A Rational and Just Approach to Restoration and Management April 28, 2021

April 28, 2021

My warmest greetings to my fellow panelists and everyone at their workstations participating in this Webinar series on Forest and Landscape Restoration in the Philippines.

I think we are off to a great start, and I am very excited about how we can support the initiatives on forest and landscape restoration with legislation. Legislators play an important role in setting the pace and in advancing the rational use of the national patrimony.

      In my three terms in the Senate, we were able to legislate landmark climate and environmental laws, which include the Clean Air Act; the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act; the Clean Water Act; the Renewable Energy Act; the Climate Change Act, which created the Climate Change Commission, as well as the People’s Survival Fund.

      We also enacted the Environmental Education and Awareness Act; the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act; and the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act, which legislated the protection and preservation of 107 important ecosystems, including open seas, coastal areas, wetlands and tropical forests, critical in our climate adaptation and biodiversity conservation mechanisms. 

      The Philippine forests continuously declined in physical and environmental terms. Forests are indispensable in the overall ecological balance of the world by acting as a home for biodiversity and protecting vital water and soil resources. Our forests and our protected areas are crucial to food security, water security, and poverty alleviation. Our forests serve as major carbon sinks that help improve the air quality and absorb carbon dioxide causing global warming and rapid climate change.

      As a staunch advocate of green and sustainable development, I have been working on laws and policies that would address the decline and degradation of our forests since my first term as Senator in 1998. Still, we have, unfortunately, been unable to pass a Sustainable Forest Management Bill throughout this time.  As you all know, while the bill was passed on Third Reading in the House, we are still operating under the 1975 law.  We will reach out to the Senate, but if that does not happen this year, I pledge to work on this as I have worked on other long-standing bills that need urgent attention.

      In my last term as Senator, I chaired three Committees—Foreign Relations, Climate Change, and Finance—and in these capacities, I ensured continued funding for the National Greening Program despite continuing issues raised against the DENR in its implementation.  One of the interesting questions I encountered was whether such spending could have had a major impact in snatching all our critically endangered trees from extinction by setting aside a portion of the NGP for the restoration of these trees and their habitat. I was well aware that large-scale efforts require an acceptance of a learning curve and that each ecosystem is different and will need a different restoration prescription, such that the Department had to be given leeway to learn from its mistakes.  But it has been ten years since 2011. We must expect surgical precision, contextual approaches and actions appropriate to each ecosystem type, firm partnerships, and corruption alleviation from hereon.

      Now, as Representative of the Lone District of the province of Antique, one of the bills we are prioritizing in the House of Representatives is an ecosystem and natural accounting system—the proposed Philippine Ecosystem and Natural Capital Accounting System or PENCAS Law of 2021. The bill we drafted adheres to the UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounting introduced in 2006 and approved by the UN Statistical Commission this year.

You know how conventional national income accounting works: the value of goods and services produced in a country is aggregated and formulated into development indicators like Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product, which then serve as measures of economic performance. Though these indicators are useful to a degree, they do not give us the full picture. They do not take into account the consumption benefits of products and amenities provided by the natural environment, waste disposal services, and pollution, which are part of marketed commodities but are not valuated and reflected in income accounting.

      We will never be able to undertake restoration if the economic indicators we use value only the incomes and ignore the destruction of our natural capital in generating those revenues.  Not only will such valuation allow us to desist from extractions that do more harm than good based on the damage estimation employed, in the cases where we decide to still proceed, we will also be able to assess the funds needed for the restoration of the sites that yielded these resources.  This will be very helpful in determining if the mining agreements that will be negotiated under the current administration’s new policy will yield sufficient resources to “restore the ecosystem to as close to its original state as possible” as required by the Mining Act of 1995.

      More than that, on a deeper level, the proposed law hopes to bring about a fundamental shift in how we see the world, how we understand our place in it, and how we value it. It corrects the misconception that we have to choose between the environment and the economy—because it highlights the fact that our economy will only ever be as robust as our natural capital.

      This is not to say that valuation and natural capital accounting can be done easily or has no pitfalls.  

The system will be put in place and initiated but the task of doing this for the resources that stand to be affected by our path to development has to be prioritized.  We need to know what we are losing by  multiple local government projects that are not critical necessities, building below-standard irrigation and road projects that require repeated repair, laying down four-lane highways in rural areas, review our assumptions on the necessity of long-span bridges such as the ones being proposed for Batangas-Mindoro and in Palawan, and most of all, an assessment of whether we have the required raw materials for our infrastructural goals.  

      But certain things are beyond our power to fully restore.

We need to strategically select around  30% of our 30M hectares and stand our ground.  Already, our protected areas are full of people, almost urbanized.  Upper Marikina, Taal, parts of Matutum and Kanlaon are already fully populated towns.  Hence, the percentage of land under protection must involve much more than what is covered under eNIPAS.  We need to determine what level of restoration we are aiming for because it is possible to live inside a protected area and still restore it.  We just need to learn how. After all, the perpetual provision of services has to have higher value than one-time extraction and land conversion.

      The climate crisis and unabated biodiversity loss only further increase the risk of future pandemics—pandemics that would cause even greater damage to economies and take even more lives if we fail to act now.

So as we continue to get the Sustainable Forest Management Bill passed, we must also review where we are in the Climate Resilient Forestry Master Plan done in 2013 – use satellite and mapping technology to really take stock of how well we are doing and what we need to prioritize.  We must disaggregate our policy and performance to the different forest types so that we know what ecosystems we are dealing with and not treat them as if they are uniform types of forest.  We must be able to ensure that the technical and planning requirements for the demands in the laws are funded.

And, finally, these natural resources should continue to serve the people living within and around them. 

We must ensure that there is a democratized and just means for our people to access these resources without severely depleting them.  Small family farms that incentivize the planting of trees and biodiversity is still the way to go and we need to employ the means to aggregate and manage these tenurial grants to produce the maximum benefits with the minimum depletion and high renewability of these resources. 

      We need to review the means of tenure we have chosen that revolve around community organizations and ensure that the governance and financial management of these organizations are professional and fully accountable to the members.  And for this, we need to ensure that internal allocation of resources within our partner organizations are also monitored. 

      Lastly, we need to institute a means by which these tenure holders can seek legal redress whenever the regulatory mechanism for resource access turns corrupt or unaccountable.

      As we in Congress hold the power of the purse, we can ensure that laws are funded—or, even, to ensure that our whole national budget is a restoration budget, one that heavily leans towards nature-based solutions that will also bring about climate and disaster resilience outcomes.

      Our work is also to exercise strong oversight to ensure that executive agencies efficiently implement the laws, to ensure that our people actually understand our laws, utilize them, and benefit from them and seek accountability when these are not being implemented well.  We also need to keep reminding ourselves that we do not have all the answers, especially for restoration and budgets for nature-based solutions. We must make full use of the knowledge of people living in and around the forests, especially indigenous peoples. 

      Restoration action is always local. We succeed and fail depending on how well we do at the level of communities, which are at the frontlines.  We need to once and for all accept that we cannot make enemies of the very people reliant on the forest and still expect them to help us protect it.  Forest dwellers living in poverty and decimating the trees are themselves victims and our task is to ensure the just distribution of benefits to those living in the margins.  We can do this with the help of the urban populace who are seeking to go back to nature and finding well-being and sanity in forest bathing, hiking and treks.  They have the capability to assist rural dwellers both in technical capacity, as we have seen millennials troop back to nature to manage and farm, as well as financial flows as tourists. 

      All of us need to stand on a hectare or two outside the city, whether public or private land, and say “Destruction stops here. I will be a guardian and restorer of this land and help the people living here do that.”

      And we have to bring our discussions today to other global and national climate conferences and forums, most especially COP26 in November, the CBD and other international agreements.

I look forward not just to hearing your insights and experiences and answering your questions today, but to working with all of you towards taking up a part of that 30% as your community’s, company’s, or your own personal part in reaching this goal.

      Thank you and good day.