ENVIRONMENT

In conversation: Real-life ‘Chainsaw Man,’ Bobby Chan

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We talk to the actual Chainsaw Man of the Philippines, Bobby Chan, a nickname he earned due to the nature of his job — collecting chainsaws and other illegal logging and poaching equipment. Photo from DELIKADO FILM

Meet Bobby Chan, better known as the infamous Chainsaw Man of Palawan Island. Chan is an environmental lawyer who heads the Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI) as executive director.

He is the main subject of the 2022 documentary “Delikado” by director Karl Malakunas. The documentary tackles the frustrating efforts of eco-enforcement by Chan’s team as well as the lives of El Nido’s mayor Nieves Rosento and PNNI’s enforcer Tata Balladares on Palawan Island, the Philippine’s Last Frontier for natural species.

READ: Watch a documentary about the dangerous lives led by Filipino land defenders

CNN Philippines Life caught up with him recently, as he reflected on the success of the film, and how his work has proceeded since he was declared persona non grata in Palawan by the Provincial Board from January 2021.

Bobby Chan is an environmental lawyer who heads the Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI) as executive director. Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

I understand the [more than] 700 chainsaws you have were all confiscated in 2021. How are things with the organization, your enforcers, now? And what's your work day like since you've been based in Manila?

[Our chainsaws] are still in the custody of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, an agency under the Office of the President. I understand now why they had to take them because anybody who visits the office automatically asks “What is the government doing?” if [PNNI] got these chainsaws and illegal fishing boats. But instead of being threatened by us, they should treat us as partners because we help them do their job.

As for me, ever since being declared persona non grata, I meet my staff through Zoom every day, save for the times they are on operations. The threats have increased and it’s best to manage my team by being based in Manila.

Dado Coroña is now running the [enforcement] team, as Tata [Balladeres] is now retired and has chosen the well-deserved life of farming.

“Delikado” has become a success on the indie film festival circuit. Looking back, did you expect the film to get this kind of reception?

I always knew it would be big because it's not your ordinary environmental story of protecting the forest. I mean how many people do you know in this field who go barefoot in the forests to catch chainsaws and brave the ocean cold to confiscate dynamite fishing boats?

My only mixed feeling is that we had to get praises for it when several of our friends have died doing it.

Has a difference been felt on the finance level for PNNI since the docu has been released and now made the festival rounds?

Sorry, but all I can say is there were a lot of handshakes and selfies, but no (significant) funds. Sigh. Must be the pandemic.

But anyway, what was utmost on our list was to promote the idea that ordinary or poor people can do extraordinary deeds, so we who have the benefit of education and money in the bank have to step up and do our share. Money was always an ancillary objective. We had survived on providence this long so we're quite confident that God will give us each day our daily bread.

Of the collected chainsaws, Chan says, "[Our chainsaws] are still in the custody of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, an agency under the Office of the President. I understand now why they had to take them because anybody who visits the office automatically asks 'What is the government doing?'" Photo by KARL R. DE MESA

You’ve claimed that the main struggles surrounding PNNI’s frustrations can be summed up as pride.

The general rule is that many of our leaders and those who hold positions of interest and resource, are full of pride. They will not support an idea that is not theirs. And worse, they will prevent it from flourishing in order to promote their own and/or themselves. Their motive is recognition, not saving a resource, much less resolving an issue.

What people in power and position should understand is that our affairs should not be governed by doing what is right, but by grace. Because Biblically if an act is of man, it will not last, but if its origins are of God, then you cannot stop it.

The enforcers walking through the drone shots of deforested vistas was pretty compelling. Did you have a favorite moment in the film?

Believe it or not, it was the singing karaoke with my staff that takes first place. There is no joy close enough to the feeling of singing with your men right after catching a chainsaw or celebrating a birthday. These shared moments of soulness, where no one is an executive director nor para-enforcer, is healing. And I miss it.

Are you hopeful that this documentary and the attention behind it can be a game changer for any next steps you need to execute, like maybe getting your persona non grata situation overturned?

It's not that simple to go back, especially when we got video evidence of a plot to plant firearms on my person. Or a plan to file charges of sedition and rebellion. More so when money used for bail or surety bonds can be used for operations and community reports. But you are right, I am hopeful. And more trusting in Him.

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