Monday, November 14, 2005

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.

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