Speech: Ateneo Debate Congress

July 24, 2021

Shaping Our Future: Bridging Youth Participation and Environmental Justice

My warmest greetings to the Ateneo Debate Congress – Senior High School and to all participants joining today.  It is always a pleasure to speak to young people who are eager to be the best at what they do, and debating is a skill you will need plenty of in the realm of policy-making.

30 years ago, as a young journalist, I was already trying to be a game changer, but I found my place as a legislator and policy maker in 1998.  What I have observed through those decades is that change can happen quickly when there is a lynchpin.  In the last three years, we have had thousands of scientists declare the threat to life as we know it.  In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that the window to bring us back from the brink of climate change is now till 2030.  In 2019, the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services said that we face ecosystem collapse and the extinction of a million species unless we do something drastic.  We were hit by the biggest eye opener any living generation has ever known, the COVID-19 pandemic.  And this year, economic managers are grappling with reopening economies in the face of all these and are slowly realizing the truth — economics are based primarily on ecosystems.  They cannot continue to grow in the throes of ecosystem collapse.

In my three terms in the Senate—just to give a quick rundown—we were able to legislate important climate and environmental laws, including 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 Philippine Climate Change Commission, as well as the People’s Survival Fund.

In 2018, I managed to get the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System Act through to passage.  This legislated the protection and preservation of 94 important ecosystems, on top of only 13 protected areas prior to that established for the nearly thirty years prior. This constitutes over 15% of the land area of the country.  It is a critical piece of legislation because as we see ecosystems crumble under the weight of what is termed “development”, we need to reserve our best ecosystems, the prime examples of our habitats, our NOAH’s ARKS.  Although this time, the flood is of our making.

I have been working on these very issues in Congress since my first term as Senator in 1998.  In the 17th Congress, I chaired three Senate Committees—Foreign Relations, Climate Change, and Finance—and in these capacities, I was able to redirect certain budgets towards sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  There were substantial changes in the lives of people as many were helped directly by programs of the DSWD, DTI, DOLE, DOST, TESDA and DA, among others.  But I realize now that they were framed in the same paradigm of helping the needy instead of giving them the power to contribute to the national ecosystem-tied economy.

Seeking justice presupposes that there is injustice.Look around you and at the deterioration of our ecosystems, from the urban areas, to the remotest forests and the deepest oceans.  All these  are already affected by our species’ rapacious quests for more. But this deterioration affects some more than others.  And it is those that rely for their livelihood, their food, shelter, medicine, even recreation, on the natural world, that stand to bear the brunt of humanity’s use of the planet as if it were infinite.

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.

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, the waste disposal services provided by our land, coasts and oceans. These were not assigned monetary values, not reflected in income accounting.

It is like setting up a business and expecting that the raw materials for it will just keep coming from your Daddy, Papa, or Tatay. In the case of humanity, we keep expecting God or Nature to just keep giving even if we despoil the means by which it gives.

We are entering a decade declared by the UN as the Decade for Ecosystem Restoration.  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.  If we know what we stand to lose, what the value of the damage is when we, for example, flatten a mountain for its gravel, we will have a better means to plan.  If 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.  The current administration has lifted a ban on new mining that was put in place a decade ago.  Valuing what we stand to lose in terms of forests, water services, aesthetics, tourism, versus what we stand to gain will help us decide how to proceed.  The law requires that after mining, the agreement holder  must “restore the ecosystem to as close to its original state as possible”.  Knowing the value of the resources sacrificed in order to dig up the minerals will help us weigh the pros and cons and maybe, just maybe, help us paint a different picture of the future, plan differently.

It is my hope that if we undertake the studies to value these resources, this natural capital, we will be able to correct 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.

Our national patrimony 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.  In the 90’s, our forest policy shifted from being a timber industry to socialized forestry — the latter recognizes that democratizing access to our resources means small family farms are encouraged to plant trees they can later benefit from or harvest.  Families living in the forest are much more likely to learn and understand its biodiversity.  Later, the program morphed into the Community Based Forest Management Agreement, awarded to organizations that register as such.  On a national scale, we needed to find 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. 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.  They need to have the means to govern their organization, keep the peace among themselves and ensure the integrity of their forest holdings.

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 and 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.

We have discussed protected areas, forests and mineral resources.  There is one class of injustice for which it is difficult to find a culprit.  What is called the brown sector in environmental policy deals with all kinds of wastes and toxics.  And much of these are discharged by ordinary people.  80% of both Laguna Lake and Manila Bay’s pollution are domestic wastewater.  Our landfills are brimming with consumer packaging from our households.  It is tempting to say we have met the enemy and the enemy is us.

Many of you probably live in neighborhoods that are swept and its wastewater piped into treatment plants.  But a great majority of people were born into and grew up with garbage and wastewater all around them, they have known nothing else and even teaching them that they have a right to a clean and healthy environment is a prior step to gaining one.  For this reason, I authored and succeeded in getting the Environmental Awareness and Education Act passed in 2008. Along with that, recurrent disasters that push people who strive to earn a decent living back to poverty necessitated a national law on Disaster Risk Reduction and Management enacted as RA 10121 in 2010.

If passed, the PENCAS law will also help us determine what we lose collectively when we have to live with foul air, when we are continuously assaulted by untreated wastewater smells, when the aesthetics of our cities are sacrificed for better communication when unsightly wires characterize most of our cities.  With such valuation, I am confident  that we as a people will be able to make better policies.

I also filed the Better Normal Bill in order to paint a picture of a society that takes stock of its true wealth and natural capital, focuses on people, not just economic advancement, and resets its goals and objectives in the light of what we have learned during this pandemic.

Lastly, I filed a bill to create an Environmental Protection and Enforcement Bureau.  The current set up of the DENR as a regulatory agency is insufficient to address the level of skills and firepower of environmental criminals. We need a uniformed and equipped force that can give these violators a run for their money and ensure the protection of our natural capital for the enjoyment and support of all.

The youth today stand in a crossroads that none of the previous generations have faced.  Do you support business as usual and continue in a society with an unsustainable path?  Or do you, in whatever field of endeavor you choose, push towards a better normal?  Leadership in an era when we face two existential threats to life on earth calls not only for knowledge but also wisdom; not only for strength but also compassion, not only the necessary amount of force but also passion.

I look forward not just to hearing your insights and experiences, and to making new pledges with you on your own personal part in reaching this goal.


Thank you and keep safe.