Monday, February 13, 2006

Fleeting NRM policies

In a media advocacy training, a friend who is now the business editor of a major broadsheet here in the Philippines described politics as the fleeting world of alignments, positions, and pronouncements. There was this unmistakable contempt in his voice when he stressed that the realm of politics is essentially nothing but ephemeral phenomena which are just too irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people. Now, what has this got to do with policies in NRM? Nothing too direct. I just thought how this fleeting quality of politics in the country is also very apt in describing the NRM policy arena. Actually, this should apply to policies in other sectors as well.

But NRM policies are particularly notorious in this regard. A case in point is the recent cancellation of all Community-Based Forestry Management (CBFM) agreements in eight (8) regions in the country by former DENR Secretary Mike Defensor. CBFMA is supposed to be the national strategy in managing the country's remaining forest resources. Never mind if the government's pronouncements regarding its supposed efforts in promoting participatory approaches to NRM are all just pretentions or plain hogwash. I'm willing to suspend disbelief just for the sake of argument. A policy is afterall a policy. But to suspend policy implementation midstream, without any benefit of review or evaluation of the policy's impacts, not to mention the lack of any regard for going through a proper policy change process, simply defies rational thinking.

The former DENR Secretary in fact didn't even trouble himself with explaining the cancellation. There was this very vague suggestion that CBFMAs have not really been effective in promoting conservation and sustainable management. There were some references, but no studies or systematic evaluation were really offered to the public to support any such proposition. The DENR website (Forest Management Bureau) claims that holders of CBFMAs and other forest tenurial instruments in the affected regions have not complied with various provisions of the agreements including the submission of Comprehensive Development and Management Plans (CDMPs) and the payment of various rentals and other required fees.

I can just imagine what happened to those belonging to communities of poor upland farmers or indigenous people when the DENR field people approached them some years back with this CBFM strategy. With promises of security of tenure in their small forest landholding, the local people agreed to enter into this supposed partnership with the government towards sustainable management of the forest. They then basically went about with their lives as before, adopting some of the innovations under the government's "community-based" approach. There were supposed to be all these capacity building programs for developing the community's knowledge and skills to enable them to comply with the requirements of the CBFM program (like drafting the CDMP). Unfortunately, along the way, problems arose. For instance, in DENR's report to the International Tropical Timber Council (ITTC), there was this assessment:

"The Philippines still has a large number of staff dedicated to supporting SFM in agencies like the DENR and the various LGU’s. However, the skill mix of these staff often reflects earlier needs and priorities rather than those of contemporary forest management. This is particularly the case in relation to the social planning processes needed to effectively facilitate land use planning in the context of major programs such as community-based forest management. In addition, there is a considerable budgetary overhang in both DENR and other levels of government, with the bulk of resources going to salary support and little financial capacity for other field related activities."

In short, granting that many of these communities involved with CBFM projects failed to comply with the partnership requirements, there is as much reason to believe that the government has not come through with its end of the bargain either. Because of this, I don't think the DENR has any moral ascendancy right now to impose any sanctions based on the agreement, much less to cancel outright the said tenurial instruments.

Public administration experts would probably tell us that the real problem is with our whole political and bureaucratic structure that makes the latter beholden to the quirks of the former. Simply put, as with the case of the CBFMA cancellation, you have an upstart politician basking in the attention of a patron in Malacañang and making all this policy promulgations out of thin air. Promulgations that the entire bureaucratic hierarchy would then have to follow (mindlessly, most of the time). Earlier policies are overturned or set adrift overnight. Any continuity in terms of carrying out the entire policy cycle, from situational analysis and policy agenda setting, to policy implementation, evaluation and change, is nipped in the bud.

So, the young politician goes to his new post in Malacañang. Two sexy ladies from the just-concluded Pinoy Big Brother visit him and pose with him for all these reporters and the viewing public to see. While a poor forest dweller somewhere in the country's hinterlands, anxious about the future of his land and crops, contemplates about cutting down all those trees anew.

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