By Jeannie Javelosa
(reprinted from The Philippine Star)
On a recent trip I took to Palawan, Atty. Bobby Chan—an alternative lawyer—showed us a rather strange collection. There were chainsaws, fish and dolphin spears, homemade shotguns, commercial fishing nets, knives, and hacks. 200 of these items were under lock and key. His collection is a testimony to this courageous advocacy for protecting the rainforests, mangroves, and fishing reserves of Palawan.
Atty. Chan is the dynamic, comic, and courageous head of PNNI or the Palawan NGO Network, Inc. In 1991, mainstream NGOs and people’s organizations (POs) in Palawan formed PNNI, motivated to present a broader NGO consensus that would carry more weight in policy making in Palawan’s various local government units. They also work towards the unity of NGOs and POs to strongly influence the direction of development for Palawan. While community and livelihood development projects are being done, the network actively engages in developmental debate, and sees its role as an advocate of policies that directly benefit the communities and protect the environment.
I met Atty. Chan with my two business partners from ECHOstore as we went there to help build Palawan’s ECHOVillage Store (the first one is already up at 69 Esteban Abada St. in Loyola Heights), a retail store specific to communities funded by the Peace and Equity Foundation’s Partnership and Access Centers (PACs). Atty. Chan now heads the cooperative of the PACs.
How did he start building his strange collection? Atty. Chan and the communities wanted to guard the forests and reserves. Five years ago, he gathered his community members to try to stop illegal loggers and fishermen. He formed groups of men from the communities and aligned with four men of the PNNI as para-law enforcers. Commando-type units were formed. They would secure the perimeter for arms, crawling in the dark surveying illegal loggers and fishermen. Then they would confiscate equipment such as chainsaws, fishhooks, and spears before any illegal activities could be done.
As a team, they did (and continue to do) citizen arrests. Atty. Chan won a landmark case where the judge ruled in his favor, when Atty. Chan was arrested for keeping the items he has confiscated from illegal loggers and fishers in the area. A law dictates that private citizens should not remain in custody of confiscated items. The Department of Energy and Natural Resources wanted him to turn the items over, but everyone knew from real practices that these would be sold back to illegal loggers and a vicious cycle would continue.
While the DENR is tasked to take care of the forests and enforce the security of the area, the government agency has not been that active or successful. Chan said that DENR would only send enforcement at checkpoints after the loggers had already felled the trees.
Atty. Chan’s story with Palawan began as a law student, assigned by the Ateneo Human Rights Center to handle some environmental cases for free. When he passed the Bar in 1995, he decided to go into NGO work, despite invitations to join traditional private law practices in Manila. Supported by the Jesuit teaching “man for others,” Atty. Chan’s decision to become an alternative lawyer focused on the environment is a passion he tries to explain. In the mode of the Jungle Jim, he has never balked at challenges.
Today Atty. Chan and his team are focused on poachers whom they apprehend with Palawan wildlife like parrots, talking myna birds, eagles, bear cats, owls, and hawks.
His vision is to change NGO work, making it more professional. Atty. Chan has also recently assumed the leadership of the Partnership and Access Centers Consortium, Inc. (PACCI) of groups from all over the country whose products are all in the ECHOVillage Store in Esteban Abada, Loyola Heights. Through this, he hopes to be able to open up many ECHOVillage Stores all over the country to help develop markets for livelihood products.
He also talks about information and training programs that will help get his communities towards this professional level. They include alternative tourism, social entrepreneurship, alternative law, climate change affairs, mapping watersheds, tribal affairs to help with dispute and land issues, as well as enforcement programs. He explains that, by making his NGOs move into the wood and bamboo business, they can make use of all their confiscated logs and create furniture from bamboo—a highly renewable and sustainable natural resource. “The natural resources of the community should go back to help support our communities”, he says. He tells us that with Mayor Edward Hagedorn’s full support, they managed to close all the furniture shops in Palawan, as these stores were the bagsakan or dropoff point of the illegal loggers. Mayor Hagedorn is also one with them towards the development of the bamboo industry in the area.
In the hinterland of the Palawan rainforest, DENR personnel balk at patrolling the forest, as they are afraid of malaria. Atty. Chan has caught malaria four times, the latest one wherein he almost died. “They tested a new malaria drug on me, and it was good,” he laughs, as though his brush with death was nothing serious. And he continues to plan the next Jungle Jim enforcement activities in the malaria-infested rainforests. There may be little madness there, but what is clear is that Atty. Chan is committed to serve his communities, and save whatever he can of nature under his control.
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