Environment matters in 2019 elections

THE 2019 elections present an opportunity for Filipinos to make a statement. While neither the presidency nor the vice-presidency will be contested, this serves as a chance for voters to express their sentiments on the current policies of President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies.

The state of the Philippine environment has been one of the hottest issues to be tackled under the Duterte administration. From Boracay to the Manila Bay, from balloon drops to marine-themed parks, calls for stronger environmental conservation from various sectors have never been louder.

Entering the midterm poll season, the following are some of the key environmental issues into which voters need to look more deeply when choosing their candidates:

1. Manila Bay rehabilitation

Two forces are clashing over the fate of the Manila Bay. At least 22 land reclamation projects are pending approval, aiming to bring more jobs and revenue for local governments. Meanwhile, coastal clean-ups and the shutdown of non-compliant businesses have created a false impression that the bay is pollution-free.

With these developments, the Manila Bay remains in poor condition. Natural ecosystems such as mangroves and coral reefs have deteriorated. Thousands of informal settlers remain exposed to hazards such as floods, landslides, and storm surges. Despite a Supreme Court order, the national and local government agencies have failed to restore the bay area to its former glory within the last decade.

2. The debate on mining

Despite Gina Lopez's unceremonious dismissal as DENR secretary, Duterte has remained adamant on limiting mining activities in the country. New open-pit mining operations are banned due to its harmful impacts on soil, water, and biodiversity. Duterte also plans to rescind the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, especially after the landslide that killed 70 people in Benguet.

Nonetheless, the damages brought by previous and ongoing mining operations still haunt surrounding areas. The indigenous peoples such as the Mangyans of Mindoro still experience the brunt of destructive practices by big mining companies that exploit the environment at the expense of local communities.

3. Climate-related disasters

Notwithstanding that climate change is more than just disasters, the Philippines ranks fifth among the countries at the highest risk to climate-related disasters. The loss and damage brought by Super Typhoon Ompong last October reveals the weak enforcement of disaster prevention policies and lack of coordination among government units.

In an effort to solve this, the Duterte administration strongly pushed for the creation of a Department of Disaster Resilience. However, this move is strongly opposed by climate and disaster risk reduction advocates for its heavily centralized structure and disregard of the very nature of climate change and disaster risk.

4. Where will energy come from?

Amid the mounting problem of solid waste management, some legislators have pushed for the installment of waste-to-energy plants around the country. They claim it would reduce the volume of waste going to landfills and also provide an alternative energy source. However, critics argue that current proposed plants use incineration, which worsens air pollution in nearby communities. Incineration is banned under the Clean Air Act, but planned to be removed by legislators proposing waste-to-energy.

Nuclear energy is also gaining renewed support as an alternative to coal due to its lower greenhouse gas emissions and cheaper electricity. In contrast, concerns about its high installation costs, non-renewability, and safety given the Philippine geological profile reduce the appeal of this energy source.

The progress of Philippine environmental management cannot be assessed with mere photo-ops and selective rehabilitation efforts. It will take a long-term management approach where national and local government units coordinate with non-government actors to enhance the resiliency of our environment and the sustainability of our consumption of its resources.

The bottomline is if we let the environment suffer, so would we. It is clear that the traditional political mindset for environmental management has failed. The same old problems have hindered the implementation of some of the most heralded environmental legislation in the world, including a lack of funding, shortage of manpower, overlapping jurisdictions and functions, and graft and corruption. This contributes to why the Philippines is graded as below the average, among 70 countries in a World Resources Institute (WRI) study on environmental democracy.

In contrast to the long-term nature of an effective environmental management program, politicians tend to enact short-term, easy-to-deliver solutions to boost their popularity among voters. At first glance, it seems like these contradicting motives make such a case hopeless.

However, if we look at other countries in the WRI study with strong environmental programs, this does not matter at all. This is because every person, from the politician to the voter, saw the value of protecting the environment and its natural resources. Their governments enacted laws to support the public's right to access environment-related data and information and place them in the public domain. They also provideavenues for public participation in significant national environmental decisions, such as infrastructure development and forest management planning.

No immediate monetary gains for a select few is worth choosing over the long-term, sustainable development backed by healthful ecology, a right that local and national officials must uphold as stated in the Constitution. This is the mentality that Filipinos need in their leaders going forward.

If good change is coming for our Mother Nature, it will not happen overnight. A good start, however, may be determined this May. All you have to do is vote wisely.


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