNI first started its campaign, it encountered some hostility, said Chan.
“Enforcement is the banner of our program. This museum is a showcase of environmental violations,” he said.
Visitors are invited to sit on hardwood that PNNI had seized and turned into long benches and a mini-platform as the lawyer goes into a diatribe against the increase in illegal mining, illegal fishing and illegal logging in the country. “Lowest in priority,” he rues.
Chan’s vocabulary is peppered with references to board feet, square kilometers and the treasures of the earth, forest and seas that are lost as the clock ticks. He also names names, some of them of the biggest ones in business. But it is the poor that are made to do the dirty, illegal work, he says.
One of PNNI’s funders is the Philippine Foundation for the Environment. In the past, PNNI also received funding from Misereor of the Catholic bishops of Germany. PNNI and its member organizations also provide legal muscle and assistance in environmental cases.
Seized Malaysian boat
Wearing shorts and flip-flops, Chan points out certain items in the museum and tells the stories behind them, where they were seized, from whom (the operators’ names sound familiar) and the violators’ modus operandi. A stickler for procedure, he insists that when something is seized, a seizure receipt is issued. “The enforcers hate me,” he says with a laugh.
Also on exhibit are photographs of illegal items at the time they were seized, among them, tricycles loaded with timber. They are accompanied by brief narratives on the what, who, when and how. One caption says: “Tricycle logging in tribal areas.”
Chan recalls that after the huge blue-green Malaysian fishing boat was seized (for illegal fishing), it was towed in a truck through the city’s streets to the museum. It was a sight to behold—the boat is big enough to hold a small museum café.
Another boat on display was involved in wildlife smuggling.
If undiscovered, where do some of the much-coveted, illegal hardwood timber end up? Resorts, is the terse reply.
When the Inquirer was at the museum, a PNNI para-enforcer arrived in a tricycle with a newly confiscated chainsaw. Felipe Ilustrisimo said the chainsaw was only one of many he has confiscated. The scars on Ilustrisimo’s arms are a testimony to his dedication to the defense of the forests.
“In all, 70 stitches,” he says. “I was confronting someone who was cutting a tree in the forest when he suddenly thrust the chainsaw at me.”
The bloody encounter only emboldened the para-enforcer to do more. The museum is dedicated to people like him.