Friday, November 25, 2005

The False Objectivity of “Balance”

From Real Climate

"We here at RC continue to be disappointed with the tendency for some journalistic outlets to favor so-called "balance" over accuracy in their treatment of politically-controversial scientific issues such as global climate change. While giving equal coverage to two opposing sides may seem appropriate in political discourse, it is manifestly inappropriate in discussions of science, where objective truths exist. In the case of climate change, a clear consensus exists among mainstream researchers that human influences on climate are already detectable, and that potentially far more substantial changes are likely to take place in the future if we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates. There are only a handful of "contrarian" climate scientists who continue to dispute that consensus. To give these contrarians equal time or space in public discourse on climate change out of a sense of need for journalistic "balance" is as indefensible as, say, granting the Flat Earth Society an equal say with NASA in the design of a new space satellite. It's plainly inappropriate. But it stubbornly persists nonetheless."

Monday, November 21, 2005

The height of obfuscation

When government people here in the Philippines utter a word or two, the important thing to remember is that they don't actually mean what they say. Well, at least for many powerful people in government, most of the time. As Arundhati Roy cleverly puts it, they use words to mask intent. At the height of this craft of obfuscation, their words could even take on exactly the opposite meaning. For instance, "logging moratorium" or "total log ban" from the mouth of entertainer extraordinaire DENR Secretary Mike Defensor could really mean allowing the cutting of trees only by a select few. Usually, only by those from whom some economic or political favors can be gained. This appears to be the case with the recent lifting of the logging ban imposed on Senator Juan Ponce Enrile's firm in Samar. And I wouldn't be surprised if this is also true with the other six (or was it eight?) logging permits approved by the DENR in August 2005 alone, in direct contravention of government's supposed total log ban policy. This policy of a nationwide logging moratorium was said to have been reached by our conscientious public servants in view of the numerous killer landslides and floodings in recent years.

An observation by Haribon Foundation, a conservationist organization in the country, summarizes it well: recent actions by the DENR appear to have negated whatever benefits gained from the declared total log ban. In the first place, I really doubt if the department was able to implement such policy on the ground. I've heard of logging operations continuing even in so-called "protected areas", right under their noses so to speak (DENR is supposed to be represented in the Protected Area Management Board). I can sympathize with committed Protected Area Superintendents (PASUs) who complain of lack of resources to protect the forests. But what really amazes me are these DENR provincial or municipal environment and natural resources officers (PENROs or MENROs) who love to boast about their recent catch of illegally cut logs. I think that's something to be concerned about guys, not something to be proud of. It only means your "work" of sitting all day long in your comfortable airconditioned offices or attending all those multisectoral meetings is not getting your main job done which is to protect those trees. (And in case you still don't get it, protecting those trees means preventing them from being cut.)

Friday, November 18, 2005

When is the right time?

In a recent article by the iNQUIRER, the Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is still not moving a finger to close the mining operation because it was a first violation, when will we know when is the right time then?

LEGAZPI CITY—A regional environment official yesterday continued to defend a mining firm that had leaked toxic waste into the waters of Rapu-rapu, Albay, saying it won’t be shut down because it committed only one violation—failure to contain excess effluents that led to the breaching of its tailings pond.

Reynulfo Juan, Mines and Geosciences Bureau regional director, said while his office welcomed calls for the closure of Lafayette Philippines Inc.’s operations in Rapu-rapu, he saw no reason to do so.
read the complete article here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Managing protected areas

The controversy surrounding the re-opening of Senator Juan Ponce Enrile's logging concession in Samar island in the Philippines has once again raised the issue of people's participation in the management of natural resources and how serious the government really is in implementing this policy. On the one hand, there is the recent legal move by provincial officials in Samar challenging the decisions of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Mike Defensor to lift the logging moratorium and extend Senator Enrile's logging permit by 16 years. According to these local officials, Secretary Defensor failed to comply with the provision of the 1991 Local Government Code making proper consultation with communities and local governments mandatory for any project or activity that could impact on people's lives. On the other hand, Senator Enrile's logging concession lies within a protected area, the Samar Island Natural Park. Based on the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act governing the establishment and management of such areas, decisions on any activity within the park would have to be made by a Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) where local government units, civil society groups, communities and other stakeholders are represented. In the PAMB, DENR has only one vote.

I remember confronting the dilemma of participation in relation to the management of protected areas in the Philippines when I was preparing my special problem at the University of the Philippines Open University. I was in the process then of critically examining the various laws and policies bearing on the management of the Mt. Isarog National Park in Camarines Sur province. At the end of my analysis, I intended to outline some recommendations towards improving the existing policy framework. And with regard to the NIPAS Act, I encountered one interesting problem: you have a national policy encouraging local and community participation while still giving DENR much operational roles and functions within the management setup. This is actually where my personal problem with the term "co-management" comes in. Co-management speaks only of who should be there in the management bodies without saying much about how large each stakeholder's role should be. In writing my special problem, my thinking straddled on two related tracks. On the one hand, "participation" ultimately means giving more management role to target groups inasmuch as it also implies building people's capacities to be able to participate effectively in the management process. Thus, I thought the policy on protected areas should have provided for a progressive process whereby community groups and local governments would take on more management responsibilities as the DENR's role decreases through the years. This was not happening on the ground.

On the other hand, I kept thinking again about the context. And the context of having that provision about participation in your national policy for protected areas is precisely the absence of such process in the past. In the past, we had all these national parks established under various acts by the Philippine Commonwealth government wherein the guiding idea was to set aside all these areas mainly for recreational and preservation purposes. Management remained with government and irresponsible use of natural resources within such parks, especially by influential and powerful people, continued. This system failed to arrest environmental degradation and destruction within national parks. And the principle of participation in the new NIPAS Act was also in recognition of the lesson that conservation goals would amount to nothing if people who use natural resources within these parks, particularly marginalized farmers and indigenous folks, don't have any role in protection efforts. Thus, when a member of the panel during the special problem presentation asked me whether I thought there was a need to establish other bodies apart from the PAMB to ensure participation, I said there wouldn't be any need for that. If only we could push the principle of participation embedded in the law through its logical course -- that is, transferring policy-making and day-to-day management of protected areas from the DENR to local communities and groups.

The way Secretary Mike Defensor is acting at present, we're a long way off from such process.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Believing in a green future

John Elkington is the cofounder and chair of SustainAbility, an independent think tank and consultancy firm that aims to promote "corporate responsibility and sustainable development" (click here to view their website). Here's an excerpt from Elkington's book A Year in the Greehouse (1991):

“At no stage will environmentalists be able to pack up their bags, declare the war won and cycle home. Indeed, the challenge facing us grows day by day. For as far as one can foresee, we will be fighting a losing battle, in the sense that we will continue to lose habitats and species, with the result that we will find our own headroom reduced in this global habitat. But, however many battles we may lose, we have no future unless we genuinely believe that the war can be won."

Minding the context

People in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), one of the Philippines’ rising entertainment outfit, should undertake a review of their agency’s mandate to make it more in line with their new role as producers of gag acts in government. DENR was created by virtue of Executive Order 192, signed by then President Corazon Aquino in June 1987, shortly after the EDSA revolution that toppled the two-decade Marcos dictatorship and the national plebiscite that approved the new Constitution. Section 4 provides that the department shall be the “primary government agency responsible for the conservation, management, development and proper use of the country’s environment and natural resources”.

Such mandate stemmed from a growing environmental awareness back then that saw the need for judicious use of the country’s natural resources in achieving national development goals. Five years later, in 1992, “sustainable development” was formally recognized by the international community in the Earth Summit in Rio and quickly became a buzz word among conservationists and economic planners in the country. DENR was even involved in the multi-sectoral effort to draft Philippine Agenda 21 meant to flesh out the government’s commitments to the 1992 agreement. The problem now is that DENR people, under the leadership of master showman himself Secretary Mike Defensor, seem to have a different idea of their mandate to ensure sustainable development. So they’ve transformed the department into a promotional arm of loggers, miners and other groups that derive income from the extraction of natural resources. That is, as long as these groups prove themselves to be responsible resource users.

The danger with this idea is that it makes the public believe that people, activities and resource extraction technologies responsible for the massive clearing of the Philippines’ forests (23% forest cover in 1987 compared to 71% in 1900), poisoning of the country’s inland and coastal waters, and destruction of its ecosystems could be changed overnight and suddenly relied upon to serve the conservationist cause. There appears to be a total lack of appreciation here of the context of sustainable development. For what it’s worth, sustainable development was supposed to have been a response to worsening environmental destruction and degradation brought about by decades of development efforts that failed to factor in its detrimental impacts to the earth’s ecosystems. In the Philippines, for instance, we had these influential people who got logging or mining permits and who operated unregulated for years under the protection of powerful allies in government.

Thus, in serving as public relations agency for so-called “responsible” loggers and miners, justifying why these people should be allowed to operate their businesses in our forests and coastal areas, the DENR does not promote sustainable use of the country’s natural resources. And in making requirements and processes easier for loggers and miners who want to apply for permits to operate, and being lax in monitoring these groups’ activities, the department does not contribute to national development efforts. In fact, in doing such things, the DENR ignores the context of environmental management in the Philippines, makes a mockery of the idea of sustainable development and abandons its mandate to protect the environment.