HomeFeaturesSustainable investing in Diocese of San Carlos

Sustainable investing in Diocese of San Carlos

The issue of fossil fuel divestment is prominent in the Philippine Catholic agenda. In its 2022 Pastoral Letter on Ecology, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) committed to divest all of its finances from banks still supporting fossil fuels by 2025.

While the relationship between banks and divestment proponents has been often adversarial in recent years, Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of the Diocese of San Carlos instead regards these financial institutions in a different way.

“From the beginning until now, I see them as partners; that’s why we are engaging with them,” he said.

One of the Church’s staunchest environmental advocates, Alminaza is also the Convenor of “Withdraw From Coal: End Fossil Fuels” (WFC), a coalition of civil society and faith-based organizations campaigning for banks to stop funding coal and gas in the country. 

In its most recent report, BDO Unibank, Inc. ranks second in the coalition’s “Fossil Fuel Divestment Scorecard”, largely due to being the current biggest financier of gas among the major banks studied. Given this output, Alminaza has actively engaged with the bank’s representatives to identify a common path for more sustainable financing. 

In recent months, he represented WFC in a meeting last April with BDO’s sustainability and compliance officers and engaged with them during the Renewable Energy Summit held last May in Bacolod, Negros Occidental. 

The bishop views these engagements in a positive light, saying “From my perspective, our experience in engaging with them is working because they are talking with us; it means our campaign is working.”

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“Walk the talk”

The province of Negros Occidental has been one of the greenest provinces in the Philippines. One of the foremost examples is the one being set by the Diocese of San Carlos. 

When Alminaza was installed as its bishop in November 2013, one of his first actions was to create a Stewardship and Philanthropic Development Office. He noticed that the diocese was being operated traditionally, without viable financial planning that would allow its funding to grow.

“I created this office so that we will not be dependent solely on the remittances from the collections coming from parishes,” he remarked. “We want to be more proactive in generating money from other sources. We try to grow as good stewards whatever amount our faithful are giving us so we can respond to some expected advocacies.”

Currently, San Carlos has programs aligned with 14 advocacies, such as the environment, infrastructure, scholarships, social communications, and seminary formations. Its environmental activities are currently managed under its ecology ministry desk, known as “Lunhaw”.

The creation of Lunhaw predates the 2022 CBCP Pastoral Letter on Ecology, which orders the continuation of forming ecology desks throughout the Philippines. It is currently involved in local projects ranging from bamboo forestation and plastic recycling projects to knowledge and capacity-building activities for communities.

While many dioceses in the Philippines lack functioning ecology ministries, San Carlos has seen Lunhaw thrive not only from strategic financing but also from its dedicated staff and volunteers, mostly young people.

“I’m happy we have a structure and personnel to keep on working so that we can make an impact on individuals and communities. Because of the presence of a good number of people behind the Lunhaw ministry, we succeeded in being recognized that we can have a voice and represent our communities,” Alminaza said.

Another way the Diocese of San Carlos is exhibiting the figurative “walk the talk” is on where its current finances are placed. For its bishop, the basis is straightforward.

“We follow the CBCP direction. We are not investing in something that is directly involved in coal,” he said, referring to the current commitment of the body to divest all of its finance by 2025 from banks still supporting fossil fuels, based on its 2022 Pastoral Letter.

“If not here, where?”

Yet given the current economic landscape in the country, Alminaza acknowledges that their financial transition to being fossil fuel-free will not be easy. He stated that he is “aware that we are putting our money in banks still financing fossil fuels for deposits and payroll, but we are positioning ourselves through this so when the time comes, we would have more influence in terms of divestment.”

In this regard, the diocese has taken steps to place more of its investments and other forms of finance in different enterprises. An example of this is the Esprutingkle Group of Companies based in Antique, recognized for its innovative entrepreneurship across its multiple businesses across the country.

According to Alminaza, this group is dedicated to assisting dioceses and congregations and shares its commitment to avoiding fossil fuel investments as much as possible. In recent years, more Catholic leaders have been investing in these businesses, with Esprutingkle providing capacity-building support to their respective parishes and dioceses. 

“We have experiences in partnering with an enterprise that is more consistent with Catholic teachings, and we are part of the decision-making,” he added.

The bishop also recognizes the importance of financial coaching and educational activities to enable more divestment and faith-consistent reinvestment, especially with the CBCP’s 2025 deadline looming. This is why a divestment executive course, the first of its kind in the Philippines, was held in September 2023.

During this course, Alminaza realized that “some dioceses are hesitant [about divestment] because it springs a lot from their lack of knowledge and awareness. They thought we would just have to withdraw right away; they missed the opportunity to use their big investments there to make a difference. As depositors and shareholders, we have the right and obligation to make financial institutions accountable for their fiduciary duties.”

Despite the “business-as-usual” mentality still prevailing in the financial approach of many within the Philippine Catholic community, the bishop remains hopeful that the 2025 divestment target will be met. 

“I don’t see any problem with the CBCP venturing into something that is for the common good. I don’t see it as an impossible dream,” Alminaza concluded.

This is the second part of a four-part series featuring the best practices on Catholic-led fossil fuel divestment in the Philippines. John Leo is the National Coordinator of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas and the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines. He has been a climate and environmental journalist since 2016.

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