THIS week, I will digress from my usual topics of labor and migrant workers’ issues, and instead delve into another subject that merited a lengthy discourse from President Rodrigo Duterte during his state of the nation address (SONA) last month.
Sharing his viewpoint on the country’s natural resources, President Duterte declared: “Ours is a rich country. Wealth that this country is endowed with [is]a gift from God to be utilized for the [people’s] welfare and the common good. I do not believe that this gift was given to us to be merely viewed or appreciated, but to be extracted from the earth and utilized to make life worth living.”
The responsibility of implementing and enforcing President Duterte’s take on the environment rests with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). But the DENR has no permanent chief yet. The verdict on whether or not Environment Secretary Roy Agullana Cimatu will be given the chance to lead the department until 2022 will be decided by the Commission on Appointments (CA).
Secretary Cimatu is keeping a low profile. I know he is a product of our public school system from elementary and high school, having been born and raised by a war veteran father and a public schoolteacher in Bangui, Ilocos Norte. A graduate of the Philippine Military Academy, Magiting Class of 1970, Secretary Cimatu topped the Infantry Officers Advanced Course in the Philippine Army Training Command course with the highest rating of 97.27 percent. He also trained at the United States Army Command and Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The newly appointed DENR chief is a veteran combat soldier in Mindanao. Soon after his graduation from PMA, Secretary Cimatu immediately saw action in Cotabato as a platoon leader and executive officer of the Alpha Company of the 11th Infantry Battalion.
During the all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Secretary Cimatu earned the moniker “General Pacman” by gobbling up more than 40 rebel camps (including the two biggest, Camp Bushra and Camp Abubakar) as commander of the Army’s 4th division. So, his mistahs were not surprised when Secretary Cimatu became the 29th Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in May 2002.
After his retirement from the AFP, he was appointed as a special envoy to the Middle East, spearheading the efforts to rescue and repatriate our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) caught in the middle of the Iraq War in 2004. He was reappointed by President Rodrigo Duterte to the same post in October last year.
The way I see it, Secretary Cimatu has already proven his mettle both in and out of the battlefield. Those who have worked with the environment secretary say he is an enforcer and a disciplinarian. Someone who gets things done. I have to admit, however, that the public doesn’t seem to know anything about him or his plans for the DENR.
Unlike his media-savvy predecessor who enjoyed public approval for her impassioned speeches and canny sound bites, Secretary Cimatu shuns publicity to the point of being too bashful. I’m told he prefers to work quietly and without fanfare much like a “thinking commander” during his military days.
Now the question is, will Secretary Cimatu be what the country needs to enforce environmental laws, which are deemed to be the best in the world but remain stalled because of non-compliance by local governments and other agencies? What is the point of crafting laws when environment secretaries will not be able to implement and enforce them successfully?
From Secretary Cimatu’s earlier speeches, it appears he is concentrating on good and effective governance in environmental protection. He’s been focused on working with the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) to implement and enforce the country’s major environmental laws.
These are RA 8749 of the Clean Air Act of 1999, which proved a comprehensive air pollution management and control program; RA 9275 or the Clean Water Act of 2004, which provides a comprehensive strategy to address the degradation of water bodies; RA 9003 or the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000, which promotes zero waste and the banning of illegal dumpsites; Presidential Decree 1586, which requires all government agencies, GOCCs and private companies to prepare an environmental impact assessment for any project that will significantly affect the quality of the environment; and RA 6969 or the Toxic Substance and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Control Act of 1990, regarding the management of industrial chemicals and hazardous wastes.
Can Secretary Cimatu be the “head honcho” local government units (LGUs) need for them take our laws seriously? To be able to see through such a herculean task means one must instill both respect and fear.
Let’s take a look at the challenge of “persuading” LGUs to close illegal dumpsites—certainly not an enviable job as it will surely invite resistance even though the DENR just enforces policies. This would mean not only exercising the power to shut down dumpsites but also driving away people who live in the area and whose livelihood depend on garbage. Not to mention finding an alternative dumpsite for the millions of tons of trash generated by our towns and cities every day. Doing this involves changing the public’s mindset, not just of LGUs, to adopt zero waste, or to find funding for a proper sanitary landfill.
Will Secretary Cimatu also have the political will to clean rivers of illegal fish pens, or make air-monitoring devices operational?
I know we have more than enough environmental laws. What we need is an enforcer to implement these laws in order to, as the President says, “make life worth living” for Filipinos. Secretary Cimatu certainly has the credentials but his legacy will be realized only after he is confirmed by the CA.