RP's Erin Brokovich: One lawsuit at a time

By David Dizon, abs-cbnNEWS.com

Posted at Sep 07 2009 05:01 PM | Updated as of Sep 12 2009 08:28 AM

MANILA - Call him the male Erin Brokovich.

It’s hard not to feel a little bit excited about the environment when talking to lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr.  Naturally ebullient, Oposa said there are over 200 laws and government treaties in the Philippines that tackle the environment. Ironically, he says less than one percent of these environmental laws are followed by goverment agencies and officials.

“There are so many laws in our country that are not being followed. I think it’s time we start reminding our government officials what they are in power for and start implementing their laws,” he told abs-cbnNEWS.com.

Coming from any other individual, the statement may seem like an empty boast. Oposa, however, has more than 30 years of experience of fighting the environmental wars in this Southeast Asian nation.

The struggle has yielded impressive results. In what is deemed one of the biggest environmental lawsuits ever won in the Philippines, the Supreme Court last December issued a continuing mandamus ordering 12 government agencies to draft a plan to clean up the Manila Bay and regularly update the court on the progress of their work.

The decision ended 10 years of legal maneuverings for Oposa and the government agencies involved in the case, and started what could be the rehabilitation of an important body of water near the capital city of Manila.

“You have a body of water that is very, very rich. It has earned all the praises and paeans have been sung to it. But what have we done? For a body of water to be swimmable, the standard for fecal coliform bacteria is 200 units per cubic meter. In the mid 90s, the fecal coliform level of Manila Bay was 1 million per cubic meter!

“We used to joke that inmates who got the death sentence didn’t need the lethal injection, just have them drink a glass of water from Manila Bay and it would have the same effect,” he said.

‘Intergenerational responsibility’

Oposa’s fame as a lawyer spreads far beyond that of the “green groups” that he frequents. In 1993, he filed a class suit against then environment chief Fulgencio Factoran Jr. to cancel all timber license agreements and stop deforestation in the country. What was unique about the lawsuit was that the case was filed by 44 children through their parents and that it sought to protect “the generations to come.”

A lower court first dismissed the case, saying that “unborn generations” had no legal personality to file cases.

Undaunted, Oposa elevated the case to the Supreme Court and won. In its decision, the high court said future generations have the right to a healthy environment, which carried with it an obligation to preserve that environment for the succeeding generations. Today, the “Oposa vs Factoran” case is taught in legal circles all over the world because of its concept of intergenerational responsibility.

“It made such a ripple in legal communities because it made it possible to file class actions for generations who will benefit from the cleanup of the environment,” he said.

Similar to the Oposa vs Factoran case, the Manila Bay case could be considered another of Oposa’s almost quixotic quest to clean up the environment but with spectacular results.

“It was really just a dream. What if I filed a case against the government for not doing its job? I wanted to sue 12 to 13 government agencies. Talagang suntok sa buwan. (It was a shot at the moon). All I really wanted to do was nudge them a little and say, ‘Hey, do your jobs!’

“But then I won. I wasn’t asking for them to clean up the Manila Bay right away. All I wanted was that these government agencies come together and come up with a concrete action plan and start doing it. Every single agency and department that had a say in it – the environment department, health, budget – everyone was included,” Oposa said.

Oposa said the Supreme Court decision is especially important because it made every government agency involved in the Manila Bay accountable. “These government agencies started scrambling when they got the subpoenas. No matter how complicated the case was, it was over in four hearings. In fairness to the agencies, they really started working,” he said.

10 million signatures vs climate change

Oposa’s successes, both in and out of the courtroom, have earned for him a legion of admirers and accolades. He has received the Environmental Law Award from the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law and was also included in the United Nations Environmental Programme’s Global 500 Roll of Honor.

He is also the recipient of the 2009 Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for his “pathbreaking and passionate crusade to engage Filipinos in acts of enlightened citizenship that maximize the power of law to protect and nurture the environment for themselves, their children, and generations still to come.”

Oposa said one advantage of winning the award is the fame it brings. Last May, he and more than 200 lawyers launched the Global Legal Action against Climate Change, which filed legal actions against every local official in the country. He said the letters of inquiry asked local government units to explain what actions they have taken to obey the country’s laws on water, fisheries, solid waste management  and others.

“With just ink and paper, we sent letters asking local officials to explain why they have been unable to comply with the country’s environment laws. It’s a legal revolution. It may be just a letter but it has legal power,” he said.

Despite the legal actions, he also understands that saving the environment is too big a job for the government alone to handle.

Just recently, he also launched the 10 Million Movement, which seeks to get commitments from 10 million individuals ages 30 and below on what they would do to change their lifestyle to save the environment.

“You cannot trust the President to do it. There’s too much to do. The Secretary of the Environment is only good for 18 months because they keep changing the secretaries. The local officials are only as good as the next election. No, the task is too big. The only way we can make real change in the environment is if we are willing to change ourselves,” he said.