PRESIDENT Corazon Aquino has pitted her office against one of the most powerful forces in the Philippines: big-time loggers. ``The [environmental] devastation that has been visited by the greed of commerce, the corruption of officials, and the ignorance of men in our fair country has got to stop,'' Mrs. Aquino announced on March 18.
Her statement, reinforced by an official ban on timber exports, culminates a campaign by environmentalists and the Roman Catholic Church to spur Aquino into radical action to protect the nation's remaining scarce woodlands.
For the past 50 years, the Philippines has lost 2.4 acres of hardwood forests every minute, according to studies sponsored by West Germany and Sweden, leaving only a 21 percent forest cover. The ecological impact, such as silted rice paddies and lack of rainfall, has led to widespread forecasts that the Philippines could become a virtual desert.
``After a single night's rain, look at the chocolate brown rivers in your locality and remember that they are carrying the life blood of the land into the sea,'' Filipinos were warned last year in a pastoral letter by nation's Catholic bishops.
``Our country is in peril,'' it concluded.
``Extraordinary measures are needed'' to stop the deforestation, Aquino said after signing the timber export ban that takes effect July 1.
She admitted her action may be ``too late.''
Aquino's move follows a similar step taken in January by Thailand. A vast swath of Southeast Asia's tropics faces an ecological crisis, according to a number of experts, due to rising exports of timber and logs. Much of the output goes to Japan for manufacturing use.
Fulgencio Factoran, secretary for energy, environment, and natural resources, estimates the Philippines earned between $160 million and $180 million from lumber exports in 1988.
Last October, Aquino placed a tax on loggers to pay for a government-run program to plant new trees, supported by $120 million loan from the Asian Development Bank.
She ordered that 250,000 acres a year be reforested, although she acknowledged the edict will be difficult to enforce.
Up to now, the government has been reluctant to act against loggers, many of them ethnic Chinese who developed close ties with military leaders and politicians during the 20-year rule of Ferdinand Marcos.
Even under Aquino, who replaced Mr. Marcos in 1986, top officials have opposed logging bans.
They blamed farmers more than professional loggers for most deforestation, and said that too many jobs would be lost if logging is stopped.
``With the change in government many of us were hopeful that things would change,'' says University of the Philippines professor Percy Sajise, ``only to find out that a new group of politicians, again close to [the presidential office], has again served as its sponsor, showing that the control of natural resources is power and the game goes on.''
Leading the anti-logging campaign is a pro-environment group called Haribon, which has gained publicity for its fight against a close Aquino associate, Ramon Mitra, the speaker of the House of Representatives.
MR. MITRA'S district on the island of Palawan, home to one of the country's last stands of virgin forests, was chosen by Haribon to highlight the effects of deforestation. A 1987 study sponsored by the European Economic Community found a ``gross overcut'' on Palawan, and recommended logging be reduced by 78 percent.
Mr. Factoran plans to phase down slowly the number of logging licenses by about half or more by 1990.
Aides to Factoran say he was hesitant to curb logging up to now because he had lacked clear support from Aquino. Even with such support now at hand, the aides say, guarding the forests from illegal loggers in this far-flung archipelago will prove extremely difficult.