Dacawi: Our warped culture of development

THIS is an exercise in redundancy - a repetition of the obvious - about the inconvenient environmental truth conveniently being ignored. It’s been my beef for years now.

There’s nothing much on the ground to substantiate our understanding and appreciation of “sustainable development”. The catch-phrase remains the most abused yet actually ignored since it was minted and printed on that paper deal 18 years ago in Rio de Janeiro as our rallying point for world survival.

The gap between theory and practice, between word and action, continues to widen. It’s an aberration we refuse to see. It’s glossed over by a culture of development that thrives more on jargon than on action. As it is and was, our world leaders and we lesser mortals proclaim to be anchored on protecting the fragile environment for the sake of the future, yet advance the economic interests and progress of nations at the expense of nature.

Three years back, we had a debacle in Copenhagen, where the substance of the talks got drowned in the rhetoric and arguments of unreason from the economically and politically powerful nations. Almost expectedly, the rich muddled the voices of the poor they had long tagged “ Third World ” or the “South” and from which they draw raw materials to sustain their economic advance and comfort.

Even with paper deals forged in the past, “global warming” or “climate change” remains a conversation piece rather than addressed on the ground because of its urgency. The issue hardly transcends the confines of “round tables” and “summits” and conferences where pacts for action are signed and soon forgotten.. Despite years of posturing to “Save Mother Earth”, we have yet to factor in nature beyond lip service in our march to progress – if not perdition. While we seem to all agree how crucial this need has become, we continue to go the other way, towards dressing the goose for the stew.

Mikhail Gorbachev, head of Green Cross International, issued the ignored warning at the 2004 World Urban Forum in Barcelona . In his keynote, he couldn’t help but point out the patent disunity between form and substance. “Enough is enough (of these environmental treaties that never take off the ground),” he said. He went on to rattle the dismal failure of nations to come close to targets in poverty reduction and climate disaster prevention.

On the ground, development is measured in terms of infrastructure harnessing the finite environmental resource. It’s a “user-friendly” process, for the benefit of the end-user. This was the obvious view we got from a briefing for media back in 2010 on the North Luzon Agfri-business Growth Quadrangle at the Heroes Hall in Malacanang.

The Quad report was impressive in terms of completed and on-going infrastructure projects to push agricultural, tourism, business and economic growth: airports and seaports, irrigation and power generation dams, highways, farm-to-market roads and post-harvest facilities.

Except perhaps for the wind farm project in Bangui , Ilocos Norte and a “Jatropha Mega Nursery”, the report hardly touched on the environmental dimension needed in building a super region corridor of progress. While efforts to mitigate the effects of drought, or El Nino, on agriculture production and the again looming power crisis were mentioned, the crucial issue of environmental sustainability, particularly the preservation of the integrity of the watershed or the water source that is the life-blood of agricultural productivity and energy generation was not. It’s quite understandable, as the composition of the quadrangle board is limited to those in the agriculture, highways, energy and tourism departments.

An official pointed out watershed conservation and protection is not the turf of the agriculture department. As we pointed out, perhaps the board might consider factoring in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as a stakeholder in the quadrangle equation to make the push for regional development sustainable, practical, holistic, integrated, forward-looking, dependable, result-oriented, mission and vision inspired and whatever indicators, benchmarks, techniques, strategies, key result areas of success there may be found in the expanding gobbledygook of development.

Even as we continue building dams and harnessing and re-channeling the continuously ebbing water flow, the utter lack of an environmental dimension would eventually bring to a halt the progress promised by these infrastructure projects and programs.

Specifically, I wonder how many of our irrigation facilities eventually dried up simply because of the limited inlet-dam-outlet program of work formula. At the briefing, fellow newsman Dexter See asked why agri officials turned down a recommendation that five percent of any irrigation project cost be set aside for preservation of the water source. It was briefly answered but I couldn’t hear the explanation due to the feeble voice coming out of the sound system.

As the briefing was on, I was sure fires were decimating portions of the pine forests of the Cordillera that, time and again, we are told, is the vital watershed cradle of Northern Luzon .

The DENR may be partly blamed for its lapse in providing funds to prevent and suppress forest fires. The department had been trying to, an employee told me several years ago, yet it hardly got the attention given to the agriculture sector during congressional budget hearings. She offered the sneaky suspicion this corner quoted earlier - trees cannot vote, but farmers can.

Under a unique protocol, fire prevention and suppression is under the command of the Bureau of Fire Protection which concentrates on infrastructure and hardly has equipment and trained personnel to respond to forest fires. The country’s few forest fire management experts are all with the Cordillera office of the DENR, yet their expertise is not being tapped as there is hardly funding for their operation. Perhaps because the fire-prone pine forests, together with the vital mossy forests that are the water tanks of the rivers that are the life=blood of agriculture and energy production, are unique to this upland region and therefore do not merit priority in the over-all national forest conservation plan that’s focused on the lower dipterocarp, molave and mangrove stands.

As borne out in that Quad briefing, the pattern of development is exploitative and extractive, anchored on infrastructure and economic development. . This “utak semento” or mind-set for concrete explains why even the chairmanship of the National Water Resources Board, which is supposed to regulate water rights and use, was, for years, under the Department of Public Works and Highways before it was transferred to the DENR. Aptly, the DPWH is no longer represented in the board. Neither is the DA, as it should be regulated, being the country’s top irrigation water developer.

With DENR now at the helm of the NWRB, perhaps the view of development from this Cordillera watershed cradle can now be asserted over the DA and the Department of Energy. After all, the NWRB motto takes on the meaning of sustainable development: Managing the country’s water resource for present and future generations”.

How do we, as keepers of the watersheds relate to these aberrations in development? For one, it would be interesting to check with the NWRB how many of our rivers up here had been applied for and are now covered by water rights of private developers of hydro-electric power - for their corporate present and future.

[e-mail: mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments]
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