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Friday, February 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:28 PM

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Illegal logging may have contributed to disaster

The Associated Press

MANILA, Philippines – Weather was the easy target for blame in today's devastating landslide, but survivors also were pointing at illegal logging as a contributing factor.

Heavy rains had pelted the area for two weeks, leaving 27 inches — double the average for the period, said Southern Leyte province Gov. Rosette Lerias.

"The ground has really been soaked because of the rain," Lerias said. "The trees were sliding down upright with the mud."

But officials and residents also blamed illegal logging that started in the 1970s.

"It stopped around 10 years ago," Roger Mercado, a member of Congress who represents the area, told DZBB radio. "But this is the effect of the logging in the past."

Army Capt. Edmund Abella, who joined rescue efforts with about 30 soldiers from his unit, heard similar speculation from survivors. "People are blaming small widespread chain saw logging," he said.

Pat Vendetti, a London-based campaigner with the Greenpeace environmental action group, said illegal logging may prove to have contributed to the mudslide.

"There were similar landslides at the end of 2004 and the end of 2003, both directly linked to illegal logging on land above villages, and both in the Philippines," said Vendetti.

Vendetti said the country had lost about 8.5 million acres of forest in the last 15 years, "roughly equivalent to the size of Belgium." He said that although logging is illegal in the Philippines, a combination of poor governance and corruption has hampered enforcement of the law.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies blamed a combination of the weather and the type of trees prevalent in the area.

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"The remote coastal area of Southern Leyte ... is heavily forested with coconut trees," the Red Cross said from Geneva. "They have shallow roots, which can be easily dislodged after heavy rains, causing the land to become unstable.

Fears of a landslide prompted led local officials to order evacuations of several villages a week ago. But with the rains tapering off and the sun coming out in recent days, many people had started going home to take care of their crops and animals.

It was a deadly mistake.

With a rumble, Mount Guinsaugon sent a wall of boulders and mud cascading down its side, burying the village of Guinsaugon as if it had never existed.

This disaster-prone area is often the target of monsoons, floods and heavy rains.

In 1991, about 6,000 people were killed on Leyte in floods and landslides triggered by a tropical storm. Another 133 people died in floods and mudslides there in 2003.

Last weekend, seven road construction workers died in a landslide after falling into a 150-foot-deep ravine in the mountain town of Sogod on Leyte.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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