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Reviving a stillborn law

Floods from abnormal cloudbursts have ebbed. Images of sweepstakes scam players now dominate the front pages and TV screens. They have dislodged pictures of water hyacinths clogging Rio Grande de Mindanao. Drenched Metro Manila and Cebu City are drying out.

“Dig the well before you get thirsty,” Chinese sages counsel. Did anybody use cisterns, as required by the Rainwater Catchment Law (RA 6716)? Future summers will be hotter—and permanent—as the equatorial “band of rain” shifts, altering weather, caution University of Washington scientists.

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A ghastly triage, meanwhile, plays out in today’s Horn of Africa drought. Starving mothers abandon dying children to save those who can shuffle another day towards jammed UN refugee camps, the BBC reports.

The Philippine government set up four demonstration rainwater collectors out of the 100,000 that RA 6716 set. That’s 0.004 percent of target. Not a single pork-barrel centavo went for cisterns, although 66 out of every 100 Filipinos lack water. Indeed, “the law hath not been dead, though it hath slept,” as Shakespeare wrote.

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Yet water could whittle down infant mortality rates, now hovering at 52 per 100,000. Compare that to Thailand’s 17. “These are preventable deaths,” Viewpoint noted four years ago. “The most fractured human right in this country is that of a child to celebrate his first birthday.”

This is also “gross negligence,” 2009 Magsaysay Awardee Antonio Oposa said when he asked the Supreme Court to issue its first writ of kalikasan ever to compel the government to implement a law stillborn from cynical indifference.

Look at the track record. On behalf of 43 minors, Oposa filed a class suit arguing that the kids’ constitutional rights to a healthy environment were threatened by rampant logging. The Supreme Court agreed and spelled out the “inter-generational equity” principle.

Written by then Chief Justice Hilario Davide, the 1993 decision affirmed Oposa’s main thrust: that the interests of future generations should be protected by the courts. “A triumph of principle, the case set a precedent for how citizens can leverage the law to protect the environment,” the Magsaysay Award citation recalled.

In 1999, a citizens group, led by Oposa, sued to hold government liable for the pollution of Manila Bay. It took 10 years to argue. But the Court directed 12 agencies to rehabilitate the Bay.

Since then, there has been an initial but still fragile reversal of near-blanket infraction of RA 6716, Oposa told “Viewpoint.” We have “a more responsive government this time,” he said.

Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo and Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson signed on June 6 a little noticed but significant memorandum of agreement to implement the moribund rainwater collections systems law. The MOA sketches out joint action, from stock-taking and providing technical help to securing funds in the 2012 budget.

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Credit for the slogging work in crafting this MOA “goes to the Union of Local Authorities’ Monina Camacho and Solicitor General Joel Cadiz,” Oposa wrote. “We may submit this to the Supreme Court. It may well become the first environmental case decided as a ‘consent decree’.”

Who knows? As the the late US Sen. Barry Goldwater once mused, “A man will fight over three things: water, women and gold—usually in that order.”

Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo W. Antonino, for his part, took issue with “Viewpoint’s” criticism of his House Bill 4252, entitled “Freedom of Information and Transparency Act of 2011.”

This column endorsed Antonino’s support for FOI but noted that the bill snitched sections 10 and 16 from former Rep. Monico Puentevella’s HB3306 and Sen. Bong Revilla’s SB 2150 which would legislate compulsory “right of reply” measures. The 14th Congress rightly scrapped them as constitutionally prohibited “prior restraint.”

“My legislative horizons are not ‘constricted’ to local issues,” Antonino protested. “This is an insult to my reputation as a legislator with a track record of having principally authored 21 Republic Acts of national character out of 33 bills in the previous 14th Congress.”

“I am the principal author of 10 House bills” in the current Congress, he wrote. “And this only took place on my first year of my three-year term.” These range from HB 756 which defines “terrorist financing as crime” to HB 4638 which regulates the practice of nutrition and dietetics.

“Media should not broadcast or print without giving those mentioned the ability to reply to the same audience with the same prominence in the program or print article. Case in fact is your column which belittled my legislative performance as ‘constricted’.”

Antonino didn’t comment on Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada’s statement to Philippine Press Institute members which said: “HB 4252 covers two different matters: freedom of information and right of reply. Each should stand or fall on its own merits.”

“Silenced songbirds” last July 5 elicited reactions from Australia to the United States. Inquirer provided “interesting facts about the Sulu hornbill,” e-mailed Bless Salonga from Sydney. “All the more reason why they should be protected. You are so right. We torture animals in the Philippines.”

“I used to brag if I shot a bird because I was bloody ignorant,” Mario Aldeguer e-mailed. “Nobody taught us better… The punishment for killing a panda in China without authority is death… They mean business. What is really frightening is the destruction of our coral base. Our staple food is basically fish. And we’re destroying its food source.”

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TAGS: 2009 Magsaysay Awardee Antonio Oposa, Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Freedom of Information and Transparency Act of 2011, laws, legislations, Rainwater Catchment Law (RA 6716)
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