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Combatting deforestation in Palawan, Philippines


Palawan is the largest province in the Philippines. It hosts most of the country’s established national parks and protected areas. There is an  influx of migrants to the region, who have displaced other indigenous groups that historically occupied the island. Palawan is categorised as a ‘frontier province’ due to the arrivals of migrants and the island has grown rapidly over the past few decades due to an abundance of natural resources available for exploitation.(1).  In this context, Ruben Arzaga was one of the most recent forest defenders murdered in the Philippines when he was shot in the head on 14th September 2017 as he tried to approach illegal loggers on Palawan island. (3) He was an environmental "para-enforcer" and PNNI member. Bobby Chan, an environmental lawyer, created over twenty years ago the Palawan NGO Network Inc., PNNI. Its members are often former paramilitary. (2). According to Bobby Chan himself, "contrary to what is commonly shown in national media, mining is not the biggest environmental issue anymore in Palawan".  Robert Chan was talking to journalists in the Environmental Reporting Seminar conducted by the Philippine Press Institute on Thursday, February 2, 2017." According to Chan, the top problems in Palawan, in the context of size of affected areas and number of available enforcers, are illegal fishing, followed by illegal logging, with mining only  as a far third concern".(6). Chan opposes a plan for a six-lane road that would go from north to south of the whole Palawan island. 

Arzaga’s killing was the second attack on forest protection officers by illegal loggers and "timber poachers" in Palawan in three weeks. On August 23, Lito Eyala, a forester from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), was shot by a suspected timber poacher while he and his team were patrolling the mountains of Barangay Bacungan in Puerto Princesa City. (7). Eyala and his team apprehended suspected timber poachers and confiscated an unregistered chainsaw in the mountainous village of Bacungan. The owner of the chainsaw retaliated by firing a homemade gun that hit Eyala in the back and wounded him. (10).

After Arzaga's murder, authorities immediately  apprehended two suspects in the killing. Nabbed on September 15 by the El Nido police were two young residents of Sitio Batbat, Barangay Villa Libertad, El Nido. Allegedly, both suspects had a grudge with Arzaga who had apprehended illegally cut lumber from them on several occasions, the last being on the day before he was shot and killed. (3) This case is controversial. On the one hand, Arzaga was an elected village captain in Palawan's tourist town of El Nido,  and had been trying to confiscate illegally cut timber as part of a personal crusade to stop rampant deforestation. "If this illegal activity is not stopped, I think before my youngest daughter becomes a young adult and has a family of her own, all the big trees here will be gone," Arzaga, 49, told Agence France Press in February 2017 during another mission to confiscate chainsaws from illegal loggers. (4)

It was reported that Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, a former chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), has started mulling the possibility of arming environmental patrollers with guns, in a show of "militarization of conservation". In a statement Cimatu revealed that the DENR would ask the military and the police to train foresters in security protocols and the use of firearms. “The agency is also studying whether they are allowed to have firearms during patrol or apprehensions so they can defend themselves when necessary,” Cimatu said, following the killing of  Arzaga, who had been a member of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area board.(5)

The EJO Kalikasan disputed Cimatu's view, from  the point of view of the Philippines as a whole.  Global Witness had indeed reported a total of 144 cases of environmental activist killings in the Philippines since 2002, but “most murders were linked to mining, coal and extractive industries, whilst half of those killed were indigenous people.” Deforestation by local people was in any case only one of the threats to the environment. Kalikasan-Philippine Network for the Environment (Kalikasan-PNE), the local partner-organization of Global Witness, said that in its own count, under the Duterte administration – or from June 2016 to September 2017 – there had already been at least 23 environment-related killings. “Most of the victims, or 70 percent, were indigenous peoples and peasants, while 78 percent of the reported incidents involved communities and organizations opposing large-scale mining and agricultural plantation projects,” Kalikasan-PNE said, holding businesses and the state responsible for these killings.(5)

Indeed, about 61 percent of the suspected perpetrators of the killings under the Duterte administration are from the military, paramilitary, and police forces, Kalikasan-PNE said. For this reason the coalition adamantly rejected Cimatu’s proposal to arm forest guards which "is a chilling throwback to his ‘Task Force Lumad’ military-paramilitary campaigns in the 90s directed at belligerent indigenous Lumad communities in southern Mindanao”. Kalikasan-PNE urged that instead of arming the forest guards, their  number  should be increased and their salaries and “social protections” augmented as well.(5). Kalikasan recognized the need to stop deforestation in Palawan, whether caused by business or by local people.

Kalikasan's position was similar to that of the Coalition against Land Grabbing and United Tribes of Palawan which in April 28, 2015, said that "recent years have seen an exponential increase in land deals across the Philippines with the conversion of large expanses of land with crops mainly intended for export. Meanwhile, traditional upland farming practices implemented through swidden ('slash-and-burn') technology--known locally as kaingin or more appropriately uma--are demonized and antagonized through restrictive legislation. This is despite the fact that the latter fosters local self-sufficiency and plays a fundamental role in the livelihoods and worldviews of Indigenous societies. Palawan, known as the "Philippine last Frontier", in spite of its unique recognition as a UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve, has not been spared from massive investments in extractive resources and industrial agriculture, especially oil palm and rubber. And yet, Indigenous Peoples and upland dwellers continue to be blamed for causing massive deforestation and ecological disaster." (8).

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Combatting deforestation in Palawan, Philippines
State or province:Palawan
Location of conflict:El Nido
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Deforestation
Establishment of reserves/national parks
Specific commodities:Timber

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Bobby Chan is an environmental lawyer who created over twenty years ago the Palawan NGO Network Inc., PNNI. Some of its officers have been killed or wounded by so-called "timber poachers". There is illegal logging in Palawan. There is a debate on its causes. The government takes the position that conservation should be militarized, while some environmental organizations dispute this view. The present head of the DENP, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in 2017, seeks help of the Army and the police to combat logging.(8). The WESCOM (Army's western command) will help the DENR conduct regular aerial patrol and strengthen joint operations against timber poachers, illegal loggers and kaingeros (swidden farmers). (9). Other environmental NGOs dispute the plans for a "militarization of forest protection".

Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:1995
Relevant government actors:DENR, Dpt of Environment and Natural Resources
Palawan Council for Sustainable Development
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Kalikasan (People's Network for the Environment).
Palawan NGO Network Inc.,PNNI, the umbrella group of nongovernment organizations in the province.

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Involvement of national and international NGOs


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Land dispossession
Potential: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
"Militarization of conservation"
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Deforestation by business or by local people continues to take place in Palawan. Forest protection agents are encouraged to use violence against "timber poachers". Environmental NGOs do not approve of this "militarization of conservation".

Sources & Materials

4.-Aux Philippines, ils risquent leur vie pour sauver la forêt. La Croix (avec AFP) , 07/12/2017

6.- Mining not biggest environmental issue anymore in Palawan – PNNI’s Exec. Feb 6, 2017 Catherine Santos. Palawan News


23 September 2017

3.- Philippines a global hotspot for environmental murders. December 6, 2017 by Karl Malakunas

5.- DENR mulls arming forest rangers. Jaymee T. Gamil. Philippine Daily Inquirer / September 30, 2017

Read more:

Follow us: @inquirerdotnet on Twitter | inquirerdotnet on Facebook

8.-SHOULD WE ARM FORESTERS? | As loggers attack another environment officer, Cimatu seeks help of AFP, PNP. By News5-InterAksyon, September 24, 2017

7.- Cimatu honors slain forest warrior. Manila Times24 Sep 2017. NEIL A. ALCOBER

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

1.- How the ‘sacred forests’ of Palawan maintain balance between man and nature. June 9, 2017 By Timothy Walker

10.-Wounded forester receives top DENR honors on National Heroes Day (28 Aug. 2017)

2.- Two suspects charged in El Nido barangay captain killing. Sep 20, 2017 Hanna Camella Talabucon. Palawan News.

VIDEO on Ruben Arzaga[video]

Includes video on Ruben Arzaga)


Other comments:"Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu is studying the possibility of arming environmental protectors with guns after two attacks on environmental enforcers in Palawan. But the Kalikasan- Philippine Network for the Environment ( Kalikasan- PNE), opposed Cimatu’s proposal, saying armed forest guards can be transformed into paramilitary groups to harass and repress local communities. But Cimatu, a former military chief, said the Department of Environment and Natural Resources will seek military and police assistance in training foresters on firearms and security protocols." Philippine Daily Inquirer1 Oct 2017By Jaymee T. Gamil

Meta information

Last update12/12/2017
Conflict ID:3205



DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu