Protecting a lake
I’ve often wondered if the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is really effective at protecting our most precious resource: our land and seas. Somehow, I don’t think it has been.
That’s borne out by the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which ranks countries in terms of environmental health and ecosystem vitality. In the 2020 EPI, the Philippines was 111th out of 180 countries on the state of its environment.
Look at just one area: forests. The Philippines had 18.9 million hectares of forest cover in 1920. By 2020, it had declined to 7.2 million hectares—a whopping 62 percent reduction.
However, to be fair, starting in 2011 under the National Greening Program (NGP) of the DENR, 1.76 billion seedlings have been planted as of July 2021. So maybe more recent Secretaries have been more effective.
Certainly, Gina Lopez had the determination to clean everything up and was beginning to do so, before she was booted out. Her initial actions on cleaning up the Pasig River were commendable. But she went overboard on mining, ordering the closure of 23 mines, suspending 5 others, and canceling 75 mining deals. It was a huge mistake. Congress denied her appointment.
The President turned to the military, as he often has, and appointed Roy Cimatu, a previous Armed Forces chief of staff. Cimatu made an early mark by taking seriously the President’s accusation that Boracay was a “cesspool.” He ruthlessly cleaned up the island and brought it back to the pristine state it used to have, and should.
Moreover, Cimatu closed 335 illegally operating open dump sites nationwide and did something I’ve been urging the President to do since day one: have a competition for cleanliness, albeit limited. He initiated the awarding of the first-ever RIVERs (Recognizing Individuals/Institutions Toward Vibrant and Enhanced Rivers) for Life Award to highlight the three cleanest rivers in the country. Currently, he is focusing on the massive cleanup of Manila Bay and the Pasig River. The Pasig River should be the pride of the nation’s capital, not its sewer.
He also reviewed Gina Lopez’s closure and suspension orders on mining activities and allowed some mining companies to resume operations after they had complied with corrective measures. The President took it a step further and issued executive order (EO 130) last April, which lifted the nine-year moratorium on new mineral agreements imposed by President Noynoy Aquino.
On a more personal level, I had a chance to experience Cimatu’s performance up close. As you’ve read elsewhere, COVID-19 has accelerated the purchase of land and houses. People with unspent money have been buying residential properties outside Metro Manila, particularly in Batangas.
It’s happening in Lake Caliraya, where we live, too. For decades, no one was interested in the area; the lake remained pristine, undeveloped, and protected by a military brigade that stopped illegal logging activities. In the last six months, however, suddenly there’s been interest. Lake Caliraya is a protected watershed owned by the National Power Corporation (NPC), except for land that had been titled before 1969, when NPC started the hydroplant construction. Only that land can be sold. That doesn’t seem to bother some people; they just buy questionable land, or just build. Warning signs put up by the NPC just disappear, with houses replacing them.
It’s a situation that could rapidly get out of hand — to a point, like in Boracay, where only drastic action can reverse the damage. So I wrote to Secretaries Cimatu of the DENR and Romulo-Puyat of the Department of Tourism, suggesting that action to control the indiscriminate construction be taken in these early days. Within days, Cimatu sent a team headed by Ronilo Salac, the DENR head for the region. He brought with him Ed Enriquez of the NPC. For hours, they, my wife, and I sat down and discussed what actions were best to take and what actions could be done. A report was then submitted to Cimatu.
Following that visit, the Secretary himself came to the lake to discuss with us, the local government, and the army brigade stationed in the area how to institute controls. I was impressed by the speed of Cimatu’s response, the professionalism of the team he sent, and his personal concern. If he’s acting like that elsewhere, our country’s future protection is in good hands.
So we have a peaceful community whose major threat is uncontrolled land ownership and development. One I’m now hopeful (a word I rarely use) of speedy resolution.
It’s a paradise that deserves protection. It seems it may get it.
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