Legal Framework to Protect Environment

[For Pakighinabi, Manila Times, July 27, 2015]

Pope Francis calls for a legal framework to protect the environment in Laudato Si: “The establishment of a legal framework which can set clear boundaries and ensure the protection of ecosystems has become indispensible, otherwise the new power structures based on the techno-economic paradigm may overwhelm not only our politics but also freedom and justice” (LS 53).

Those who aspire to be legislators, or to implement the law of the land, would do well to consider the current legal framework that purports to protect our environment, the available environmental laws, and the disturbing environmental realities. Those who do not aspire to be politicians but aspire to live their lives in clean and healthy surroundings may consider that passivity, long-suffering and resignation amidst so much environmental degradation are attitudes that are disastrous for the environment.

For readers of the Manila Times in Manila this degradation is experienced in the tyranny of motor vehicles as part of the techno-economic paradigm. Cars, car engines, car exhausts, belching busses and lugubrious lorries poison the air, tear up the streets, kill the sidewalks, cement over the streets, widen the roads, dig up the roads, asphalt the cement, kill the trees, construct the overpasses, and taunt the car-less who queue for hours to find their cramped space in the MRT or LRT.

The length of those queues is as scandalous as the long-suffering of those who endure them day in and day out. Pope Francis is correct that the fascination with even familiar technology such as the car, forces massive interventions in the environment such as the construction of ever more highways and skyways that disadvantage the marginalized and the poor.

A pro-environmental legal framework should prohibit more public money from being poured into yet more roads or skyways in Metro Manila until the operations of the MRT and LRT are rationalized in favor of the commuter. It should make sure that the environment is not co-opted by just the class of car owners, but is the preserve of all.

Meanwhile, people should appreciate the fact that the Philippine Constitution provides that “the State shall protect and enhance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful environment in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature” (Sec 16, Art. II). Consider further, “While the right to a balanced and healthful ecology is to be found under the Declaration of Principles and State Policies and not under the Bill of Rights, it does not follow that it is less important than any of the civil and political rights enumerated in the latter. Such a right belongs to a different category of rights altogether for it concerns nothing less than self-preservation and self-perpetuation … the advancement of which may be said to predate all governments and constitutions. As a matter of fact these basic rights need not be written in the Constitution for they are assumed to exist from the inception of humankind. If they are now explicitly mentioned in the fundamental charter it is because of the well-founded fear of the framers that unless the rights to a balanced and healthful ecology and to health are mandated as state policies by the constitution itself, thereby highlighting their continuing importance and imposing upon the state a solemn obligation to preserve the first and protect and advance the second, the day would not be too far when all else will be lost not only for the present generation, but also those to come – generations which stand to inherit nothing but parched earth incapable of sustaining life” (Minors Oposa vs. Factoran 224 SCRA 792).

Our legal framework includes, among others, the Philippine Environmental Policy (PD 1151) and the Philippine Environmental Code (PD 1152), and the General Welfare Clause of the Local Government Code: “Within their respective territorial jurisdictions, local government units shall ensure and support, among other things, the preservation and enrichment of culture, promote health and safety, enhance the right of the people to a balanced ecology, encourage and support the development of appropriate and self-reliant scientific and technological capabilities, improve public morals, enhance economic prosperity and social justice, promote full employment among their residents, maintain peace and order, and preserve the comfort and convenience of their inhabitants” (Sec. 16, RA 7160). It may be appreciated that enhancement of economic prosperity comes hand-in-hand with social justice, part of which is the enhancement of the right of the people to a balanced ecology.

Other laws that may be appreciated in this context would include the Clean Air Act of 1998 (RA 8749), the Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 (RA 9003), the Clean Water Act of 2004 (RA 9275), the Climate Change Act of 2009 (RA 9729).

Violations of the constitutional right of people to a balanced and healthful ecology – even in people forced to endure two hours of polluted air just to get to work – should be taken lightly neither by those who suffer the violations nor by those who purport to serve them (“the bosses”) in government or in the legislature.

In the light of the constitutional right of the people to a balanced ecology, recent moves through a Resolution of Both Houses of Congress (RBH1) that would have transferred the constitutional power to safeguard the patrimony of the people to the legislature without limit must be considered a pernicious attack on the environment and the people, especially the poor, in the guise of promoting the economy. In the light of Laudato Si, the advancement of the economy may not be used to trump the preservation of the environment and the welfare of the poor.

This is also why under our legal framework to protect the environment, the 1996 Philippine Mining Act and its implementing rules and regulations (RA 7942), which concerns itself more with the exploitation of mineral resources in favor of foreigners purportedly in favor of the economy, must be abolished in favor of a more rational use of our minerals that is clearly beneficial for the Filipino people.

The legal framework to protect the environment is urgent not only for aspiring politicians but for the suffocating man and woman queuing to survive.

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About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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