The earth’s last remaining forest cover cleans the air we breathe, purifies water systems, provides habitat for plants and animals, and even helps slow down climate change by removing heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
It benefits everyone, but what happens if trees are indiscriminately cut for the high-value wood, if the most profitable minerals underground are excavated, and if clearings are made to pave the way for farming or livestock, income-generating structures, or road networks?
According to the Forest Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Philippines’ original forest cover in the 1900s was an expansive 21 million hectares, or 70% of the country’s total land area.
That forest cover continues to shrink to just around 7 million hectares today (less than 24% of the original), and certain individuals and families as well as corporations have become wealthy and influential as a result. A number have become more powerful with their election to local and national positions, further insulating their businesses from critics.
It’s a risky job for forest protectors in the province of Palawan, as demonstrated by a nongovernment organization and environment crusaders and vigilantes operating in and around the town of El Nido who are featured in the multiawarded documentary “Delikado.” In Filipino, the title means “dangerous.”
The 94-minute film, which was shown in a special screening last week at the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry Innovation Center at Double Dragon Meridian Park in Pasay City, has won the 2022 Green Spike award at the Seminci Valladolid International Film Festival (Spain) and the 2022 Sustainable Future Award, and was a finalist for Best Australian Documentary at the 69th Sydney Film Festival (Australia).
Released in 2022, it was on the official selection for the Doc Edge Film Festival (New Zealand), Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, 2022 New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival, and Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. It was also a nominee for the Tim Herrington Award at the Sheffield Doc Fest 2022 (England).
Filming for the documentary started in 2017, but the idea was hatched much earlier, as its Australian director, former journalist Karl Malakunas, recounted in the film’s website (www.delikadofilm.com).
Malakunas, then the Manila bureau chief of Agence France-Presse, said that as he was about to travel to Palawan in 2011 to write an article on ecotourism, he learned that his contact for the story, environment campaigner Dr. Gerry Ortega, had been shot and killed.
He went ahead with the trip, but this time to investigate Ortega’s murder.
What he discovered, Malakunas said, was that the seemingly idyllic island was under threat by powerful people who should have been protecting it. He also found a small group of people putting their lives on the line in trying to stop the destruction of the largest forest cover among all Philippine provinces, with a high biodiversity of more than 400 wildlife species, many of them endemic.
The film begins with Robert “Bobby” Chan, an environment lawyer who runs the Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI) headquartered in Puerto Princesa City. Chan leads a small group of volunteers who patrol the forest in search of illegal loggers, not to arrest them but to confiscate their chainsaws and, in many instances, their weapons. Sometimes, the volunteers also go on sea patrol to look for fishermen engaged in illegal fishing; they confiscate the boat of the offenders as well as their illegal fishing implements.
The PNNI volunteers are all unarmed, Chan says. Nevertheless, he says, since 2009 they have been able to confiscate more than 700 chainsaws along with a number of dynamite fishing boats and mining equipment. His team could only remind the offenders of their illegal activities, having no police power to arrest them, he says.
At one point Chan constructed a tree sculpture made of confiscated chainsaws in front of the PNNI headquarters.
He explains: “My men were hiking barefoot into the rain forest, just trying to confiscate chainsaws from illegal loggers. We used to return those chainsaws to the government, only to see them back in use a few weeks later. So, we started collecting them instead… In Palawan, many people are being killed for being a land defender. Putting up the chainsaw sculpture is a statement to the authorities [who condone the illegal activities], to show that we are not afraid, and willing to stand up to them. This sculpture is also a symbol to everyone on the island that they shouldn’t be afraid either.”
Soon after the exhibition of “Delikado” last year, the sculpture was dismantled and he was declared persona non grata by the province, Chan says.
“Delikado” also follows El Nido Mayor Nieves Rosento, a passionate antilogging advocate who was seeking reelection. Then President Rodrigo Duterte vowed on national television that he would kill her, being supposedly included among 46 local government officials with alleged links to the illegal drug trade. In one TV clip, as though flexing muscle, Duterte referred to Palawan Gov. Jose Pepito Alvarez as “my cousin” and thanked the billionaire governor for raising funds for his presidential campaign in 2016.
With Rosento’s name included in the “narco list” made public two months before the midterm elections on May 13, 2019, the local police force tailed her during the campaign, Duterte provided no evidence for the accusations of illegal drug trafficking and Rosento was never charged with the supposed crime. But she lost her bid for reelection as mayor of El Nido.
But Rosento “continued her fight despite not being in the government for three years,” according to Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, one of the film’s producers. She ran again in the 2022 elections, and won a seat in the provincial board.
In the film’s website, Malakunas explains that “Delikado” was filmed “with the intention of it being an intimate thriller about the lives of the land defenders, to ensure that audiences feel an emotional connection with the characters while learning about extremely compelling social and environmental issues.”
Indeed, death would again claim one PNNI volunteer. On Sept. 14, 2017, while on reconnaissance for suspected illegal loggers on the forested mountains around his hometown of El Nido, “Kap” Ruben Arzaga was shot dead.
Arzaga’s colleague, Efren “Tata” Balladares, a former logger and former paramilitary leader who is regarded as team leader of PNNI’s para-enforcers, laments that their work should be the work of the government but it is not doing its job, and wonders who will stop illegal logging if they themselves will not: “Trabaho ito ng gobyerno, pero wala silang ginagawa. Sino pipigil nito kung wala kami dito?”
Before Arzaga, 11 PNNI para-enforcers had been murdered since 2001. “People see Palawan as a nice tourist destination. But inside, it’s eating itself up,” Chan says in the film.
In remarks after the film showing, Magsanoc-Alikpala said: “Nothing will faze these environmental activists.”
While Chan has been declared persona non grata and cannot enter Palawan, he now runs the PNNI from his base in Manila, she said, adding: “He continues to raise funds while making sure his volunteers are continuously patrolling the forest. … Nothing has changed, as all the people featured in this film continue their fight. They still experience threats especially now that the film is out.”
Magsanoc-Alikpala is a broadcast journalist and the filmmaker behind the martial law documentaries “Batas Militar” and “11,103.” She said “Delikado” had made the rounds of the international film-festival circuit (in more than 20 countries) and been viewed by select audiences in the country, including those who attended the closing of the 18th Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival in 2022.
Last week’s showing was organized by members of the Museum Volunteers of the Philippines, Dakila-Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism, and Active Vista (an institution established by Dakila). For Magsanoc-Alikpala, nothing would be more rewarding than to have the film shown in Palawan. “But as the title says, it’s delikado at this time,” she said.