Sustainable Environment: Recovery and Resilience

March 17, 2018

Keynote Speech of Senator Loren Legarda
“Sustainable Environment: Recovery and Resilience”
Rotary International District 3810
District Conference 2018
March 17, 2018 | Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila

It is with great pleasure that I take part in this gathering to encourage Rotarians to take a more active role in finding solutions to the growing challenges we face today.

On a macro scale, our economy is, in fact, growing impressively at more than 6% annually, which is one of the highest in Southeast Asia; Fitch Ratings upgraded our credit rating from “BBB-” to “BBB”; the Philippines ranked first among the best countries to invest in; and foreign direct investments to the country has significantly increased in the past year, reaching a record high of $10 billion in 2017, up by 21.4% from the 2016 level.

But what do these investments and growth statistics mean for the ordinary Filipino? Are we able to translate these into jobs, livelihood opportunities, housing, food and water security, healthcare services, and education? Have lives improved and are more poor citizens lifted out of poverty?

As chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, I make sure that the national budget funds programs not only for the growth of the economy but also for the welfare of our people.

In the 2018 national budget, as we provided funds for the government’s massive infrastructure program, the “Build, Build, Build,” we also funded the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, which provides free college education in all state universities and colleges (SUCs), local universities and colleges (LUCs), and state-run technical-vocational institutions; as well as the National Health Insurance Act, so that all Filipinos, even those not enrolled in PhilHealth, can access healthcare services for free in all government hospitals.

Aside from funding the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), we also allocated additional funds for the rehabilitation of social welfare and activity centers of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) because I believe that we should just not help the poor and the needy but we should also treat them with respect and dignity.

We increased the chalk allowance of teachers, the salary of the uniformed personnel, and the hazard pay of NBI agents. Small farmers will continue to use irrigation services for free through government subsidy, while micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) can seek government support especially through the Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) programs like the Shared Service Facilities (SSF), which intends to increase the productivity of MSMEs by giving them access to efficient technologies, skills, knowledge, and systems.

These are only a few of the many important features of the 2018 national budget. With the validity of appropriations now limited to 12 months, agencies must now obligate and spend their funds fully by the end of 2018. If all agencies comply, we are better assured of a more efficient and faster delivery of basic services to our people.

I can go on and discuss more of what we in the legislature are doing to support the government’s programs to uplift the economy and our people, but I believe you invited me to speak about sustainable environment. It is in the context of what I shared with you in the last few minutes that I would want to elaborate on sustainable environment—or better yet—sustainable development.

Sustainable development is defined as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It sounds simple yet it seems to be the hardest thing to achieve.

After years, decades and centuries of finding ways to make use of the Earth’s resources for the convenience of humanity, we did not realize that we have also made the Earth a convenient place to die of hunger, pollution, disasters and climate change—all because of unsustainable practices, all because of the mindset that we can use and abuse the resources of this planet all we want.

Let us take a look at Boracay Island, a leading destination for both local and foreign tourists. The solid waste problem, the lack of sewerage and septage systems, the structures that disregard the 25 plus 5 meters shoreline easement, and the damage of wetlands due to encroachment by business establishments and illegal settlers—all of these have contributed to the degradation of the island. If the government will not do anything about it, Boracay will not only be a cesspool as described by the President, but would probably become a wasteland. The same will also happen in other eco-tourism areas in the country unless we start living sustainably.

The main problem in Boracay, and in many other parts of the country, is the wanton disregard for our environmental laws, especially the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act. These laws have been enacted more than a decade ago but weak enforcement and non-compliance have prevailed.

Now, let me pose this question: “Is the state of our environment defined by our behavior? Or is our behavior defined by our environment?”

I ask this question because despite the preponderance of laws, we continue to witness the unabated decline of our environment.

After 20 years in the legislature, I will be the first to say that while laws are important, our individual commitment and uncompromising attitude to promote the broader good ultimately define the outcomes of our advocacy.

Many of life’s comforts happen at the expense of sustainability. We are living in a world with finite resources and yet generations have lived over the centuries like there is no tomorrow.

But nature has a way of reminding man of the repercussions of the savage abuse of our natural environment.

Today, disasters loom worldwide
with accelerated global warming. Flooding has become a norm during and after rainfall. People are becoming more aware of these threats, thus raising fear and uncertainty. But we all need to do more.

A study by the University of Georgia estimated that between “4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean in 2010.” One hundred ninety-two (192) countries generated 275 million metric tons of plastic waste in that year alone. The study further reports that in 2013, “global plastic resin production reached 299 million tons, a 647 percent increase over numbers recorded in 1975.” The sad part is that many countries that produce these do not even have formal solid waste management systems; and for those that have the laws, they are not enforced well, like in the Philippines.

People need to understand that there is a price to comfort, safety and convenience.

In the global effort to address environmental issues, numerous international instruments have been adopted such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Moreover, many of our country’s laws are oriented toward encouraging human behaviors that reduce environmental impact.

Our Ecological Solid Waste Management Law, which I authored and was adopted in 2001, sets guidelines for the reduction of solid waste through community-based measures that include composting, recycling, re-use, and recovery. The proper segregation, collection, and disposal of solid waste, except through incineration, are also mandated.

To strengthen environmental education, we adopted the Environmental Awareness Education Act, which mandates programs and activities in environmental education for the youth.

The Renewable Energy Act was adopted in 2008 to promote the aggressive development of the country’s renewable energy resources, which we are abundantly blessed with.

These international agreements and domestic laws, however, cannot guarantee results by themselves. Only people can deliver their outcomes.

If I ask you: What have you done for our environment today? How about in the past week, or month, or year? What have you done that would contribute to sustainability?

We have to embrace the concept of a simple, sustainable, healthy and resilient lifestyle. We go back to the basics of a quality life. We start with ourselves, because the only way to inspire others to take action is to do it ourselves.

Let me speak from my experience.

A few years ago, I started introducing physical changes in my office to demonstrate that environmental upkeep starts with our homes and offices. To achieve this, I had all the cubicles removed, and in their place, I placed a long table constructed out of discarded pallets of solar panels. I took out the steel cabinets, and in their place now are old wood and antique capiz windows to cover the compartments – illustrating that recycling builds, rather than destroys. We had all the office lights changed to LED, same as what I did in my home.

In compliance with the Ecological Solid Waste Management (ESWM) Law, I strictly implement waste segregation both in my home and office. We have four garbage bins in the office pantry that are properly marked to guide the staff in segregation—one for recyclable waste, such as tin cans and plastic bottles; a second trash bin for residual or those that cannot be recycled like plastic wrapper; another for biodegradable waste; and a fourth trash bin for food waste, which will be used to make organic compost. Around the work spaces of the staff are several baskets where used paper are placed flat so that the back page can be reused and later on be recycled.

I prohibited bottled water and the use of disposable cups and straw during committee hearings in the Senate to reduce waste. Instead, purified water in dispenser and glassware are available for the guests and they are encouraged to bring their own refillable water bottles.

I also plant what I eat. I grow vegetables and fruits in my backyard garden and in my small farm using organic compost from food waste and dried leaves. I built my own rainwater catchment using recycled and indigenous materials. The captured water is piped back to the house for all domestic use including irrigation of the organic garden.

Wherever I go, I always bring my own water in refillable bottles and eco-bags for stuff that I need to buy.

These examples highlight the value of creating the conditions by which we can change behavior and attitude toward supporting the goals we want to achieve.

As a long-time environmental advocate, I know how hard it is to convince people to protect our environment. People act when there is threat and fear; but that is not how we should live. People need to be inspired and feel that they are part of a shared cause.

It really would not be hard to live sustainably if we think that whatever actions we take today will ultimately affect not only the children of the next century, but our very own children and grandchildren. Would it be enough to give them financial or material inheritance? But even if we give them all the money in the world, they will not survive in a polluted, degraded Earth with a harsh climate and ecological imbalance.

We all have the opportunity to make a difference for our future, especially all of you here, Rotarians, because you have always extended help and support to our needy citizens and communities. It is time that we give the same help and support to the very Earth that sustains us, to the only planet we call home.

Together, let us build a non-discriminating, progressive society where government is able to provide timely basic services to the people, there is peace and order, people are part of nation-building, and there is respect for the environment.

Let us lead the way towards meaningful change, and, to borrow the theme of your annual conference for this year, let us “go forth and make a difference” for the Earth and for humanity.

Thank you.