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The presidency of the forests

12:35 AM October 14, 2015

Trees would make good citizens. They don’t move around, making them easy to survey. They pay taxes to the ecosystem in the form of the oxygen they release, the carbon they sequester, the wildlife they sustain, and the communities they make cleaner and greener. They don’t post nasty things on Facebook, or stage rallies on Edsa (Tolkien’s Ents don’t count). They don’t complain, even when they’re about to die, and some philosophers relegate their dying sound to the realm of “unperceived existence.”

Rightfully, we think of the 2016 elections as being about the fate of us Filipinos as a nation. But whoever gets elected as our next president will also have stewardship over our natural heritage: all 7,107 islands, the countless mountains, the millions of hectares of forests and coral reefs, and all their inhabitants. All this will be under his or her oversight.

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Which is why I am worried that the environment is not at the forefront of our national conversation, taking a back seat to “more pressing matters” like Grace Poe’s eligibility, Mar Roxas’ latest television ad, or Jojo Binay’s choice of running mate. These candidates may be “larger than life,” but life is larger than them: not just the life that we have, but the “lifeworld” we share with the rest of creation.

The “presidentiables,” moreover, have yet to articulate an environmental platform. While Roxas’ website has one post tagged “environment” (a report on Earth Hour), and Poe filed a resolution in 2013 seeking to determine the state of the environment, and Binay holds a diploma in environmental and natural resources management, it remains unclear where, insofar as policy specifics are concerned, the candidates stand.

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All over the Philippines, the environment is under attack. Just a few months ago, the officials of Lobo, Batangas, endorsed a proposal to build an open-pit gold mine perilously close to the Verde Island passage, and it would have pushed through if not for the locals and advocates who forcefully rallied against it. Palawan, with its unique geological and biological features, has been called the world’s most beautiful island, but in spite of the obvious need to keep it pristine, the construction of a coal plant has just been approved. There, too, mining remains a threat, while the initiative to expand protected areas has received lukewarm support.

The recent killing of the Philippine Eagle Pamana is illustrative of how our biodiversity has suffered. The cloud rats, tamaraw, sea turtles and giant clams have all dwindled, hunted down with impunity, defenseless against poachers both local and foreign. At the rate that we’re going, many rare species may become extinct even before we set our eyes on them.

This assault on our fauna and flora is exacerbated by the destruction of their habitat. Illegal logging and mining have continued in various parts of the country, and as a mountaineer I have seen the transportation of logs from the Sierra Madre—and the destructive effects of mining in Mindoro and Mindanao. These things are as real as the traffic on C-5, but they receive far less attention. Meanwhile, the brave people who stand up for the environment are silenced and killed: from Palawan’s Gerry Ortega to Mount Makiling forest ranger Jojo Malinao. Many other environmental martyrs never even make it to the news.

The unregulated, unplanned expansion of our cities, including the construction of malls and high-rise buildings, has been glorified as a sign of progress, but its ecological impact has been set aside, even as we are identified as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Like the frog that doesn’t panic inside a slowly-warming pot until it is cooked, our leaders have felt comfortable in the status quo, turning a blind eye to where this inaction is taking us.

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Trees don’t have the right to vote, and neither do the tarsiers, the cloud rats, the sea cows, and the bleeding heart pigeons, but they are affected by the 2016 elections just the same. Even if we don’t care about the environment, we cannot ignore the lessons from Typhoon “Yolanda” and Tropical Storm “Ondoy,” and the intensifying El Niño, about how our fate is inexorably linked with that of nature.

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One such lesson should speak to those who say they are on the side of the masses: Natural disasters and environmental degradation impact the poor much more than the rich. As Pope Francis argued in “Laudato Si,” environment issues have always been a matter of social justice.

Whoever becomes president next year can continue on the path of unbridled capitalist greed and of coal plants and mines built against the will of the people. He or she can continue to tolerate the corruption that is undermining not just the laws of our land but the very land we call our home.

On the other hand, he or she can take strong action in forest and marine conservation, in the upholding and expansion of protected areas, in the move toward green energy, and in the implementation of existing laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Climate Change Act. His or her leadership can be a decisive voice in international efforts to curb global warming, as a moral authority borne out of our nation’s experiences.

Moreover, our next president can give us an example of a personal life that is mindful of our impact on the ecosystem, and in the process inspire us to live our own lives toward sustainable development.

So much depends on who we will elect to the “highest office of the land.” So much depends on the presidency of the forests.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.

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TAGS: Elections 2016, environment, Pamana, trees
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