Pillars of our environmental community

June is environment month. This is because major environmental conferences were held: in June 1972, Stockholm, Sweden (United Nations Conference on the Human Environment); in 1992, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development); in 2002, Johannesburg, South Africa (World Summit on Sustainable Development;  and in 2012, again in Rio de Janeiro (United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development or Rio+20). All these conferences provided momentum to the work on the environment in many places, including the Philippines. I am lucky to have participated in this work from the 1992 conference up to the present.

Before environment month ends, I thought that it would be good to pause and remember pillars of the environmental community of practice that passed to eternal life during this period of the pandemic, not necessarily of COVID-19 as some died of other illnesses. But the pandemic stopped us from big celebrations of their lives, where we could thank them for their contributions to the intergenerational work on the environment.

I remember former Environment Secretary Fulgencio Factoran, who was the DENR Secretary during the Rio conference in 1992, who died on April 5 after a lingering illness. Our professional relationship, which became a friendship later, began in 1988 – when I was still working  for the Legal Rights and Natural Resouces Center and a strong critic of some decisions of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) at that time, including its approval of the Mount Apo Geothermal Plant being proposed by PNOC and its promotion of the Industrial Forest Management program. In spite of that, he appreciated the role I was playing, On my part, I admired Factoran as one of the giants of human rights lawyering, having seen his work with the anti-Marcos lawyer’s organization during martial law.

When I joined the DENR in 1996 to become undersecretary, I went to Factoran for advice and he was generous with that and all throughout my stint in that office. For sure, he always had our backs in all the crises we faced and the ones I managed. 

Through the years, Jun and I stayed in touch, aligned in how we thought about political, human rights, and environmental issues. And when I joined the Rappler Board last year, he was there to welcome me in my first meeting.

On environmental governance, the main contribution of FSF, as we called him, was the creation of the DENR. Having come from Malacanang where he was Deputy Executive Secretary and trusted by Cory Aquino, he had a free hand in creating the department which put together the traditional natural resources extraction agencies – Bureaus of Forestry, Mines, and Lands – with the newer environmental agencies whose mandate was protection and anti-pollution. The theory was that putting together the conflicting mandates of extraction (the most environmentally harmful activities like logging, mining, and land conversion) and protection (environmental regulations, protected areas) would assure us a balanced approach and outcome – consistent with sustainable development. It also gave the environment secretary enormous political clout – he had carrots (logging concessions, mining rights, and land titles) to give out and sticks (environmental impact assessment, the Pollution Adjudication Board, protected areas system) he could use as needed. 

How successful that system has been is subject to debate but it was definitely visionary and ambitious at that time. In those days, our leaders could be giants and think big for the country, innovate and imagine how to move us forward, unlike the pettiness of the last two decades.

His management team also reflected these two mandates – with Ric Umali representing the development approach and Celso Roque and Delfin Ganapin pushing the environmental perspective, with Vic Ramos (who was my boss in the DENR), Bebet Gozun (who also became DENR Secretary), and Yoyong Magdaraog, among others, balancing the two tendencies. Factoran, being a protege of Paeng Salas, also paid attention to building up DENR’s cadre of younger officials, like Aimee Gonzalez and many others.

I should also mention here Rolly Metin, who worked with Secretary Factoran and later became undersecretary to Secretary Gozun. Rolly died a month after Jun, also for another illness. While he may not be as famous as the two secretaries he served, Rolly was the consummate administrator and manager of big and small bureaucracies, someone you could completely trust to act with integrity and to deliver agreed outcomes. He may be lesser known but Rolly Metin was also a pillar of the environmental community.

In the next column, I will write about three other pillars of the environmental community that passed to eternal life in these past few months: former Senator Heherson Alvarez, the forester Pat Dugan, and the activist Obet Verzola.

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