The Forests in Palawan

Simone Scriven

Mangrove trees in Palawan, the Philippines. Photo © Carrie Thompson / Alamy

Four months after Super Typhoon Odette, the damage was obvious along the road from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, in Palawan. The storm had begun near the equator in December 2021, dissipating and then intensifying as it howled through the Philippines. Palawan was its last landfall. Tree trunks were caught in huge tangles on riverbanks or, if still standing, tipped at drunken angles. Odette had torn the canopy off the forest, punched up houses and scrunched up galvanised iron roofing like crisp packets. At high tide, the mangroves trees in the ocean looked as if they had waded out to get away from it all.

Palawan isn’t usually badly affected by typhoons, which more often rake the Eastern Visayas, Cebu and Luzon. It’s supposed to be the quiet island: no earthquakes, no religious separatists, rare cyclones. But since the 1970s the weather has become more unpredictable in the Philippines, and tropical storms are landing more frequently. Palawan was also hit by Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 – one of the deadliest in the country’s history, which claimed more than six thousand lives.

During Odette’s passage, over half a million people on the island were evacuated, and electricity and telecommunications were cut off in major towns for several days. More than fifty thousand houses in Palawan were destroyed and at least 22 people were killed.

Typhoons form when warm, moist air over the tropical ocean rises, drawing in cooler air below. Pressure differentials create a swirl of wind, which continues to draw energy and moisture from the warm ocean and becomes a vortex. Typhoons weaken when they hit land but can still reach more than a hundred miles an hour. At Category 3, their damage on landfall is classed as ‘extensive’. At Category 4, it is ‘extreme’. At Category 5, like Odette, the scale throws its hands up – ‘catastrophic’. As carbon concentrates in the atmosphere, equatorial water will get even warmer, and tropical cyclones will be more frequent, and more intense.

I was in Palawan to investigate the illegal trade in the island’s wildlife. ‘The typhoon hit people hard,’ one conservationist told me. ‘Now, there is not enough to eat, so more people have taken to hunting for the pot. Wildlife is back on the menu.’ It wasn’t only humans who were hungry – with large swathes of the forest destroyed, starving animals had begun to venture out in search of food, with nocturnal creatures seen roaming in the day.

It’s hard to escape talk of the forest – or talk of poverty – when thinking through what typhoons mean for a place like Palawan. Its islands have far more tree cover than the rest of the Philippines, with a higher percentage of highly biodiverse, old-growth forest.

The province wasn’t always ‘the last ecological frontier’ – it just hasn’t been (until now) subject to the logging and land conversion that denuded so much of the rest of the Philippines. It began under Spanish and American colonial occupation, and the near total forest cover of precolonial times had already been reduced by almost half by the 1930s. Between the 1920s and the 1960s the country was Asia’s largest timber exporter. Under the Marcos regime, deforestation still boomed and commercial logging was promoted with almost no enforcement of regulations. The democratic era has seen an export ban, logging moratoriums, increased indigenous land rights, community-based management schemes and major funding for reforestation. But forests have still shrunk, if at a slower rate.

Forests help both to prevent and protect against typhoons, through carbon sequestering, wind buffering and landslide fixing. A small but vital part of the Philippines’ forests are mangroves, those incredible amphibious trees, which prevent flooding and provide sheltered nurseries for fish. ‘Just think,’ a cockatoo conservationist in Palawan said to me, ‘how much worse it would have been without the mangroves.’ In the protected area of Malampaya Sound, the mangrove forest bulwarked coastal houses and local fisheries against Odette’s eighteen-foot storm surge.

In Puerto Princesa, arriving at the offices of a government department to talk about wildlife trafficking, I walked past a long queue of men, most in shorts and sandals, holding chainsaws, looking sheepish. It was Chainsaw Amnesty Day. A ban had been imposed in the early 1990s, but there was a temporary reprieve after the typhoon to allow people to clear fallen trees from their roads and property. The authorities came to believe liberties were being taken, however, and were trying to reel unregistered chainsaw use back in.

Most of what goes on in the north of Palawan is selective logging, or ‘cutting’ – taking down high-value indigenous species such as Ipe. This hardwood, similar to mahogany, is often sold directly to local tourist lodges, whose eco-chic schtick depends on the use of indigenous materials. One lodge owner openly admitted to buying Ipe, gesturing at the smooth grain of his tables.

Since the highly successful ‘Wow Philippines 2002’ marketing campaign, Palawan’s tourism industry has boomed, capitalising on its pristine beaches and mountainous, verdant forests. Hotels and beachside lodges have multiplied. It has provided much-needed employment, and in 2018 brought in over $1.6 billion. But the tourism industry also pushes constantly against the imperatives of conservation.

Not unusually, it’s the understaffed, underequipped and poorly paid forest guard units who are asked to hold the line between the use of the forest and the conservation rules that aim to preserve it. Some harvesting of products such as honey and rattan by local communities is allowed, but the guards patrol the steep, densely forested mountainsides to prevent illegal hunting and, above all, logging. This doesn’t make them popular. Since 2017, three forest rangers have been shot dead, and two more injured, when confronting loggers.

In the south of the island, logging goes on under the guise of agribusiness development and mining. When developers get permits to clear land for plantations, they are free to sell the trees they remove. The pattern is common across Asia, and the land conversion poses a more comprehensive, and permanent, threat to forest cover than logging alone.

The recently departed governor of Palawan, Jose Alvarez, is a former logging magnate who wanted to designate the south of the island a special economic zone and, in the worst nightmare of indigenous communities and environmentalists, accelerate the development of mining and palm oil plantations. The barometer spins madly when you look at the prospects for keeping elites accountable: corruption is rife and the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders. Natural disasters are less lethal to humans than ever before, but we are still flailing when it comes to resolving the impossible demands we put on the world’s last wild places.

This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.