Msgr. Garcia’s religious icons under scrutiny after NatGeo article

Posted on September 26, 2012

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Cebu priest Msgr. Cristobal Garcia will have to explain to environment authorities how he acquired religious icons carved from ivory.

“He has to be able to show that he has a CITES permit from us,” said Mundita Lim, director of the DENR- Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau in Manila.

She was referring to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

She said the only “legal” ivory allowed in the country was the kind that was taken before the convention took effect in 1975.

Garcia drew fire after he was identified in an investigative report in National Geographic Magazine’s October issue “Ivory Worship” as the one who led the writer to contacts of ivory carvers in Manila and who gave advice on how to smuggle ivory icons to the United States.

The priest, who holds a high position in the Cebu Archdiocese as chairman of the commission on worship, also owns one of the biggest collections of religious icons of various materials, particularly of the Sto. Niño, a passion he developed as a boy.

Under the 2001 Wildlife Protection Law or Republic Act No. 9147, “collecting, hunting or possessing wildlife, their by-products and derivatives” is banned and draws a penalty of imprisonment of two years and one day to four years, with a fine of up to P300,000.

Lim was quoted as saying the priest could face a jail term up to four years if he couldn’t explain the origin of his ivory collection.

“Otherwise we will charge him with illegal possession of ivory and illegal trade, if there’s evidence he is also involved in buying and selling,” Lim said in a phone interview with the Inquirer.

She said the public must steer clear of ivory figurines to escape possible prosecution.

However, mere possession of an ivory object is not illegal, said Cebu Regional Trial Court Judge Meinrado Paredes in a separate interview. What is prohibited is smuggling.

Owning a ready-made ivory figurine is not against the law.

“We could not say whether or not Msgr. Cris is liable because we only heard of allegations.  We have to hear his side,” Paredes told Cebu Daily News.

Garcia left for Manila several weeks ago, reportedly to seek medical treatment.

He is believed to be lying low as well to avoid exacerbating the firestorm that broke with the release of the National Geographic report, which also turned criticism on the Catholic Church.

The investigative piece was the result of a two-year research about the illegal ivory trade in several countries, including Thailand, the Philipines and China, wherein the demand for religious icons – by Catholics and Buddhists – was shown to be a driving force in the black market and the slaughter of  African elephants for their tusks.

Another Filipino priest, a certain Father Jay who is  curator of an archdiocese “outside Manila”, was also interviewed  by National Geographic and showed the writer displays of more than 200 Santo Niños, lavishly dresssed and bejewelled.

“Most of the old ivories are heirloooms,” he said., “The new ones are from Africa. They come in through the back door,” referring to Mindanao.

The Vatican is cited in the article as not subject to the ivory ban because it hasn’t signed the CITES even though it has committed itself in agreements to fight organized crime, drug trafficking and terrorism.

With the critical treatment of  the Catholic Church and the conduct of a Cebu priest, Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma said he would issue his response today.

A press conference at 10 a.m. is scheduled in his residence in Cebu City.

“The Philippines’ ivory market is small compared with, say, China’s but it is centuries old and staggeringly obvious,” wrote National Geographic.

“Collectors and dealers share photographs of their ivories on Flicker and Facebook.  CITES, as administrator of the 1989 global ivory ban, is the world’s official organization standing between the slaughter of the 1980s – in which Africa is said to have lost half its elephants, more than 600,000 in just those 10 years – and the extermination of the elephant.”

Lim  of DENR-PAWB said regional environmental officials have launched a probe into the report that Msgr. Garcia had several ivory Sto Niño (Infant Jesus) figures acquired using questionable means.

She said the National Bureau of Investigation would take the lead in filing of formal charges if evidence holds up.

In Cebu, DENR 7 spokesman Eddie Llamedo said “we will expand the investigation to identify how many individuals possess ivory icons, including Msgr. Cris Garcia, and determine the extent of these people’s collection.”

He said they may invite Msgr. Garcia and other owners for a meeting to explain their side.

Lim said the smuggling of elephant tusks only came to the DENR’s attention when shipments were intercepted in 2005 and 2009.  Ivory fetched a price of P1,000 per kilo in 2009, she said.

Of the tusks confiscated by Customs officials that year, 4,681 kilos were placed in the custody of the DENR. But a few months after they were placed in a PAWB storage room, 700 kilos of the tusks were pilfered by a park superintendent at the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center, she said.

“He put PVC pipes so it would appear like the tusks. Fortunately, our inspector looked at them more closely,” Lim said.

The suspect, Medel Eduarte, disappeared after the inspection, and was charged with qualified theft. He also faces grave misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the best interest of the service.  In March 2012, a warrant for Eduarte’s arrest was issued by the court, said Lim.

Lim said it appeared from the NatGeo story that the Philippines was not just a transit point for elephant tusks but also the “main destination” because of the demand for religious icons carved from ivory.

“It’s embarrassing because we have entered into an international commitment to protect wildlife, and it is widely known how endangered elephants now are,” she said.

“In the same way we want to protect the Philippine eagle and our other endangered species, we should be just as mindful of wildlife from other countries, like elephants,” Lim said.

The National Geographic article noted the PAWB’s dilemma.  It said:  ‘Corruption is so bad in the Philippines that in 2006 the wildlife department sued senior customs officers for ‘losing’ several tons of seized ivory.  Chastened, the customs office turned its next big seizure over to the wildlife department which soon discovered that its own  storeroom had been raided.  Piles of tusks had been replaced with exact duplicates made of plastic.”/ Ador Mayol, Jessa Agua and  INQUIRER

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