Thursday, July 20, 2006

The State of the Philippines’ Environment

Prefatory Statement

All civilizations have depended on an adequate supply of food, water, and energy. The ancient Greeks considered that the basic elements for life were land that produced food, water that purified and gave health, and fire that provided power for human activities. In their view without food, water and an energy source, there was no viability, either personal or collective in their polis.[1]

Tragically, in the Philippines today, as official reports have showed, the country’s natural resources which sustains and gives life is in serious danger. The clarion calls have to be resounded again and again, no matter what the political costs are.

Since Gloria Arroyo assumed the presidency in 2001, and after five (5) State of the Nation addresses before Congress, there has been no environmental program or policy of national significance included in her state of the nation addresses.

The cause of protecting and conserving the country’s natural resources and the environment for the greater interest of the Filipinos has been sacrificed for a policy of “extraction and exploitation” for short term economic gains which are not sustainable and potentially damaging in the long term.

The constitutional right to a balanced ecology

The immediate response to the demands of the “necessities of protecting vital public interests” gives vitality to the statement on ecology embodied in the Declaration of Principles and State Policies of the 1987 Constitution, Article II, section 16 which provides, “The State shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature.” As a constitutionally guaranteed right of every person, it carries with it the correlative duty of non- impairment. This is but in consonance with the declared policy of the State to protect and promote the right to health of the people and instill health consciousness among them. It is to be borne in mind that that the Philippines is a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Alma Ata Conference Declaration of 1978 which recognizes health as a fundamental human right.[2]

In the case of Minors of the Philippines vs, DENR,,[3] the High Court ruled that, “while the right to a balanced and healthful ecology is to be founded under the Declaration of Principles and State Policies and not under the Bill of Rights, it does not follow that it is less important than any of the civil and political rights enumerated in the latter. Such right belongs to a different category of rights altogether for it concerns nothing less than self-preservation and self-perpetuation, aptly and fittingly stressed by the petitioners-the advancement of which may even be said to predate all governments and constitutions.”

The economic costs and damages

The Philippines is losing P111 billion annually from environment destruction, lost income/opportunity in the fisheries sector and health expenses related to air pollution, according to a World Bank Report.[4]

The World Bank’s Philippine Environment Monitor Report for 2004 stated that,

The costs of environmental degradation are high, where they are quantifiable. For example, mismanagement of fisheries resources is estimated to cost PhP 23 billion (US$ 420 million) annually in lost revenues. The annual economic losses caused by water pollution are estimated at PhP 67 billion (US$ 1.3 billion) and the increased health costs of exposure to air pollution (particulate matter) in four urban centers alone are estimated to be over PhP 21 billion (US$ 400 million). Abandoned mining areas and mercury pollution in water bodies that surround mines remain problematic and unquantified even as the Government encourages new,environmentally-sensitive mining investment.[5]

The country’s deforestation has been described as one of the “ world's most rapid and massive deforestation.”[6]

The World Bank values direct damage caused by disasters between 1970 and 2000 at PhP 15 billion per year.

Besides the environmental and economic impacts, deforestation also means that the dipterocarp forests that have been the world’s primary source of “Philippines mahogany” may eventually disappear. In 1988, costs associated with forest loss were estimated to exceed 800 million pesos. Deforestation also directly and indirectly impacted fishery resources and has been a major factor in the depreciation of upland soils. Losses to these two resources alone were estimated to be approximately 1 billion pesos for 1996 to 1997 only.[7]

Based on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) list, some 38 areas nationwide are prone to frequent landslides and flooding, most of which are located in the heavily denuded forest areas of the country. This situation has caused 80 million Filipinos to suffer from a grossly inadequate and unstable life support system, particularly the 24 million who dwell in the uplands and depend on the forests for food and livelihood.[8]

The Philippines is one of the world’s 18 “mega-diversity countries”, which together account for between 60-70% of global biodiversity. It has been identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a “biodiversity hotspot”, a country where biodiversity is extremely threatened by deforestation, conversion, fragmentation of natural habitats, unregulated trade, and overall low environment quality.

Illegal logging has not ceased, despite the logging-ban imposed in many part of the country. According to a report of Transparency International dated 23 October 1998, during the last 20 years the number of forest concessionaires has numbered 480. And during this period, it is estimated that these concessionaires have amassed US $ 42 Billion in profits, due to very low concession fees and taxes. This system has enriched only a few families while the livelihood of millions of others have been adversely affected by the loss of the forest cover and the displacement of local communities.

According to the World Bank’s Philippine Environment Monitor for 2004, “Coastal resources, especially coral reefs (over 90%) are at high risk, mangroves, and sea-grasses face threats from coastal zone development, expanding aquaculture, and destructive fishing. Mismanagement of fisheries resources is estimated to cost PhP 23 billion, annually in lost revenues. The annual economic losses caused by water pollution are estimated at PhP 67 billion. Abandoned mining areas and mercury pollution in water bodies that surround mines remain problematic and unquantified.”

A USAID (US Agency for International Development) report estimates that the Philippines loses around U$420 million annually in potential revenues due to mismanagement of fisheries resources. Over-fishing alone is estimated to lead to annual losses of about US$ 125 million.

The country's air is also bad.Increased health costs of exposure to air pollution in four urban centers alone are estimated to be over PhP 21 billion. A perception survey on air pollution, conducted in 2001 by the Philippine Information Agency, revealed that more than 72% of Manila’s residents were alarmed by air pollution and 73% said they were not aware that the government was taking any actions to control it.

This Administration’s open and blatant policy on resource extraction is making the situation worst. This can best be seen from its hard sell reliance on “mining” as the tool for economic progress.

According to Haribon Foundation:

A total of 16 Important Bird Areas are threatened by 37 MPSAs (Mineral Production Sharing Agreements). Those with mining claims in these areas include: Zambales Chromite Mineral Reservation, Samar Bauxite Mineral Reservation, Surigao Mineral Reservation and Zamboanga Mineral Reservation.
There are also 35 national conservation priority areas (out of 170) threatened by mining tenements and 32 protected areas that overlap with existing mining tenements. If the mining industry is revitalized an estimated minimum 37% of the remaining forests (as of 1988) will potentially be decimated by mining.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines in a statement of concern in 1998 wrote and warned us that:

The adverse social impact on the affected communities, specially on our indigenous brothers and sisters far outweighs the gains promised by large scale mining operations. Our people living in the mountains and along the affected shorelines can no longer avail of the bounty of nature. Rice fields are devastated and bays rich with sea food become health hazards.[9]

The grim scenario ahead

We live in the period of the greatest extinction of plant and animal species since the extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. The history of life on earth has included at least five periods during which huge numbers of species vanished forever, primarily due to changes in climate and sea level. Some scientists worry that a sixth extinction has begun because of humanity's gross misuse of the earth's resources.

First extinction: End-Ordovician. About 440 million years ago. This was the second-most severe extinction yet discovered. About 85% of all species were wiped out.

Second extinction: Late Devonian. About 365 million years ago. Marine species were particularly hard-hit in an extinction that took place in two waves a million years apart.

Third extinction: End-Permian. About 251 million years ago. With an estimated extinction of 96% of all species, this is the largest mass extinction of all. It dealt a near fatal blow to mammal-like reptiles that had ruled life on land for 80 million years. The dinosaurs stepped into their place as the dominant species.

Fourth extinction: End-Triassic. About 205 million years ago. An estimated 76% of all species, mostly marine creatures, vanished.

Fifth extinction: End-Cretaceous. About 65 million years ago. This is the most famous mass extinction of all because it signaled the end of the dinosaurs, which had dominated the land for 140 million years. Probably between 75% and 80% of all species disappeared during this time.

Sixth extinction? Since 1950 some 600,000 species have disappeared and nearly 40,000 more currently are threatened. The pace of extinction may increase under the weight of human consumption and pollution of natural resources and, with global warming and resulting rising sea levels, take on alarming proportions.

Can we assume that life on earth as we know it can continue no matter what the environmental conditions? Or are we setting the stage for an eventual sixth extinction—our own?

What should be done

Governance and Regulation are the keys to saving the environment. There should be a paradigm shift on how we view the protection and conservation of the environment. Resource extraction as the basis for economic progress should not be the end-all of any economic system.

The DENR’s problem however in the regulation and implementation of environmental laws can be traced to its divided and conflicting mandate of “resource development” and “conservation.” Through the years, DENR has favored resource extraction and sale at the expense of conservation and regulation. This is established by the conflicting policies of the agency on forestry, coastal resource management and urban tree conservation.

Further, the divided and conflicting mandate of the DENR on resource development and conservation requires different skills, training and fundamental differences in philosophies, thus, it often results in lack of focus in programs and policies.

What is needed therefore, is the creation of a separate agency, such as the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be in charge of conservation and regulation of natural resources. During the tenth (10th ) and eleventh (11th ) congress, there was a move for the creation of a National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA). This should be continued.

The enactment of legislation that would provide for a National Land Use Policy is long overdue. Conflicting policies on land use and outdated laws on land classification has led to over lapping jurisdictions and frameworks for development. This has further resulted in the depletion of our forest reserves, and the over-exploitation and excessive withdrawal of our natural resources.

There should also be a deliberate review of the provisions of the Mining Act with the end in view of enacting legislation that, is truly people base.

Other possible legislation that needs to be looked at are:

- The strengthening of the Local Government Units capacity to ensure the protection and conservation of the country’s natural resources;
- The creation of special courts to try and prosecute violations of environmental laws;
- The management of the country’s electronic wastes;
- The development and use of alternative sources of energy;
- The enactment of a comprehensive conservation and protection law on the country’s mangroves; and
- The enactment of legislation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While GMOs offers both opportunity and risk, there is a need for legislation to ensure that the public are well informed of the risks in consuming GMOs. This can be done by requiring that such products be properly labeled and marked accordingly.

[1] Oswaldo De Rivero, “The Myth of Development,” page 160, 2001 ed.
[2] Laguna Lake Development Authority vs. Court of Appeals, GR no.110120, March 16, 1994
[3] GR no.101083, July 30, 1993 (224 SCRA 792)
[4] Philippine Star, July 19, 2005
[5] World Bank “Philippine Environment Monitor” 2004
[6] Haribon Statement, 4 February 2005
[7] Impacts and effectiveness of logging bans in natural forests: Phillipines - Ernesto S. Guiang
[8] Haribon Statement, 4 February 2005
[9] CBCP, “Statement of Concern on the Mining Act of 1995,” 28 February 1998, signed by Archbishop Oscar Cruz (President, CBCP)

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