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COMMENTARY

Our right to a balanced, healthful ecology

05:03 AM February 18, 2019

“Judge upholds state protections for endangered gray wolves under the California Endangered Species Act,” said a Jan. 28 news item by the City News Service of San Diego, California. In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Eddie Sturgeon rejected the petition filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation, that challenged the animals’ designation by the State’s Fish and Game Commission as wildlife at risk of extinction.

The court found that threats to the wolves necessitate their protection, and that the game commission has the discretion to protect native species that have been present historically in the area based on visitations by even one animal, and given scientists’ projections that more would likely arrive. “The commission’s determination was based on scientific evidence and is entitled to deference,” said the judge.

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The rationale for the ruling is similar to the doctrine of primary administrative jurisdiction in Philippine jurisprudence, under which legal controversies are entrusted by law to be resolved by administrative agencies. The leading case of Ang Tibay vs Court of Industrial Relations (GR L-46496, Feb. 27, 1940) laid down the “cardinal requirements in administrative proceedings” and rendered administrative due process as a separate and distinct mode of dispute resolution.

The California ruling is a welcome development, as it encourages those who work for the continued protection of nature against the narrow commercial interests that are characteristic of the rent-seeking behavior of big business and their nefarious collaborators in government.

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The happy news is reminiscent of a legal victory in the Philippines notched by pro-environment advocates against the destruction of our forest resources due to unabated logging. The 1993 Supreme Court decision in the case of Oposa vs Factoran is now a landmark ruling, recognized as a watershed in our legal annals and a major contribution to international environmental law.

The petition for a judicial injunction to stop the secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) from issuing timber license agreements (TLA) was filed before the Makati Regional Trial Court (RTC). The petitioners, minor children represented by their parents Antonio and Rizalina Oposa, asserted that they “represent their generation as well as generations yet unborn,” and that they were invoking their right to a healthy environment pursuant to Sections 15 and 16 of Article II of the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines.

The Makati RTC dismissed the petition for being a political question — that is, a policy issue that may be resolved by Congress and the executive department as political branches of the government — and for being an impairment of the contractual obligation embedded in the TLA. But the Supreme Court reversed the Makati RTC.

In the decision penned by then Associate Justice (later Chief Justice) Hilario Davide Jr., the petition was favorably admitted as a class suit for appropriate determination by the court, the petitioning minor children being properly represented by their parents.

The high court found no difficulty in ruling that the children could, for themselves, for others of their generation and for the succeeding generations, file a class suit. Their personality to sue in behalf of the succeeding generations could only be based on the concept of intergenerational responsibility, insofar as the “right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature” (the Constitution’s words) was concerned.

The Court further held that every generation has a responsibility to the next to preserve the wellbeing of the environment for everyone’s enjoyment. Thus, the right of the petitioners to a balanced and healthful ecology was as clear as the DENR’s duty to protect and advance that said right.

Oposa was commended here and abroad for his trailblazing, innovative advocacy to protect the environment and the people’s right to enjoy the benefits of its conservation. In 2008, he received an award from the Center for International Environmental Law for his contributions to the development and implementation of environmental law, both in the Philippines and in the international community.

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Dominador C. Awiten is in government service. He has been a member of the Philippine Bar since 1992.

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TAGS: Dominador C. Awiten, ecology, environmental protection laws, Inquirer Commentary
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