Philippines government takes over Chinese-owned resort in illegal logging case

The main beach of the resort, now desolate, which investigators said was man-made with illegally quarried sand taken from other islands around Culion

CULION, Palawan-The provincial government of Palawan on Friday took over the facilities of a Chinese-owned luxury resort on an island here that has been embroiled in an illegal logging controversy.

The Sunlight Ecotourism Resort was already closed to tourists when a team of law enforcers served on Friday two new search warrants issued by the Palawan Regional Trial Court (RTC).

The resort occupies the entire 18-hectare Naglayan Island, which is 15 minutes by speed boat from the main town of Culion in northern Palawan.

Supt. Benjamin C. Acorda Jr., the provincial police chief, said police would conduct an inventory in the resort and check which facilities had been built using illegal lumber.

The team that served the search warrant was composed of members of the Philippine National Police in Palawan led by Acorda, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the provincial government.

Authorities earlier expressed concern over the volume of illegal wood used in the resort, including the construction of its artificial white sand beaches over what used to be mangrove swamps.

Acorda said authorities need more time to conduct a full inventory as there are over 100 beach cottages and land-based structures in the island-resort.

"We hope to finish marking these structures within a week because we need to return the warrant to the court," Acorda told the Inquirer.

Personnel from the provincial environment office had earlier confiscated an estimated 100,000 board feet of banned species of lumber in the resort's stockyard.

When police arrived on Friday, only resort employees were on the island. They declined to receive the search warrants, saying it was the advice of the resort's lawyers.

They also declined to open the cottages and buildings, claiming that keys to the facilities had been sent to their head office in Manila.

"They are opening themselves to additional cases like obstruction of justice," said provincial legal officer Teodoro Matta, who represented the provincial government in the raiding team.

Acorda said they will start inspecting facilities that are unlocked and give the resort owners a chance to co-operate, "otherwise we will be forced to break into those structures."

Most of the buildings and cottages in the resort were built using wood from ipil, narra, mangrove and other trees that are protected by law against logging, according to some of the law enforcers.

Gil Acosta Jr., assistant provincial legal officer, said authorities are also conducting an inventory of illegal quarrying materials that the resort used on its man-made beaches.

The police and the provincial environmental enforcement arm, Bantayan Palawan, raided the resort on March 12.

Teodoro Jose Matta, assistant provincial legal counsel who led an ocular inspection of the resort, earlier said the lumber seized from the property was "the single biggest illegal logging apprehension we've had in Palawan in recent years."

Gov. Jose Alvarez said at least 553 trees must have been cut down, given the estimated 100,000 board feet of lumber confiscated.