HomeCommentaryHow conflict of interest hinders Philippines' environment secretary

How conflict of interest hinders Philippines’ environment secretary

Senators chastised Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga in November 2023. She allegedly had spent PHP1.1 billion “jet setting” to world climate summits.

Why that expense, environmentalists wonder. Yulo-Loyzaga and aides were absent from COP27, the 2022 Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Egypt. In 2023’s COP28 in Dubai, she sidelined NGOs in favor of big businesses that sponsored the Philippine Pavilion.

No different at home, they say. She supposedly leans towards miners and other profit-driven exploiters of nature, while ignoring conservationists’ pleas for green policies and dialogues.

This pro-business bias seems to align with her family’s land acquisitions, regardless of environmental laws or Indigenous rights, critics say.

Yulo King Ranch (YKR) had come to possess 40,000 hectares of pasture reserve in Palawan in 1976. A year before that, President Marcos Sr. declared the zone off-limits to settlement, agriculture, commerce, and industry, and prohibited its sale or disposal. Yulo-Loyzaga was then in high school, she said in a radio interview.

The government sequestered YKR in 1986, on suspicion of ill-gotten Marcos crony wealth. As cases ensued, the courts appointed Yulo-Loyzaga as executor of the family estate including YKR. Upon joining the Cabinet in 2022, she was questioned for conflict of interest.

DENR has flunked under her, critics add. Deforestation accelerated in 2022, with the country losing 84,500 hectares of tree cover. That’s equivalent to 54.4 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Mining permanently destroyed 71,400 hectares. Filipinos lost 27,300 hectares of primary forest, or 32 percent of its total tree cover loss.

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Yulo-Loyzaga will open over one million hectares of forests and 292 springs to private investors this year. All are in protected areas. Since the rules on unsolicited proposals are opaque, environmentalists fear that protected areas will be invaded.

DENR Undersecretary Carlos Primo David also announced the opening of mineral areas to investments. But he withheld details, thus further eroding safeguards.

Yulo-Loyzaga was nowhere during recent environmental disasters. Local officials grumbled about inaction on the Oriental Mindoro oil spill. Struck was Verde Island Passage, the “center of the center of marine shore fish biodiversity”.

Eight hundred thousand liters of crude threatened coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass, fisheries, and 24,000 fisherfolk. Thirty nine weeks later, damages to nature and coastal communities totaled P41.2 billion, said the Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development.

Yulo-Loyzaga responded late to the Sibuyan Island mining protest. Townsfolk perceived her to favor extractive ventures under so-called sustainability.

Her handling of Ipilan Nickel Corp. in Brooke’s Point, Palawan raised eyebrows as she trumpeted its technical compliance with DENR regulations despite its location in a protected ancestral domain. She was sued before the Ombudsman. A court had to issue a Writ of Kalikasan to secure the place.

DENR under Yulo-Loyzaga is denounced for ignoring geohazards.

Ninety three people perished and 32 were injured in landslide-prone Maco, Davao de Oro. Storms unleashed mud from a hillside mine onto homes, shops, and the barangay hall in the no-build zone below.

DENR acted too late against a cult in the mountains of Surigao. Past admins had granted the cult 353 hectares inside a protected area. Yulo-Loyzaga closed it only after senators exposed the erection of concrete chapels, dorms, canteens, and guard houses where rape, child abuse, and violence allegedly occurred.

The recent Bohol Chocolate Hills resort controversy spotlights the lax enforcement of protected area laws. She defended the resort owner’s supposed “prior rights” like her defense of YKR.

Same with other private commercial resorts in Mt. Apo Natural Park, Davao del Sur, and in Upper Marikina Watershed, Rizal. In the latter, 12 picnic resorts divert river flow onto swimming pools.

Senators Raffy Tulfo and Nancy Binay grilled her about unlicensed businesses inside the no-build zones.

She said she’ll give them two years to secure DENR clearances instead of ordering demolition.

She claimed to be seeking “common ground” with the illegal resorts: “We’re protecting not only the environment but also persons working there.”

Jarius Bondoc is an award-winning Filipino journalist and author based in Manila. He writes opinion pieces for The Philippine Star and Pilipino Star Ngayon and hosts a radio program on DWIZ 882 every Saturday. Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8 to 10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS News.

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