THE 1987 Philippine Constitution declares the Filipinos to be sovereign, and this is very interesting because to be “sovereign” means to be in “total control.” What it means in the arena of natural resources management is that the benefits derived from such are owned and managed exclusively by the national government for and in behalf of all Filipinos.
In our failed unitary centralized system (the opposite of federalism), the national government sitting in Malacañang acts as the owner of these natural resources, dispensing and managing its benefits and costs through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (finally under the hands of a genuine environmentalist in the person of Sec. Gina Lopez).
As is typical in a highly centralized government, the line agencies (different departments) are the target of “regulatory capture” by the big boys in politics and business, particularly the selfish oligarchs and the corrupt. Fueled by irresponsible greed, some would like nothing more than to avoid regulations too expensive to comply with for fear of profit decline.
Look around our shattered archipelagic, physical environment, and see impacts of the unitary madness that has reigned over the past century: less than 5 percent of natural forest cover (used to be over 70 percent at the turn of the 20th century); most river systems in serious decline; mid-level areas ravaged by illegal land grabbers and claimants, coastal plains inundated with unfiltered, spilled-over polluted water from agriculture and industry; mangroves indiscriminately turned into fishponds; corals poisoned with cyanide and blasted with dynamite. With a fast growing population and a faster clip of environmental degradation, the very sustainability of the country is threatened. Without a well functioning physical environment, suffering will be the order of the day for the poor and the defenseless.
Federalism and natural resources management
Change has come and the federalist winds are blowing strong. This augurs well for an approach to natural resources management that has been proven to work better than state or corporate management of natural resources (as population expands, the margin for error in natural resource management is slimmer), a perspective referred to by the economist Sixto Roxas as “Area Management” over the past 50 years. Area Management was largely ignored by the previous administrations that had preferred “Sectoral Management” of the different sectors, like natural resources, which is a proven disaster as pointed out above, and is prone to “regulatory capture.”
Essentially, with Area Management, what happens in the uplands of an archipelago will have direct impact on the river system, the midlevel lands and inland waters, the near-shore and coastal areas, since these are all tightly linked, having evolved together in a mutually reinforcing system including the vast biodiversity the Philippines once had. Thus, the “ecosystem-integrated” area should be managed as one area.
In a federalist country, the natural resources are owned and managed by the regional government for and in behalf of the citizens within the region, with revenue sharing with the national government, which also provides the national policy and standards for regional approval of natural resource-related projects. In other words, a mining proponent in an upland area of a province within a region does not anymore go to the DENR in Quezon City to make its case, but rather to the regional government’s environmental office. Creating this office in a federal system is easy and cost-free: retool the existing DENR regional offices from extensions of Malacañang into extensions of the Regional Development Council (RDC).
Why is this better? Why is a federal structure better in this case?
Obviously, the area of interest (proposed mine site) of the proponent miner is much more familiar to the local regional and other officers. Second, the RDC includes all the governors and mayors in the component and constituent LGUs, so that the “archipelagic” repercussions, if any, can be addressed by the local officials who are not part of the direct mine site, but will experience impacts from it that can also be weighed in. Third, the regions, by and large, have no dynasties as these are confined to large cities and provinces, but hardly at the region. Therefore, there is yet no possible power play and manipulation by a dynastic political bully in the region as the region is 10 times larger than any city or province in most cases. It is highly unlikely that a region can be bullied by one parochial politician. Fourth, when bad stuff happens, the folks who allowed it are not in faraway Malacañang, making them almost unaccountable for the ill effects. Poor affected local folks don’t have to march thousands of kilometers just for their suffered injustices to be heard. Fifth, between the actual proposed site and the regional center, the distance is much closer and, therefore, management intervention is much quicker. Whether this is an oil spill, a mangrove contamination, etc., the response will always be much faster if decision-making is closer to the ground. Sixth, budgets will now be prepared for natural resource management based on ground realities rather than on centralized “cookie cutter” solutions, which are averages that don’t work nearly anywhere.
The DENR is now studying putting a value on all ecosystem assets and services based on science and sound economics, and delegating authority to the regional DENR offices as well as mobilizing a civil society arm to take over the monitoring of all ECC compliances, so that even without a federal system, the benefits of that system can already be felt soonest at the bottom. By valuing ecosystems, communities will know what exactly the cost to them is of devoting some of their ecosystem as hosts of industrial or other “projects.”
This model of genuine decentralization of ownership and management of natural resources, with revenue sharing and standards sharing mechanisms with the national government hews closest to the 1987 Constitution declaring the Filipinos or the people to be sovereign rather than the institutional “Philippine government.”
In a federal country, the federal government sets the national vision and standards, while the regions take this and creatively and meaningfully assist the component LGUs come up with development plans aligned with that. Each region can compose its own “song,” with the federal government just saying what “genre” to cast it in.
Change has, indeed, come. And more radical and good change in the field of natural resource management is on the way with federalism!
The author is a member of the Board of Advisors of the Centrist Democracy Political Institute (CDPI). He is also co-convenor of the Subsidiarity Movement International, as well as the Federalist Forum of the Philippines. He advocates the bottom-up development model and proper decentralization, and the strengthening of regional governance. He served for 12 years in the Regional Development Council, of Central Luzon, as chair of its economic committee. He was a consultant at Philippine Alternative Fuels Corp. (PAFC) and was on the Board of Trustees of the Haribon Foundation.