The town of Paete has long been associated with its tradition of producing wooden Catholic statues called santo (saint). This small lakeside town in Laguna has produced several artists including Justinio “Paloy” Cagayat Jr. who sculpted the official image of San Pedro Calungsod, the second canonized Filipino saint.
While the Calungsod statue fits right in the mold of what a woodcarver in Paete generally produces, Cagayat has also worked beyond the set norms by dabbling in non-religious art. One of his more mainstream works was when he was commissioned to create the titular statue in the 1990 film Machete and its sequel in 1994. The two movies were produced by Seiko Films which was known for making bomba films, or movies that depicted softcore sexual scenes.
While completely different in design and objectives, the Calungsod image and the two Machete statues are united by two aspects–they are created by the same set of artistic hands and are carved with the same wood. Cagayat primarily sculpts using the wood of a native tree called batikuling (Litsea leytensis).
However, acquiring this wood for carving has become extremely hard. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) classifies batikuling as “endangered”. When an intense monsoon in January 2011 led to the death of around 50 people, former President Benigno Aquino implemented a national ban prohibiting logging on all “natural and residual forests”, which refers to forests composed of indigenous species and were not planted by people. Other restrictions to logging have also affected Cagayat’s sourcing of wood since the 90s.
While logging bans would have allowed the country to protect its forests while mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration, these restrictions have become problematic for woodcarvers who needed batikuling. To deal with the impact of wood scarcity on his business, Cagayat has become the sole woodcarver of Paete to plant and grow this endangered tree.
Batikuling is only accessible through illegal logging
Cagayat said that there are other options for woodcarving such as santol, marang, acacia, narra, mango, kamagong, and maulawin. Despite these alternatives, the softness of batikuling has made it the most effective medium for santo-makers in Paete.
The suitability of batikuling for woodcarving creates a continuing demand, which allows illegal loggers to thrive in business, as admitted by several people from Paete. In fact, illegal logging is the only way to acquire the batikuling in Paete, with carabao loggers or small-scale poachers coming all the way from Quezon Province. Other than this region, batikuling can also be found in Bataan, Sorsogon, Negros, and Leyte, but woodcarvers from Paete source their wood from nearby sources.
When business was livelier in Paete, Cagayat utilized about 10,000 board feet of batikuling each year. With all the restrictions on logging, he now only gets to buy around 2,000 to 3,000 board feet of batikuling wood each year, which he noted required around 10 mature batikuling trees.
With scarcity also comes the inflation of prices. Due to years of various logging bans, Paloy said that a board foot of batikuling now costs P40 to P60 compared to just P10 to P20 when he was younger. Other woodcarvers who cannot afford batikuling use the wood of santol and marang, which are more easily available at P20 to P30 per board foot, but these are less soft than batikuling.
Former Paete mayor Rojilyn “Mutuk ” Bagabaldo, who was in office from 2013 to 2022, admitted to these issues.
“The problem is that if we rely on illegal loggers, development would be limited,” he said in an interview. “If we only have a consistent supply of wood, woodcarvers could accept more job orders.”
Bagabaldo said that there have been several attempts to request the national government to exempt Paete from the logging ban. None of them succeeded.
“When our request goes to Malacañang [presidential office], they would tell us to coordinate with them to acquire confiscated wood,” Mutuk said, adding that another suggestion given to them was to simply import wood.
The irony of the situation is not lost to Cagayat, who believed that the worst part about the issue is that the national government even declared Paete as the country’s carving capital in 2005.
Bitter and disappointed, he commented, “Carving capital? But we don’t have anything to carve. What a joke!”
Challenged by various bans over the years, he acquired his initial planting material in 2010 from illegal loggers who supplied him with wild seedlings. He initially replanted the seedlings on his in-law’s property and then continued to plant on his own property in Sitio Gumihan after two years. Today, Cagayat estimates about 800 batikuling have started growing on his property.
Cagayat believes that his farm would not only provide wood for him, but also for the rest of his community, given the scarcity of batikuling wood.
Cloning technology allows expedited propagation of threatened plants
Former mayor Bagabaldo also initiated a batikuling propagation project when he became Paete’s mayor in 2013. The local government of Paete signed two memorandums of agreement in 2018 and 2019 with Southern Luzon State University (SLSU) in Lucban, Quezon, that supplied them with quality planting material.
SLSU houses a clonal nursery, which came about as a result of the National Greening Program, a national reforestation initiative that was implemented alongside the 2011 logging ban. Through the facility, the university is able to produce planting material via clonal propagation, a technique where plants are regrown by using chemically-enhanced stem cuttings. This method is helpful in expediting the propagation of endangered species that may have limited reproductive years.
According to a publication of the Ecosystems Research and Development Bureau (ERDB), batikuling flowers only from May to June while its fruit reach maturity between August and September.
With clonal propagation, cuttings can be taken at any time of the year. This is especially timely as the impact of climate change shifts the onset of flowering for many plants across the globe, making the process more erratic.
Kathreena Engay-Gutierrez, the former project leader of SLSU’s clonal nursery said that they maintain a hedge garden in the clonal facility. The garden is an on-site source of genetically identical cuttings which the foresters harvest and treat with root-inducing chemical solutions before they are planted.
Paete and SLSU’s partnership led to the creation of a demo farm in Sitio Gumihan in 2018. According to a 2019 accomplishment report, the partnership resulted in around 4,000 batikuling trees planted in Gumihan park. Gutierrez said that no additional reports have been made due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The demo farm eventually became an agri-ecotourism destination through the help of Laguna State Polytechnic University (LSPU) which had a satellite campus in the nearby town of Siniloan.
Photos from the past years showed Gumihan park as a tourism destination featuring agricultural components alongside amenities such as a swimming pool, lodges, and stations for artists. But in its current state, the park is mostly unmaintained with overgrown grass. A clonal nursery, where batikuling seedlings used to be produced, is no longer being used and now only houses stunted seedlings. The amenities are also dilapidating, with a viewing platform and treehouse no longer safe for the public to use.
Paete mayor seeks continuation of batikuling propagation
While Paete Mayor Ronald “Bokwet” Cosico, who was sworn into office in June 2022, admitted having cast aside Gumihan park in the previous months, he said he actually wanted to continue the propagation of batikuling and even expand the project to the Sitio Papatihan and Tubog. Gutierrez confirmed that Cosico had already expressed that they want to continue their partnership.
Cisco explained that he too had been a proponent of batikuling propagation when he was a counselor during the administration of former mayor Emmanuel Cadayona, Bagabaldo’s predecessor. During Cadayona’s term, there were efforts to propagate batikuling using marcotting, which is a technique that utilizes existing branches to produce planting materials. It involves shedding the skin of a portion of a branch and layering the exposed part with soil. Once the exposed portion takes root in the soil, the branch is sawed off and replanted, allowing the reproduction of the plant any time of the year instead of waiting for a plant to bear fruit.
Cosico added that they had planted several batikuling on the property of a businessman-philanthropist.
While Cosico was keen on continuing the propagation of batikuling, he was concerned that the land where Gumihan park sits was privately owned and was just being lent through usufruct rights for 10 years.
“How come it’s just for 10 years?” he said. “The question here is what’s going to happen once the batikuling is ready for harvest? Who’s going to benefit?”
Cosico said he would like the local government to buy the property before continuing the project. As of his last update, he said that the municipal board already authorized him to negotiate with the owner of the property for its purchase.
With Cosico now in charge, the long-term success of the project rests on his next actions. Upon being asked how he planned to ensure the survival of trees, he said that he had been pondering a system to assign families as caretakers of the forest in exchange for government support. He believed that providing people in the mountains with livelihood could discourage them from cutting down trees.
Cagayat also agreed. He said that carabao loggers have continued their work regardless of the logging ban as they are still able to make a profit even though their logs are occasionally confiscated. “Forcing people to stop logging is not the solution,” Cagayat said. “Give them an easier livelihood that would allow them to earn as much as they do from logging.”
Of the loggers Cagayat knew, he said that they only quit logging when their children finished their studies and started to provide for the family.
Elevating the life of people in the mountains to discourage them from illegal logging is integral to solving Paete’s problems as batikuling could take up to 20 to 30 years before it is ready for harvest, according to Guttierez. The propagation of endangered trees like batikuling takes decades, surpassing the term limit of one single mayor. Restoring Paete’s wood supply is therefore an intergenerational effort, a pursuit that requires the common understanding of several people that this is what the country’s carving capital needs.
This story was supported by Climate Tracker and Oxfam.
Photos by Jerome Sagcal