[PHOTO AT LEFT - A BRIDGE OF LOGS: What used to be a vital link between communities in Real, Quezon now looks like a conveyor belt for illegally cut logs which, along with thick mud, descended on the rural town at the height of tropical depression ‘Winnie’ recently, and left a trail of destruction. - Photo By Revoli Cortez]

MANILA, December 5, 2004 (STAR) By Jose Rodel Clapano - President Arroyo banned all commercial logging nationwide yesterday following the widespread devastation wrought by typhoons "Winnie" and "Yoyong" that are feared to have left more than 1,100 people dead.

Mrs. Arroyo also vowed to have illegal loggers and their coddlers prosecuted and urged Congress to pass stiffer penalties for illegal logging.

"We are determined to make those responsible for widespread death and destruction to pay the price for their misdeeds, and we shall prosecute them the way we do terrorists, kidnappers and drug traffickers and other heinous criminals," she said.

The government estimates the country’s forest cover at seven million hectares. Mrs. Arroyo’s ban would affect 18 timber licensing agreements covering just over 800,000 hectares.

Rescuers continued yesterday to rush aid to nearly a million wet and hungry survivors as improving weather allowed military cargo planes and helicopters to reach more areas of the Pampanga River basin, while Philippine Navy craft laden with aid and heavy equipment headed for the Bicol Region and Quezon province.

The Red Cross estimated that up to 800,000 people may be in need of assistance.

Mrs. Arroyo flew by helicopter to the devastated towns of General Nakar, Infanta and Real in Quezon early yesterday and ordered the suspension of logging permits all over the country.

Mayors reported to Mrs. Arroyo that floods and landslides which hit the three towns amid a storm late Monday have left at least 495 people dead and 508 missing, said Social Welfare Sec. Corazon Soliman, who joined Mrs. Arroyo on the trip.

The toll excludes storm victims from other areas of Luzon as well as the casualties from Yoyong’s fury on Thursday.

The dead and missing from the two weather disturbances total at least 1,100, civil defense officials say.

Officials have blamed widespread logging in the Sierra Madre mountain range for the deluge of mud, logs and boulders that buried Real and nearby areas.

Mrs. Arroyo, her boots muddied after visiting typhoon-ravaged areas near Real, flew in to the town with aides aboard three helicopters and received loud applause from residents in Real, where about 240 people were killed and 144 remained missing.

About 90 percent of the mostly thatch houses in Real, a coastal town of about 40,000 farmers and fishermen, were damaged when floodwaters uprooted trees and sent boulders and debris rampaging down nearby hills that many say have been denuded by loggers.

Reinforcing a widely held belief that years of illegal logging set off the deluge, Mrs. Arroyo told reporters: "I’m canceling all (logging) permits here and suspending issuance of all others."

Mrs. Arroyo shook the hands of elderly women, children and fatigues-clad Army soldiers, telling them: "Congratulations, you are heroes." She later walked into a relief center to help distribute plastic bags of rice and canned sardines, and handed a check for P1 million to Real Mayor Arsenio Ramallosa to fund relief activities.

"If there’s a continuous flow of support, we can make it," said Ramallosa as he supervised the distribution of food and relief goods. "But at the moment, the government’s relief supplies would only be good for three days," he said.

In a meeting of the National Disaster Coordinating Council at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City later in the day, Mrs. Arroyo vowed to put illegal loggers and those "who are abetting the destruction of our forest lands" behind bars.

She urged Congress to pass stiffer penalties but did not say if she would support a proposal to impose the death penalty on illegal logging.

One bill pending in Congress proposes a 25-year ban on commercial logging. Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. earlier asked Mrs. Arroyo to certify bills seeking a logging ban as "urgent."

Pimentel urged Senate President Franklin Drilon and Speakers Jose de Venecia Jr. to direct the environment committees of their respective legislatures to immediately conduct hearings on the proposed commercial logging ban.

"Unless the government implements a total log ban, we will continue to lose more of our already thinning forests, and the horrible tragedies in Aurora and Quezon this year and in Ormoc, Leyte, in 1991 due to flashfloods and landslides are bound to be repeated," Pimentel said.

Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay believes "a total log ban will not address the issue of illegal logging, which is just one factor in the rape of our forests."

"The immediate concern is for our authorities to go after big-time illegal loggers, their coddlers and bring them to justice," he said.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources should immediately get to work with the anti-illegal logging task force, formed by Mrs. Arroyo and headed by former military intelligence chief Victor Corpus, Pichay said.

Bukidnon Rep. Juan Miguel Zubiri urged a revamp of military and police personnel manning checkpoints set up to stop the transport of illegally cut logs.

Bulacan Rep. Lorna Silverio and Isabela Rep. Edwin Uy said a reshuffle would prevent checkpoint personnel "from conniving with illegal loggers and unscrupulous environment officials."

Help From Abroad

Clearing skies yesterday allowed a military cargo plane and a second civilian aircraft were ferrying tons of food, bottled water, clothes, tents and bedding to the Fort Magsaysay army base in Laur, Nueva Ecija, the Philippine Air Force said.

From there, at least seven helicopters are delivering the aid to flood-stricken communities of central Luzon as well as to Real and nearby towns. The same aircraft were evacuating the sick and injured to hospitals.

Military aircraft from Mactan Air Base in Cebu were flying similar sorties to Bicol, the Air Force said.

"We will continue performing this mission while there is enough daylight," said Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Restituto Padilla.

He said military engineers have also reopened debris-blocked roads on the western slopes of the Sierra Madre, and three military trucks were on their way to the town of Dingalan in Aurora that has been hard hit by landslides.

"There are still injured and ailing people who require a medical evacuation," Soliman said.

"Up to now, Infanta, Real and General Nakar are accessible only by helicopter. Some of the relief goods have reached the town centers. Our next challenge is to take the relief goods to the survivors stranded in the outlying villages," she said.

Soliman said military units marching through the mud and debris were taking some of the assistance to isolated hamlets.

Millions of dollars in relief aid was also pouring in from foreign governments and international aid organizations.

In Brussels, the European Union’s executive arm on Friday released a million euros ($1.3 million) in emergency aid for the Philippines.

"In situations like this, it is our duty to respond immediately," EU aid commissioner Louis Michel said, while adding that a commission relief official has been sent to survey longer-term needs.

Belgium pledged 30,000 euros for relief efforts, Germany 50,000 euros and Spain donated P4.2 million.

Australia contributed half a million Australian dollars ($387,000), the United States pledged $100,000 and Japan offered 28 million yen ($280,000).

Tokyo will dispatch a mission to Manila tomorrow to assess further aid requirements, while various United Nations agencies will provide emergency funding. — With reports from Delon Porcalla, Christina Mendez, Sandy Araneta, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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