ENVIRONMENT groups in Misamis Oriental are urging the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to expedite its probe on the logging operation of Southwood Timber Corporation (STC) in the hinterlands of Claveria town and parts of Gingoog City.

Carl Cesar Rebuta, Cagayan de Oro team leader of the non-government Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center–Kasama sa Kalikasan (LRC-KsK), said that then environment secretary Eleazar Quinto promised the investigation in light of the opposition expressed by various groups on the activities of STC.

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Rebuta said amid widespread protests to its operation, the STC appear undaunted and even stepped up its tree-harvesting activities that potential adverse impact is causing “deep worries among the immediate communities.”

Apart from environment groups, the STC operation is also facing stiff opposition from the Catholic diocese, the Higaonon tribe in the area and the local government of Gingoog.

All of them have called for the cancellation of STC’s Industrial Forest Management Agreement (Ifma), which is the basis for its operation. The call was backed by a petition signed by some 25,000 people in Gingoog City and neighboring towns in Misamis Oriental.

In a February 10 letter to LRC-KsK, Quinto said the probe will be done by an independent team to be commissioned by the DENR.

An earlier DENR press release said the team will be composed of forestry and environmental science experts outside of the agency “to ensure impartiality and transparency in the resolution of the STC case.”

The DENR has said it expects the STC case to test a scheme it has formulated December last year on how to rid its list of errant holders of forest lease contracts.

The DENR notes that the STC was accused of harvesting old-growth trees from identified protection forest inside the firm’s concession area of 11,475.8 hectares that straddles across parts of Gingoog City and Claveria town.

Based on existing forestry policy, trees in 1,000-meter above-sea-level elevations automatically form part of protection forests hence prohibited from being harvested together with those in watershed areas.

According to the DENR, STC’s 25-year lease contract provides that it adopts selective logging in harvesting of the mature and over-mature naturally growing trees within the Ifma area.

But beyond this supposedly technical violation, Rebuta said they are questioning the validity of the Ifma award to STC dated May 23, 2008.

Contrary to what was made known to the DENR, Rebuta said records of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) showed that the STC Ifma does not enjoy the consent of the indigenous people’s community in the area.

Some 8,000 hectares of the Ifma concession of STC lie within the ancestral domain of the Higaonon tribe in Barangay Minalwang, Claveria covering over 18,000 hectares.

The Minalwang Higaonon Tribal Council (Mihitrico) was granted the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) by the National Commission on the Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) last October 9, 2008.

The CADT was finally awarded November 19, 2009. But since 2000, the tribe already held a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim (CADC) covering the same area.

“This shows that the logging permit issued to STC is invalid, and that their existing operation in Barangay Minalwang is illegal,” said Rebuta.

He added that as early as January 2007, key leaders of Mihitrico have signed a manifesto opposing the proposed project.