Of Myths and Truths: The Tragedy in Iligan City

A Maranao legend tells of how Lake Lanao and Agus River, which flows into Iligan Bay, came into being. A powerful sultanate called Mantapoli once ruled the area where the lake is. Its population grew so fast and created such an imbalance that the world was in danger of literally turning upside down. Worried about the looming catastrophe, the Archangel Gabriel reported the problem to Allah. Allah told him to gather all the angels. He then commanded them to scoop out the land of the Mantapoli and transfer it to the center of the earth.

Though now safe from tipping over, the world was faced with another danger. Water from the earth’s interior was rapidly filling the massive hole left by the removal of the land. A deadly flood was impending. Upon the command of Allah, the archangel summoned the Four Winds and ordered them to carve out an outlet through which the water may flow into the sea. The hole became Lake Lanao and the outlet was called Agus River.

The disaster in Iligan City was an ironic twist to this myth. The river supposedly created by God to avert a flood ended up inundating villages and claiming hundreds of lives. The overflow of the Agus and Mandulog Rivers was identified as the source of the flash floods. This time there was no army of angels, no anthropomorphic winds, no divine intervention to stop the catastrophe.

The thousands of logs left by floodwaters were the incriminating evidence of what may have caused the tragedy. Illegal logging is just like the many crimes that happen in this country. Everyone knows about it but nobody seems able to stop it.

A Google search yields a number of press releases about government efforts to curb illegal logging in the two Lanao provinces. It usually involves some ceremonial signing of a memorandum of agreement, formation of some task force with a cumbersome acronym, and a few motherhood statements from a bureaucrat about environmental conservation. The nondescript news item is the first and last time we’ll ever hear of this anti-illegal logging drive. Meanwhile, continued logging activities make a mockery of the imposed total log ban.

In the aftermath of the devastation brought by Sendong, there are again aggressive talks of putting an end to illegal logging and launching reforestation and watershed rehabilitation projects. How these would be different from the failed initiatives of the past, we still don’t know. How do we go beyond the MOA, cumbersome acronym and motherhood statements to pursue an effective implementation of these efforts? How do we ensure that these projects won’t be saddled by the usual bureaucratic shit of red tape, systemic corruption and complete absence of accountability? And how soon can we get our act together before the next disaster strikes?

Unlike in the myths of old, today’s catastrophes are not averted by supernatural acts of gods and angels. We have to do the dirty work ourselves.

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