Francisco Elle constantly sees images of the children he was unable to save. This is why he treks every day with a heavy wicker bag full of new saplings into the heart of the Sierra Madre dense rainforests.
Under a heavy canopy of leaves, his slender form ducks. He rushes along a barely discernible trail to his latest tree planting site, his glasses dangling from the end of his nose. Luckily, he doesn’t trip over any exposed tree roots.
It’s difficult to keep up with him, what with the clouds rolling down the hillside and drizzling rain on the tips of the branches.
Earlier in his life, he made a living by hacking down these ancient trees. After experiencing what he calls “nature’s revenge” in his 50s, he decided to change careers and become a forest ranger instead of an illegal logger.
In December of 2004, Francisco’s village and several others were wiped out by a landslide, killing more than a thousand people.
I witnessed a line of lifeless children lying in the street as their homes were being leveled. No homes remained; even ours had vanished. During one of the few breaks he was willing to take that day, he said, “When I remember the things we did, I feel helpless.”
Does his past make him feel guilty?
Distraught, he averts his gaze. He pauses for a while, then says, “I blame myself.” Perhaps things would be different if I hadn’t been so careless about tree cutting.
Sierra Madre Rescue
Filipinos will tell you that the Sierra Madre is the island of Luzon’s fulcrum. The mountain is seen by some as a mother figure and a guardian by others. Her uneven, rugged peaks, which stretch for more than 500 km (310 miles) from north to south, are believed to protect the 64 million people who live there, including those in the capital Manila, from the worst of the strong typhoons that barrel in from the Pacific Ocean.
Unfortunately, 90% of the original rainforest has been destroyed. The destruction caused by illegal logging, mining, and quarrying is very real. And as the frequency and intensity of storms increases, landslides and flash floods are becoming more common as the forest canopies and tree roots are no longer there to absorb the heavy rains.
Some claim that illegal logging is harmful to the environment, but Marc insists that God intended for us to make use of all the resources around us. He’s in his 50s and he makes a living by illegally harvesting wood for use in building homes and other structures.
Seven years ago, he sold his cow to buy a chainsaw, which he proudly displays. In light of the fact that chainsaws, like firearms, require registration in this country, this tool has become a prized possession.
Authorities will “catch him when he’s dead,” Marc says. In the thick of the forest, he and his wife Grace have built a tiny woven bamboo hut with a corrugated iron roof that defies the laws of physics. Set amongst swaying coconut palms, the structure is perched on a gently sloping hillside.
The last time they placed a significant order was back in March. It took them about a month to finish with help from others, and they made about $300 (£250; 16,500 pesos). There is a middle man issuing the orders. However, it is challenging to transport the wood to them.
Because we are trying to avoid detection by the soldiers and forest rangers, we have to wait until midnight to leave our hiding spot. Two weeks after that, we will receive our paychecks.
Some of the poorest Filipinos rely solely on logging for their livelihood, despite the inherent dangers.
Marc pleads with onlookers, “Don’t get angry at us because we don’t actually want to do this.” Growing food on our farm is the only way we can afford to buy food and other necessities. While some people have the luxury of venting their frustrations by turning to illegal activities, we have no such options.
However, according to Francisco, that doesn’t negate the fact that they must still deal with the disastrous consequences of logging.
Since we had no other means of support, all we cared about was making enough money each day to buy food, and we had no idea what we were doing. The roots of the trees we chopped down would be dug up as well. If there were no large trees left in a forest, we would clear-cut the entire area.
Taking even “just one piece of wood… is one of the greatest sins against nature,” he now thinks.
He sets down his heavy bag of saplings near a running stream and gives orders to a group of Haribon Foundation volunteers, a dozen men and women lugging bags of saplings weighing up to 15 kilogrammes each. Even though some of them are only wearing flip-flops, they manage to climb the muddy bank with ease.
Francisco makes a solemn oath under the tropical rain forest’s boughs that “history will not repeat itself.”
He says, “Right now, flash flooding is our enemy.” “Even I teach my children to plant trees and discourage them from following in the footsteps of those who cut down trees.”
The clouds move down, and the first raindrops fall to the ground. Despite this setback, the volunteers keep on planting.
These seedlings are of the fast-growing narra tree, the national tree of the Philippines.
They anticipate that in ten years this area of the forest will once again be lush with vegetation.