Environmental justice in the Philippines

Farmers tend to their crops
Photo: UNDP Philippines

As an archipelago, the Philippines will, in all likelihood, be significantly impacted by the effects of climate change. Greenpeace Southeast Asia has projected that a mere 1-meter rise in the sea level may affect 64 out of 81 provinces in the Philippines.  In Metro Manila alone, it is estimated that about 2 million people will be affected.

Environmental degradation is already occurring on a large scale in the Philippines. The World Risk Report 2011 issued by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Safety (UNU-EHS) reveals that the Philippines is the third most vulnerable worldwide because of the frequency of typhoons, floods or landslides. Impacts of disasters range from hunger and susceptibility to disease, to loss of income and livelihoods, affecting human survival and well-being. Population pressure, careless use and exploitation of the environment, and threats of extinction of certain species, are taking a toll on the quality of the environment and human health.

Key initiatives taken to ensure the law works in practice include:

  • A pilot environmental capacity building project through the Philippine Judicial Academy, to capacitate judges and other stakeholders to properly adjudicate and litigate environmental cases pursuant to the Rules.
  • Publication of a sourcebook on environmental justice entitled 'Access to Environmental Justice: A Sourcebook on Legal Rights and Remedies' to assist the courts and other law practitioners to effectively use the law.
  • Publication in 2011 of a 'Citizen’s Handbook on Environmental Justice' to educate the general public on their environmental rights and on the various legal remedies available.
  • A one day 'Assessment and Planning Workshop' conducted in November 2011, with the participation of 24 representatives from the enforcement, prosecution, court and community pillars of justice, to formulate a roadmap towards strengthening the implementation of environmental justice in the country.

Sustainable, inclusive and green growth is critical to the Philippines. The use of the Philippines’ subterranean resources by private corporations is a case in point. According to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, there are 482 approved mining applications covering 1,046,350.87 hectares in the country and an estimated 595,058.11 (56.87%) cover indigenous peoples’ territories.

Mining has led to serious environmental damage. In 1996, the breakage of a drainage plug holding toxic mining waste at the Marcopper mine made global news. The poisonous wastes were allegedly dumped into the Boac River and resulted in the release of over 1.6 million cubic meters of tailings along 27 km of the river and the coastal areas. The impact on the river and the people who depend on it for their livelihoods was massive. The 27-kilometre Boac river, which is the main source of livelihood for the resident communities, has been declared dead by government officials. A report by the Department of Health indicated that residents could be harbouring in their bodies amounts of zinc and copper beyond tolerable limits. Residents also complained of skin irritations and respiratory problems which could have been caused by the poisonous vapours emitted by hydrogen sulfide and nitrous oxide from the mine wastes.

The Legal Framework

The fundamental right to a healthy environment is enshrined in Section 16, Article II of the Constitution of the Philippines and environmental rights are viewed as part of basic human rights.

In 2008, UNDP and the Supreme Court of the Philippines recognized that while environmental protection programmes were on-going, there were few avenues to ensure accountability for effective resource management, to enforce environmental laws, and to promote public awareness and prevention of environmental damage.From 2009 to 2011, in partnership with UNDP, the Supreme Court became an implementing partner of the Enhancing Access to the Pillars of Justice Project, which included a major component on environmental justice.

In 2009, the Supreme Court, supported by UNDP, convened a Forum on Environmental Justice bringing together over 600 participants from government, non-government and private sectors to identify the difficulties associated with enforcing environmental laws based on actual cases and litigation experiences.  A Memorandum of Agreement was signed during the Forum enjoining officials of agencies and institutions from three branches of Government, representatives of people’s organizations and citizen organizations, local communities, indigenous peoples, and members of civil society to work together to protect the environment by consolidating efforts for the effective implementation of Philippine environmental laws. The Forum also validated the draft Rule of Law Procedure for Environmental Cases.

The legislature promulgated in 2010 new Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases (the Rules), a landmark instrument representing a significant reform in environmental litigation and protection. The Rules lay down procedures governing the civil, criminal, and special civil actions in all trial courts regarding environmental cases, with a view to protecting and advancing the constitutional right of the people to health and to a balanced and healthful ecology, and providing a simplified, speedy, and inexpensive procedure for the enforcement of environmental rights under Philippines law.

The Rules empowers the courts to issue environmental protection orders as an immediate action to protect the environment and the communities affected. Other remedies and orders directgovernment agenciesto protect, preserve or rehabilitate the environment. The Rules also enable communities to petition for the suspension or stoppage of destructive, environmental and development activities through the Citizen’s Suit provision.

While promulgation of the Rules was a landmark achievement, their effective implementation would not be assured without substantial awareness-raising on the new procedures, and capacity-building amongst the judiciary and other stakeholders.