After 6 years, Duterte leaves Philippine environment, its defenders in crisis

MANILA, Philippines – By noon of June 30, 2022, Rodrigo Duterte will end his term as Philippine president, leaving behind a nation rocked by his strongman rule and in the midst of the twin crises of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout his term, Duterte has kept his tough-talking demeanor, which has propelled him from Davao City Hall to Malacañang. Beyond his usual tirade against drug users, he showed a similar ruthless veneer against environmental polluters and abusers, promising to wield the full extent of the law for crimes against the environment.

“The military is directed to intensify…its support role against illegal logging, illegal mining…and other destructive practices that aggravate the devastation of our natural resources,” Duterte said in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July 2016.

“I have to protect the country,” he said, adding a stern warning, “Do not destroy the environment.”

Six years later, however, environmental groups say this promise and warning leave much to be desired.

As Duterte steps down from office, his administration leaves the country’s rich ecosystem and natural resources threatened by big development projects that have been met by strong local opposition. At the same time, environmental defenders find themselves caught in the crosshairs, targeted by the government that once promised to be their ally.

Best foot forward

One of Duterte’s earliest acts as president was to appoint the environmental advocate Gina Lopez as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) – a move that was cheered by green groups but left the mining sector and other big developers uneasy.

As soon as she took office, the tenacious Lopez, who previously led the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission and other environmental projects in the country, dealt a swift blow to the mining industry. In 2016, she launched an industry-wide audit of mining companies that resulted in the closure and suspension of 28 mines.

Duterte actively backed his choice for the DENR post. “Gina and I, we share the same paradigm: the interest of the country must come first,” he said in his SONA in 2016.

But Lopez’s crusade only lasted for 10 months after she failed to hurdle the Commission on Appointments on third review.

“We think the first half of the Duterte government, with all its pomp and circumstance, was honestly full of promise, but eventually it rebounded to just that – promises,” said Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment.

The mines ordered closed or suspended by the DENR under Lopez continued on with their operations, according to an investigation by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

In April 2021, Duterte signed an executive order lifting the nine-year moratorium on new mining agreements, seen to shore up the country’s revenues amid the pandemic. In December that year, then-DENR secretary Roy Cimatu, who succeeded Lopez, likewise signed an administrative order that lifted the four-year ban on open-pit mining, in a full reversal of the protections put in place by his predecessor.

Act now, plan later

Since Lopez’s eviction from the DENR, the Duterte administration has pivoted its efforts toward ambitious projects bound by equally ambitious deadlines. In 2018, it set its sights on Boracay. Calling the resort island a “cesspool,” Duterte ordered it closed for six months for rehabilitation – a timeline reminiscent of his campaign promise to eradicate illegal drugs and corruption in three to six months.

Tourism and livelihood in Boracay immediately took a hit. An inter-agency task force was formed to act on the environmental mismanagement in the island, where authorities cracked down on the lack of sewage treatment facilities, illegal settlers on wetlands, and violators of easement rules.

But environmental groups scored the abrupt and punitive approach in the Boracay cleanup, especially after police and military personnel were deployed on the ground. Even the action plan to rehabilitate the island itself came after the closure order; Duterte himself admitted days before that there was no master plan.

BORACAY. Local tourists wade through the waters of Boracay on February 12, 2022, after it opened to visitors following an ease in COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. Photo by Rappler

The efforts in Boracay – even as the rehabilitation has now gone beyond the promised six months – soon found their way into the Duterte government’s main messaging, ultimately becoming the administration’s most enduring environmental legacy.

“Our actions in Boracay mark the beginning of a new national effort,” the President said in his 2018 SONA. “This is just [the beginning] for the other tourist destinations needing urgent rehabilitation, and enforcement of environmental and other laws shall soon follow.”

“I urge the local government units to proactively enforce our laws and not wait for us to swoop down on your areas just to do your duty and work,” he said.

Similar tactics

The same blueprint was eventually replicated in Manila Bay. In January 2019, thousands of volunteers gathered for a massive cleanup of the baywalk, as well as other rivers in Cavite, Bulacan, Bataan, and Pampanga that feed into the bay. It was a clear show of force for the rehabilitation program dubbed “Battle for Manila Bay.”

The DENR and the Laguna Lake Development Authority then swooped into restaurants, buildings, and other establishments near the bay and slapped cease-and-desist orders on those found violating Republic Act No. 9275 or the Philippine Clean Water Act.

But the biggest controversy that hounded the rehabilitation effort was the dumping of crushed dolomite rocks along a 140-meter stretch of the baywalk at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Scientists and environmental experts questioned the P28-million project in the middle of a health crisis and called attention to the damage it could cause to the marine ecosystems in Manila Bay. 

But the government only dismissed the criticisms, with a DENR official even calling scientists from the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines Diliman “paid hacks.”

Duterte continued to back the project, calling dolomite “beautiful to the eyes.”

On Independence Day 2022, the dolomite beach reopened to visitors, and, despite the promises of a “swimmable” Manila Bay at the start of the massive cleanup, no swimming was still allowed.

REOPENING. Families troop to the Manila Baywalk Dolomite Beach along Roxas Boulevard during its reopening on June 12, 2022, as part of the country’s celebration of Independence Day. Photo by Rappler
Alternative reality

Kalikasan’s Dulce said the visually impactful programs under Duterte were consistent with the branding of a strongman.

“It was really all for optics,” he said. “These are all populist rhetoric and moves to present the version of reality of the Duterte government: that they get things done.”

Dulce added, “That creates the alternative reality experienced by the Duterte supporters, and later on, the continuity of the new government now under Marcos, that change really happens under this current dispensation when, in fact, for the environment, it’s not.”

Duterte’s massive “Build, Build, Build” program also tipped the scales between environment and development, with the former often at the losing end. 

Green groups said the environmental impact assessments and compliance certificates of big-ticket projects – such as the Kaliwa Dam in Quezon, the New Manila International Airport in Bulacan, and the Pasig River Expressway in Metro Manila – have been railroaded. 

These projects were given the green light despite persistent opposition from local communities, indigenous peoples, and scientists, who warn of the environmental degradation and human rights violations in constructing these projects.

In April 2022, Duterte said he had ordered a stop to the processing of applications for reclamation projects throughout the country due to alleged corruption. But, throughout his term, he has approved several reclamation projects in Manila Bay, including the 419-hectare Horizon Manila reclamation project in Pasay City.

Not enough climate action

The outgoing administration also did not do enough for climate action despite the strong storms that battered the country under his watch and the dire warnings of scientists and climate experts on urgent and decisive climate plans.

Duterte had instead pushed for the creation of a Department of Disaster Resilience – a call he kept repeating in his SONA from 2019 up to his last speech in 2021. The department is seen as a “superdepartment” that would subsume the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council and the Climate Change Commission, among others. It is among the key priorities of the President’s former special assistant, Senator Bong Go.

“I believe in every crisis there’s an opportunity to really transform our country towards a low-carbon pathway,” said Nazrin Castro of The Climate Reality Project Philippines. “I think the government failed to rise to the challenge that was posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The lack of genuine and truly transformative climate actions from his administration did not advance the climate action in the country in the pace and scale that we need at this point,” she added.

There’s been a constant push and pull when it comes to climate action under the Duterte administration in the past six years.

The President earlier threatened to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement, but it eventually ratified the treaty in 2017. 

As part of the climate pact, the Philippines submitted its first nationally determined contribution in 2021, where it committed to slash its carbon emissions by 75% by 2030 from key sectors, including agriculture, transport, and energy.

In his SONA in 2019, Duterte categorically called on the Department of Energy to fast-track the development of renewable energy sources and decrease dependence on fossil fuels, particularly coal. The following year, DOE ordered a moratorium on new coal-fired power projects.

The country’s current pivot to fossil gas, however, threatens the country’s progress toward clean energy, said Avril de Torres, deputy executive director of the Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED).

PROTEST. Climate and environmental advocates participate in the ‘Pedal for People and Planet,’ a coordinated cycling event across 11 countries in Asia to ask for climate action during the celebration of World Environment Day on June 5, 2022. Photo by Jire Carreon/Rappler

The think tank’s report released in June 2022 said the Philippines has at least 29 gigawatts of fossil gas projects in the pipeline, trailing behind Vietnam in terms of gas expansion in Southeast Asia.

“We didn’t really see a drastic change in policies. We didn’t get an energy transition plan that is aligned to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” said De Torres, referring to the goal outlined in the Paris Agreement. “At the end of this administration, what we got is an impending detour in our energy transition, with fossil gas being now the preferred fuel.”

In Congress, several measures have been filed in support of the development of liquefied natural gas plants in the country. De Torres said current policies do not include an exit strategy for gas, which could eventually become coal’s replacement.

Last March, Duterte also issued an executive order that approved the inclusion of  nuclear power in the energy mix – a position aligned with that of his successor, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.

Deadliest for defenders

For climate and environmental defenders, however, the most harrowing footprint that Duterte leaves behind is the renewed culture of impunity.

Between 2016 and 2020, a total of 166 land and environmental defenders were killed, according to reports by conflict and corruption watchdog Global Witness. It noted a “dramatic increase” in violence against defenders since Duterte became president. 

The Philippines remains the most dangerous country for environmental defenders in Asia, and among the deadliest in the world.

Dulce said a clear indicator of whether a government cares about the environment is how it cares for its defenders. To this end, the Duterte administration has failed, he said.

“In the past six years, the responsibility to protect the environment has often been redounded to environmental defenders instead of the government itself because of the government’s pursuit of policies contrary to the interests of protecting our environment,” he added.

Majority of the environmental defenders who lost their lives in the last six years were killed by police, military, and paramilitary agents. State forces routinely tag indigenous peoples and farmers as communist rebels and terrorists. These defenders oppose and resist development aggression in their lands. 

In South Cotabato in December 2017, eight Lumad from the T’boli-Manobo S’daf Claimant Organization, including their tribal chief, were killed in an alleged encounter with the Philippine Army. 

In December 2020, nine Tumandok leaders opposing the Jalaur Mega Dam in Panay Island were killed by police, while 17 others were arrested. All were red-tagged or branded as communists by state agents.

Similar to the threats faced by human rights defenders, environmental activists and groups faced renewed surveillance, harassment, and threats to their lives under Duterte’s rule. 

SAVE OUR SCHOOLS. Lumads belonging to Save our School Network stage a protest in Pasig City on October 10, 2019, against the suspension of 54 Salugpongan schools after a recommendation from National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. that accused the school of not following the Department of Education curriculum and teaching ‘ideologies that advocate against the government.’ Photo by Ruy Martinez/Rappler

The passage of the controversial anti-terror law and the creation of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict – which the government touts as among its major accomplishments – also make the task of standing up for the environment more dangerous than before.

“[The killings] really speak volumes of the Duterte government’s regard for the environment,” said Dulce. “It treats environmental defenders as enemies of the state, and therefore it treats the cost to protect the environment as an attack on the state, and…therefore, not [its] priority.”

“We can see that kind of approach continuing,” he added, “and therefore we could see a bleaker present and near future for environmental defenders in the Philippines.” – Rappler.com

Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN).

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