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.