July 19, 2018, 12:03 am
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The portfolio of environmental plunderers

It makes sense for presidents enamored with brusque and muscular authoritarianism to assign a fragile, sensitive and delicate portfolio such as that of the secretary of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to either a military man or one trained in law enforcement accustomed to chains of command, the use of force and a largely vertical hierarchy that leaves very little room for democratic latitude, reasoning and debate. 

The need for testosterone is understandable. Where criminality is so widespread in far flung hinterlands, crooks among the richest, and government officials conflicted if not complicit with ravagers, the task at the DENR involves policing the most remote boondocks and the sticks against illegal loggers and destructive miners. The latter are, after all, well entrenched among the most powerful feudal fiefdoms and domestic dynasties who recognize no law save those from the barrel of a gun.

The criminality that challenges the DENR is not confined to the destruction of the environment. It includes the massacres of the innocent and the killings of environmental advocates, lumads and villagers standing in the way of profits.

The power these criminals wield is only occasionally visible in the chambers of the legislature and the corridors of the Executive Branch where money talks just as loud as the gunfire heard along mountain trails denuded by their greed and ravaged by their avarice. The millions spent on lobbying is as fatal as the alliances bought by moneyed miners and loggers to purchase and form into private armies the local official state militia culled from the ranks of the country’s legitimate armed forces.

The tendency then is to appoint at the DENR a lieutenant just as bold if not bolder than the environmental criminals. Someone with brass balls, wielding big sticks.

In recent history we have had two “good soldiers” at the DENR directly predicated by a martial culture regardless of their experience, qualifications, or even competence. It would appear that those latter three qualities which the public would naturally imagine as supremely critical are less important. So also are subordinated a profound sense of justice, a love of both the environment and the people directly affected by it, and a keen and forward-looking sense of the economic contributions that a living, breathing and protected environment can deliver to communities festering under the yoke of poverty and commercial exploitation.

This subordination has brought Philippine environmental management to the sorry state it is in.

Under the Arroyo administration the DENR appointee had been the former secretary of the Department of National Defense. One of the significant developments during his posting was to create interest en masse for foreign mining companies in exploiting our natural resources. However well-intentioned that today remains a continuing controversy involving unconscionable offshore earnings at the expense of domestic environmental costs some consider as virtual pillaging.

Arroyo’s appointee held sequentially, each in an acting capacity, two other portfolios at the Department of the Interior and Local Governments and the Department of Energy (DOE). While never confirmed on any of these, his DENR appointment made sense. The armed forces, the police and local government officials are either complicit or conspiratorial on environmental concerns. On the DOE, continuously increasing toxic killer coal in the fuel mix is an on-going debate given the global warming issue. Indeed law enforcement and local government management are integral to the DENR’s  job.

Following brazen corporate lobbying against the impactful “Heart and Mind” policies of former Secretary Regina Paz  Lopez, we again have an ex-soldier manning DENR’s gates. 

Greeted with virtual dancing in the boardrooms of mining companies, loggers and power producers, within weeks reports of toxic mercury poisoning broke out.

As a response the new DENR secretary simply formed a task force. That woefully fails to appreciate the profound reality where mercury poisoning represents the endemic criminality continuously inflicted by miners whether they are green-washed as responsible during the their operations or are set free and unaccountable after their mines close down and a statute of limitations lapses.

In Palawan, an abandoned mercury mine continues to poison fish, livestock and people. Reports say residents of at least two villages with a total population of over 10,000 continue to suffer from mercury poisoning from their exposure to mine tailings and from feeding from mercury-contaminated marine food.

Note that 10,000 innocents poisoned is exponentially more than even large multinational mining companies can employ during its “responsible mining” operations. Even when we factor-in economic multipliers.

In the abandoned mine the principal sources of the poisoning are the exposed remnant ores, a three-hectare pit and landfills from which seepage contaminates aquifers and drains out to a bay that hosts over a million tourists yearly. Imagine an unrecognized crisis of epidemic proportions.

The criminality inflicted by such mines perpetuates long after the last dollar spent by politicians purchased with lobby money. These cannot be solved by forming an ad hoc task force.

The vetting model that justifies appointing unqualified one-dimensional enforcers at the DENR needs to be revisited. We do not need task forces quickly assembled to address short term needs. The Palawan mercury mine has been poisoning for over seventy years. Neither do we need gatekeepers nor night-watchmen. Otherwise the criminal exploitation of critical resources perpetuates as does the fatal victimization of our weakest and most impoverished communities.
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