Ahead of the Debate: Elevating Environmental Policy

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase-ADRi

More than a month into the national campaign period, the electorate has yet to be presented with any concrete environmental agenda from those aspiring to succeed the Aquino administration.

Instead, the environment has been dragged into sideline smear campaigns linking one candidate to an alleged patron who masterminds an illegal and destructive mining operation. Anti-mining activists are quick to define a “green vote” in the upcoming elections as one cast against candidates having any association to mining, whether in the form of owning shares in a mining company or in having perceived political backing from industry stalwarts. Thus, what the people hear are token positions on mining and perhaps some on climate change and energy, but nothing comprehensive in addressing Philippine environmental issues overall.

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Policy debates on the environment cannot all be propaganda against mining being destructive in relation to biodiversity loss, water pollution, dwindling forest cover, or even greenhouse gas emissions. Officially putting a halt to mining will not answer all these environmental problems, let alone totally stop people from mining activity. The debates need to be elevated to include an acknowledgement that there are broader and far more serious environmental concerns than mining.

In the Thinking Beyond Politics chapter “Advancing Sound Resource Management as a Requisite for Sustainable Development”, Dr. Carlos Primo David attempts to strike a balance between economic development and environmental protection. He looks at environmental issues from the points of view of the different industries or sectors, and offers solutions that take care of Mother Earth without stagnating development. Such a framework comes from the context that people should be able to benefit from the fruits of the earth through responsible stewardship. In other words, the proposals Dr. David espouses a paradigm shift to viewing the economy as operating within the larger concept of ecology, and not two competing, nor mutually exclusive, notions.

In mining, for example, Dr. David cites the many regulations and policies that hamper the growth of the industry but do not necessarily lead to better protection for the environment. Executive Order No. 79, for instance, suspended the granting of new mining permits. Instead of achieving environmental preservation and maximizing the benefits of the country’s mineral wealth, however, illegal and destructive small-scale mining proliferated. Thus, Dr. David posits it would be better to strengthen the capacities of the Multi-partite Monitoring Teams (MMTs) to ensure that environmentally harmful activities are abated.

Moreover, Dr. David puts forward the “portfolio investment approach” where the government, in consultation with the academe and local stakeholders, such as indigenous communities, pre-identifies areas open for mining and clears it of all national and local permits. This scheme prevents mining from being done in ecologically and culturally sensitive areas but at the same time guarantees investors that mining projects will not be bogged down by the bureaucracy or social pressure. The same approach could be applied to logging, where the total log ban has not prevented thriving illegal operations from diminishing the country’s forest cover.

Another pressing concern is solid waste management. Dr. David highlights the scarcity of land that is suitable and can be devoted to building a sanitary landfill. Moreover, as the Not-In-My-Backyard Syndrome goes, nobody wants to be located near a landfill, and so finding appropriate sites becomes more complicated with the rapid population growth especially in urban centers. There is a need, therefore, for policies to be open to new technologies. In particular, the government should look at taking advantage of Waste-To-Energy (WTE) technologies that require less space and generate electricity as an added benefit. Needless to say, public health concerns surrounding incineration variants of WTE must be sufficiently addressed.

As regards the country’s marine resources, Dr. David opines that there should be an integrated coastal resources management policy given that the Philippines is an archipelago. During the last presidential debate in Cagayan de Oro, some candidates identified the fishermen’s lack of access to credit as a problem. The dwindling fish catch, however, is a bigger problem and can be mitigated by having a nationwide marine protected areas network and strengthening the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Councils.

Lastly, in responding to climate change, Dr. David believes that the country should improve its disaster risk management capacity and contribute to mitigating the phenomenon’s effects. The government would do well to expand and institutionalize Project Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (Project NOAH), which provides critical data to relevant agencies during extreme weather events. In cutting our carbon emissions, Dr. David advances three proposals: increasing renewables in our energy mix, with due consideration to costs; retrofitting our fuels by promoting the use of biofuels; and upgrading our transportation infrastructure by improving road networks and investing on mass transit systems.

Finally, no matter how policy debates go and whatever policies are put in place, the process should be collaborative to enable systems-based thinking. This is the only way we can effectively solve environmental problems, all of which are intertwined because we live in just one Earth. We all have the responsibility to contribute and we can start by pushing our candidates to engage in a higher level of environmental policy debate.

To read the entirety of “Advancing Sound Resource Management as a Requisite for Sustainable Development”, click here.

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