The 5th Right of Man.

We Filipinos teach you Ecology

The 3 Rights of Man are what Yankees gave the world 233 years ago upon the US Declaration of Independence from Britain on 4 July 1776: ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’ The 3rd Right of Man, that explains the hot pursuit that has been The American Dream. And that explains the burnout of Wall Street.

The 4th Right of Man is what the UN, United Nations  gave the world 61 years ago upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948: ‘Health.’ I appreciate that UN gift, but I must point out that I qualify; I take ‘health’ to mean not simply ‘the control of dis-ease’ but more so ‘the management of wellness.’ Instead of the defeat of dis-ease, I’d rather see the advance of health of humans.

The 5th Right of Man we Filipinos gifted the world 22 years ago upon the ratification of the new Philippine Constitution on 2 February 1987. Sec 16, Art II of our Constitution states: ‘The State shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful Ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of Nature’ (my caps). A Gift of Right. The Gift Outright (with apologies to my favorite Yankee poet Robert Frost). More than the retreat of polluters, I’d prefer to see the advance of health of the environment.

But in ‘a balanced and healthful Ecology’ – isn’t ‘Ecology’ in there Wrong Word Used? I checked and WordNet 2.1 of Princeton University says ecology is the environment as it relates to living organisms (wordnetweb.princeton.edu). Ecology, as in this sentence: ‘The hot pursuit of happiness in and around the city changed the ecology of Manila Bay.’

Why, you ask, what kind of dark waters does Manila Bay have today? You don’t want to know!

But you have to know, so I will tell you gently, by way of a story that has to do with that great orb in the sky:

The Stupendous Sunsets

Once upon a time, there was an island called Alinam and its great body of water called Yab Alinam, facing west, and it was pristine, all 1,800 km
2 of it, all along its 48 km of length and 190 km of coastline, the pride of the people called Snalinam. Among the treasures of that island were the stupendous sunsets that the people loved to sit for and watch and point out to all who came to visit from faraway lands. Then the civilized people called Sdrainaps came and stayed for 450 years watching for themselves the stupendous sunsets, and the pure waters stayed pretty much the same. Pure, meaning, free from foreign elements. Finally, the Snalinam got bored watching the civilized Sdrainaps watching their stupendous sunsets, and the Snalinam battled the Sdrainaps to drive them away from the shores of Yab Alinam forever. Thus was born The Legend of the Revolution of Alinam.

It so happened that when the Snalinam were about to declare revolutionary victory, when they were not paying much attention to history or legends, taking advantage of the vulnerability of the people of the island, the civilized people called Seeknay pulled the rug under the feet of the Snalinam, and there was blood shed. The civilized Seeknay apologized, and stayed 50 years watching for themselves the stupendous sunsets, and yes, Yab Alinam stayed pure, if a little stained.

Then the Snalinam got bored watching the civilized Seeknay watching their stupendous sunsets, drove them away, and gained their independence and took over the water rights and the watching of sunsets of Yab Alinam. And what did the uncivilized Snalinam do to those pure waters? Tired of watching the stupendous sunsets, with their thoughts on life, liberty and the hot pursuit of happiness, in half a century the uncivilized Snalinam had thrown all kinds of waste into the pristine waters of Yab Alinam and transformed the liquid from pure to impure, from sparkling to dark, and the foreign elements came from the million bodies of the Snalinam themselves.

Yuck!

And that is where, today, my cleanup story really begins. You see, these are mirror-images: ALINAM MANILA, YAB ALINAM MANILA BAY, SNALINAM MANILANS.

Actually, our true story begins away from Manila, in Imus, Cavite with a lawsuit; it was a test case, and so I shall refer to it as the Imus Litmus, calling for the cleaning up of the incredibly, horribly polluted Manila Bay.

On 29 January 1999, Atty Antonio Asuncion Oposa Jr, in behalf of Concerned Residents of Manila, represented by a group of his own law students at UP, University of the Philippines, led by Divina V Ilas, filed the Imus Litmus case before the RTC, Regional Trial Court at Imus, where he was resident, a class suit against government agencies for failing to clean up after the polluters. He had looked at Manila Bay and seen for himself how horrible it was even expressed in technical language: ‘domestic wastes and effluents from factories flow into the Bay’ (TJ Burgonio, 19 December 2008, newsinfo.inquirer.net). At that time, Manila was dumping everyday 5,000,000 gallons of raw sewage into Manila Bay, not including the 2,000 tons of garbage thrown in (from the Imus Litmus case e-file, thelawofnature.org). Manila Bay was everybody’s waste water.

On 12 September 2002, 3 years after the Imus Litmus was filed, the Imus Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered various government agencies to do what they were required by law to do: clean up Manila Bay. The OSG, Office of the Solicitor General, filed a Petition for Review by the Supreme Court, which referred it to the CA, Court of Appeals.

On 28 September 2005, the CA upheld the decision by the Imus Court and ordered the government agencies concerned to come up with a consolidated and coordinated action plan to rehabilitate Manila Bay.

In March 2006, the OSG filed a Motion for Reconsideration with the CA, which denied it. The OSG then filed a Petition for Review with the Supreme Court.

On 12 August 2008, en banc and presided over by Chief Justice Reynato Puno, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from the OSG and the lawyers of the petitioners: Antonio Oposa, Sigfrid Fortun, Carl Castillo, Linda Jimeno, Rico Agcaoili, Rolly Vinluan. The arguments of the petitioners were unassailable; the arguments of the defendants were pathetic. I know; I was there, as a good friend, the father of Atty Oposa, Dr Antonio C Oposa, had invited me.

That day was very revealing to me not in matters of law or logic – I had been an avid reader of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books when I was in high school – but in the manner by which Atty Oposa ‘argued’ for the petitioners. He began by saying, ‘Let me tell you a story.’ So he told us, showed us by a pdf presentation the:

Story of a group of Islands (of incredible wealth)
Story of what its People have done to its wealth
Story of what we are trying to do
Issues per Court Advisory
Solutions.

Never mind the details! Perry Mason was never that smart pleading for any of his clients. (You can access the entire presentation, and more, if you click here: thelawofnature.org.) The point is that in Antonio Asuncion Oposa Jr, you can find a critical thinker who is a creative thinker first, a kindred spirit.

I am tempted to say he takes after his father, Dr Oposa, who is a maverick himself when it comes to medical theory & practice, and his philosophy in life. I first met Dr Oposa in a book, and I agreed with one of his main contentions, which is in the title of his book itself: Give the Flowers ... Now! subtitled Memoirs of Antonio C Oposa (2005, 200 pages + photo inserts). ‘I’d rather have one blossom now / Than a truckload when I am dead’ – Christina Rossetti. Through that book, I came to admire Dr Oposa’s love of country, which I have found profusely in his son. Patriotism is not media mileage of avid prattle; it is media coverage of actual practice. In 1959-1960, Dr Oposa had become the first and only Filipino Chief Resident in General Vascular and Thoracic Surgery at the Medical Center of UCSF, University of California San Francisco while on surgery training. After that, Dr Leon Goldman, Professor and Chair of the Department of Surgery at UCSF, offered him an Assistant Professorship at UCSF if he decided to come back to San Francisco. He did not.

Like father, like son. In 1998, Atty Oposa stopped his private practice of law and started his public practice, pro bono. That is how he came to file the Imus Litmus class action.

On 18 December 2008, the Supreme Court, with the decision authored by Justice Presbitero J Velasco Jr, upheld the ruling of the Regional Trial Court as well as that of the Court of Appeals in favor of the Imus Litmus petitioners. In their decision, the Supreme Court in effect reminded the world of the 5th Right of Man, saying (sc.judiciary.gov.ph):

The right to a balanced and healthful ecology need not even be written in the Constitution for it is assumed, like other civil and political rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, to exist from the inception of mankind and it is an issue of transcendental importance with intergenerational implications.

The Supreme Court ordered specific government agencies ‘to undertake a coordinated cleanup, restoration and preservation of the Bay’ (Burgonio as cited). The 10 government agencies tasked by the Supreme Court to clean up, restore and preserve the water quality of Manila Bay are: Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine National Police-Maritime Group, and the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources, Education, Health, Agriculture, Public Works and Highways, Budget and Management, and Interior and Local Government (William B Depasupil, manilatimes.net).

Surprisingly, the Supreme Court said the #1 polluters of Manila Bay and the major river systems leading to its waters are the many squatter shanties and other illegal structures that do not have septic tanks (Depasupil as cited). The waters are their septic tanks. When will the people learn to respect Mother Nature?

Now then, considering that the squatters and owners of illegal structures are known with the barest provocation to instantly transform themselves into parliamentarians of the street when they feel that their human rights are being trampled upon by government agents, there is a small people problem there. And yet, human rights must give way to social rights when push comes to shove. ‘What is democracy?’ Atty Oposa asked rhetorically during the joint meeting of the Rotary Club of Forbes and Rotary Club of Manila on 26 March 2009 at the Manila Polo Club where he was the guest speaker. ‘Democracy is not the good of the majority. It is the greatest good for the greatest number – and we must add to that – for the longest time.’ He meant intergenerational equity.

The term intergenerational equity is defined by Business Dictionary thus: Resources and assets (such as quality and diversity of the environment) which do not ‘belong’ to any generation but are to be administered and preserved in trust for all future generations (businessdictionary.com). This must take after one of the major dogmas being preached by the charismatic Christians, Protestants and Catholics alike: We are not Owners but merely Stewards of the Earth. Now then, depending on how we behave towards each other, we are all truly rich – or we are all truly poor. Science learning from Religion, I must say.

In that historic Rotary meeting, part of the program was a wise and witty satire they called ‘Penitential Rites,’ using the rites of the Roman Catholic mass (covering the Readings). Excuse me while I laugh – no, you can’t enjoy it if you’re not Catholic, sorry – and reproduce here what I can reconstruct of the proceedings according to my 4-day old notes and 69-year-old memory; thus:

1st Reading (from PD 1152, Sec 20)

It shall be the responsibility of the polluter to contain, remove and clean up water pollution incidents at his own expense. In case of his failure to do so, the government agencies concerned shall undertake containment, removal and clean-up operations and expenses incurred in said operations shall be charged against the persons and/or entities responsible for such pollution.

The Word of Ferdinand Marcos.
Response: Ngayon alam ko na. (Now I know.)

2nd Reading (from the 18 December 2008 Supreme Court decision)

So it was that in Oposa vs Factoran Jr, the Court stated that the right to a balanced and healthful ecology need not even be written in the Constitution for it is assumed, like other civil and political rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, to exist from the inception of mankind and it is an issue of transcendental importance with intergenerational implications.

The Word of the Supreme Court.
Response: ‘Thanks be to the Supreme Court.’

3rd Reading (on the original Imus Litmus case):

Respondents ... counter that the statutory command is clear and that petitioners’ duty to comply with and act according to the clear mandate of the law does not require the exercise of discretion. According to respondents, petitioners, the MMDA in particular, are without discretion, for example, to choose which bodies of water they are to clean up, or which discharge or spill they are to contain. By the same token, respondents maintain that petitioners are bereft of discretion on whether or not to alleviate the problem of solid and liquid waste disposal; in other words, it is the MMDA’s ministerial duty to attend to such services.

We agree with respondents.

The Word of the Supreme Court.
Response: Mabuhay ang Supreme Court! (Long live the Supreme Court!)

The Main Reading

The Main Reading is taken from somewhere in the fifth year of the reign of Queen Gloria:

Let us sin no more against the environment – and against our fellow men. Amen.

The 1st Reading was taken from PD 1152, the Philippine Environmental Code, which was signed by President Ferdinand E Marcos on 6 June 1977, acknowledging that ‘the broad spectrum of environment has become a matter of vital concern to the government’ (lawphil.net). Atty Oposa had discovered it in the books, and so this law became the main basis for the filing of the Imus Litmus case.

I understand that the Penitential Rites was the idea of Manila Rotarian Santiago Dumlao, who was in charge of Recognition Time. Congratulations, Sir! Manila Rotarian Alex Yap was the Guru dispensing wisdom. At one point in the rites, the audience was informed that the waters of Manila Bay had been found to have 1,000,000 MPN (most probable number) of coliform bacteria per mL of water, where the maximum MPN allowable for contact recreation is 200 MPN/mL (positivenewsmedia.net), which means that the current Manila Bay MPN is 5,000 times higher than the acceptable level. Yuck! Then the Guru sprinkled water on those at the presidential table.

The Imus Litmus had called for a Mandamus on the government agencies concerned; the Supreme Court did better than that: it granted a ‘Continuing Mandamus’ for the first time in its history (Rita Linda V Jimeno, 22 December 2008, manilastandardtoday.com). ‘A Mandamus is a writ issued by courts to compel a party in a case to do or perform a specific act in respect to another person’s legal rights or entitlement’ (Jimeno as cited). That is as if the Supreme Court told those government agencies: ‘Put your act together and clean up, or there will be hell to pay!’

The Imus Litmus has now become the Imus Mandamus, graduating from uncertainty to certainty, from trial to truth. The law has become a thinking tool for government agencies that are in the first place supposed to prevent the pollution of Manila Bay and the rivers and streams contributing to it.

In fact, the Philippines had been looking at the example of the Supreme Court of India that had issued a Continuing Mandamus, ‘which involves the passing of regular directions and the monitoring of their implementation by executive agencies,’ according to Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India KG Balakrishnan (2008, sal.org.sg). This is designed to clean up the extremely polluted sacred Ganges River. The Indian Supreme Court had paved the way for PILs, public interest litigations against polluters. Recently, that Court ordered the closing of factories violating environmental laws, including hundreds of tanneries around Delhi and Tamil Nadu (Qamar Rahman, 1996, ehponline.org). The voice of the Supreme Court is the voice of extreme power.

With our Supreme Court ruling, Atty Oposa said the government agencies now are able ‘to exercise the needed political will to clean up the Bay’ (TJ Burgonio, 19 December 2008, newsinfo.inquirer.net). The voice of the Supreme Court is the voice of good, if of maximum tolerance as well as compulsion.

But we citizens still have to be vigilant, says Jimeno (cited). Making Manila Bay swimmable again is too important to be left to the law enforcement agencies, I say. ‘Failure is not an option,’ Atty Oposa said in his Rotary speech. And he repeated it: ‘Failure is not an option.’

Not only vigilant, we must be non-polluters ourselves. Indifference is not an option either. That reminds me of what the Supreme Court said of the case for Manila Bay (thelawofnature.org):

At the core of the case is the Manila Bay, a place with a proud historic past, once brimming with marine life and, for so many decades in the past, a spot for different contact recreation activities, but not a dirty and slowly dying expanse mainly because of the abject official indifference of people and institutions that could have otherwise made a difference.

Indifference No, Difference Yes. Each one of us can make a difference, should make a difference. That was the essence of the oath that Atty Oposa made us all recite at the end of his presentation (with minor editing):

Ten, fifty, a hundred years from now,
And many generations hereafter,
Let it be said that during our watch ...
with intelligence & insight,
with privilege and position,
with the wealth of wisdom,
And with the freedom and power of the Human Will,
Let it be said that in our time,
And during our watch ...
We did our share.
And maybe, just maybe ...
We will make a little difference.

That reminds me of the case of Laguna Lake, the largest body of freshwater in the Philippines, which has been dying since the late 1970s. I know because in 1981 I worked as assistant editor for ICLARM, International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management (now WorldFish), and a study by ICLARM scientists had come to that conclusion. And yes, the ICLARM scientists had discovered that the biggest sources of the pollution of Laguna Lake were the residences and their duck houses that ringed that body of water. The Supreme Court ruling on the Manila Bay case will make a big difference in the future of the Lake, because you cannot clean up Manila Bay without cleaning up the Lake, which is the biggest body of water that feeds the Bay.

Whenever I look at Laguna Lake from the bus, I am saddened to see all those hundreds of hectares of illegal fish pens that litter the waters. It is shocking to note that the illegal fish pens comprise 90% of the total fish pens in the Lake, according to Secretary Lito Atienza of the DENR, Department of Environment and Natural Resources (Ira Karen Ipanay, 29 March 29, 2009, yehey.com). The Lake has a total of 12,000 ha or 60% of the area covered with fish pens. ‘Allowable fish pens should not really be more than 10%,’ Atienza said. Imagine all that pollution from fish feeds thrown into the water not consumed by the fish. Atienza is doing his job. The Supreme Court decision had designated DENR as the lead agency in the cleaning up of Manila Bay. Polluters of Laguna Lake, here we come!

During the Penitential Rites at the Manila Polo Club, the Guru (Rotarian Alex Yap) sprinkled water on those at the Presidential Table – with the declaration that the water came from Manila Bay. The laughter that followed masked the concern of the Rotarians present. Noting that, the guest speaker told them about what simple things they could do to help stop the pollution of Manila Bay. Segregate your trash, he said. If you do that, then you can give those old newspapers to your household help and they can make a little more money from the sale. (I can tell you the Hilarios have been segregating for the last 15 years at least.)

There’s more we can do. In 1975 or thereabouts, working for FORI, Forest Research Institute as its Chief Information Officer, I came to learn about the 3 Rs of waste management, which we, most especially the literate, seem to have forgotten or just simply chosen to ignore: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. That slogan was very prominently displayed in posters at the nearby building of FORPRIDECOM, Forest Products Research and Industries Development Commission, which I frequently visited, because my wife was working there. Love is blind, but lovers can read, can’t they?

Actually, Atty Oposa told the Rotarians, what we lack has nothing to do with knowledge or skill; what we lack is political will. Precisely that is why he has been using legal will to supplant the lack of human will. Today we have no excuses. Where there is no will, now there is a will. He is using the law as thinking tool. He is using the law as a powerful critical device to make people think creatively about the law, environment and development. They don’t make people think creatively like they used to. Shame on us! He is a lawyer; why does it take a critical thinker to remind each one of us to be a creative thinker?

He calls the Supreme Court decision not only a landmark in jurisprudence but also ‘revolutionary’ because it has created a ‘new dimension on the environmental accountability of public officials’ (Burgonio as cited). ‘This 10-year saga started as a dream to see the Bay clean again,’ he said. ‘Now, I will see the fulfillment of that dream’ (quoted by Alcuin Papa, 3-6 January 2009, asianjournal.com).

In a manner of speaking he is the one who has pointed out to us that the emperor has no clothes; that is to say, of Manila Bay as having the most beautiful sunset in the world we wax poetic, while we make its waters septic. He is peripatetic, so now he leaves us while we may be thinking antiseptic; he is off to the Visayan Seas fighting for its CPR, conservation, protection and restoration. CPR, he calls it. It really is a matter of life and death for the marine species. And if the marine species go, can the human species be far behind?

He has a School of the SEAs (Sea and Earth Advocates) in Bantayan Island in Cebu, Central Philippines, where he teaches the youth ‘(to) understand the natural wealth of our beautiful country, and (to) begin to care’ (thelawofnature.org). He has a point there – the youth are easier to teach.

That leaves the adults and the seniors like me – I’m 69. I don’t think we can attend a school where we are taught the ABCs of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Sure, we Filipinos are teaching the world the lesson of the 5th Right of Man, but if we can’t teach ourselves the 3 Rs, we’ll never ever learn.

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