Not easy being green: The environment and its defenders under Duterte

Gaea Katreena Cabico - Philstar.com
Not easy being green: The environment and its defenders under Duterte
Filipino climate advocates demand urgent and actual actions from the country's leaders to address the worsening impacts of climate crisis on September 25, 2020.
AC Dimatatac

MANILA, Philippines — The administration of President Rodrigo Duterte likes to talk about the rehabilitation of the country's most famous tourist island, Boracay, and the efforts to restore Manila Bay as proof of the government's pro-environment stance. 

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources is also working to clean other degraded rivers and waterways, improve the management of solid waste and strengthen the implementation of environmental laws.

But for environmental groups, the Duterte administration failed to properly implement green laws and regulations, regulate industries to minimize environmental impact, and push for the passage of environmental bills. 

"Claiming to be a green president during the campaign in 2016, his promises on regulating mining, land use, and protecting the rivers and forests have not been achieved. Promises that would have lessened the impacts of COVID-19 to the rural poor and indigenous peoples, if they were delivered," Green Thumb Coalition said in a pre-State of the Nation Address forum last week.

Philstar.com takes a look back at some of President Rodrigo Duterte's environmental policies and programs as well as the situation of environmental defenders in the past five years. 

Moratorium on mining projects lifted

Duterte, who previously threatened to shut all mines in the country and criticized the industry for the environmental damage it has caused, lifted a nine-year-old ban on new mining projects earlier this year, saying it is necessary to boost government revenues.

Environmental groups said the move was one of the biggest blows to efforts to preserve the country’s natural resources and may escalate threats against communities opposing mining projects.

"We also view Executive Order 130 as a 'license to kill' for anyone who stands in the way of mining companies," Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment said. 

Environmental groups also condemned the government’s decision to give miner OceanaGold a new 25-year license for the controversial Didipio copper-gold mine in Nueva Vizcaya despite protests by communities. The operations of the Australian-Canadian firm led to the decimation of the biodiversity-rich Dinkidi Hill and contributed to the decline of water resources in the area, groups said.

They also said they will challenge the mining permit renewal in court.

Greenlight for Bulacan airport, Kaliwa Dam

During Duterte’s five years in office, projects feared to harm the environment and the communities that depend on it have been approved.

In December 2020, San Miguel Aerocity was granted a 50-year franchise to construct and operate the New Manila International Airport in Bulacan. Last June, the government issued the project—which is seen to threaten marine ecosystems and resources in Manila Bay—an Environmental Compliance Certificate.

San Miguel bagged the project in 2019 after its unsolicited proposal went unchallenged. The massive airport supports the administration’s ambitious infrastructure modernization plan.

It will be built over Barangays Bambang and Taliptip in Bulakan town, former homes to patches of mangroves since cut down and coastal villagers since displaced.

The New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam Project is also part of the administration’s “Build, Build, Build” program. It is touted to address the capital region’s dwindling water supply.

But environmental groups and indigenous peoples’ organizations said the China-funded dam project will cause irreversible damage to the already degraded Sierra Madre mountain range, displace communities in Rizal and Quezon, and disrupt the lives and culture of Dumagats.

It was revealed during a House panel hearing in June that the Free, Prior and Informed Consent process—one of the requirements needed to proceed with the construction—was not yet completed. But work on the access road leading to Kaliwa Dam started as early as 2019.

Climate action?

After previously threatening that he would not honor the historic Paris Agreement, Duterte signed the accord in March 2017. Under the 2015 agreement, global warming must be limited well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels while pursuing efforts for a tougher ceiling of 1.5°C.

In 2020, the Duterte administration announced it would no longer accept proposals to build new coal power plants, signaling a significant shift in the country’s energy policy. It, however, does not include previously approved projects that are already in the pipeline.

The moratorium was announced in tandem with the relaxation on foreign ownership limits in large-scale geothermal energy projects, a decision that environmental groups said must be approached with caution due to their impacts on communities and ecosystems.

In April, the Philippine government finally submitted to the United Nations its commitment to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2030 after failing to submit its pledge on December 31, 2020.

But for environmental groups, the country’s commitment—or the Nationally Determined Contribution—was not ambitious enough. Of the target, only 2.71% is unconditional, which means it will be undertaken without international funding and assistance.

The consecutive typhoons that ravaged the Philippines in late 2020—included the strongest storm last year—prompted the House of Representatives to pass a resolution declaring a climate emergency. While this declaration urges local governments and agencies to adopt policies to mitigate the impacts of climate change, it does not legally compel them to act.

Groups are also calling for concrete climate plans and actions that protect both the people and the planet.

Wave of criticism vs Manila Bay’s fake white sand beach

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources transformed a polluted stretch of Manila Bay’s shoreline to an artificial white sand beach made from crushed dolomite rocks, prompting criticism that the project is an expensive and temporary effort that will not address the bay’s environmental problems.

The government allocated P28 million for the overlaying of pulverized dolomite boulders on the coastline. Groups said the funds for the “beach nourishment project” should be realigned to the government’s pandemic response.

Despite opposition, the project pushed through with the DENR saying it can help coastal resources in the area and prevent erosion. Malacañang even said the fake white sand beach can improve the mental health of Filipinos during the health crisis.

For environmental campaigners, the solutions to Manila Bay’s problems include the reduction of waste and the rehabilitation of mangrove forests and seagrass beds.

‘Deadliest’ country for protectors of environment

The Philippines has been consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous countries for environmental and land activists. In 2019, it was identified by watchdog Global Witness as the deadliest nation in Asia and the second in the world for defenders of the environment, with at least 43 recorded deaths.

Farmers, indigenous leaders and government workers tasked with protecting the environment were among the victims. Most of the deaths were related to agribusiness and mining.

Environmental groups said the relentless vilification of activists and organizations may be driving the increase in killings. They feared that the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 will put defenders at much greater risk of attacks.

Few days before Duterte's last SONA, two forest rangers of Masungi Georeserve in Baras, Rizal were shot. Authorities are still investigating the incident. 

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