Pinoy wins top US environmental law award

By Rodney Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at Apr 24 2009 11:17 AM | Updated as of Apr 26 2009 05:35 AM

International environmental law awardee Antonio Oposa Jr. with former Supreme Court Chief Justice and now Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Hilario Davide Jr.

WASHINGTON D.C. -- He describes himself as a street brawler and storyteller – traits that have carried lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr. from the shadows of the Philippine’s endangered forests to the barren corral waters of the Visayas, and now, the American capital to receive the 2008 International Environmental Law Award.

“This award is not for me, but for all Filipinos. We are natural geniuses for our love of nature,” he stressed.

Oposa is only the sixth person to receive the honor from the DC-based Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). He is also the first Asian, and first Filipino to win the award.

He earned a business degree from Dela Salle University in 1975, a Bachelor of Law from the University of the Philippines in 1982 and a Master of Law from the Harvard Law School in 1997.

Oposa was influenced heavily by Georgetown Professor Edith Brown Weiss (a CIEL awardee in 2007) who espoused the concept of intergenerational equity and international law.

Intergenerational responsibility

Oposa decided to test this concept in the early 1990s when he acted as counsel for 43 children, many of them his own relatives, in class suit against then Environment & Natural Resources Secretary Fulgencio Factoran.

Studies showed that in 1988 there were only 800,000 hectares of virgin forest left in the Philippines. And yet Timber License Agreements (TLAs) issued by the DENR to 92 logging companies aimed to cut down over 3.9 million hectares – raising the prospect the country would lose its entire primeval forest resource.

A lower court dismissed Oposa’s suit, saying the plaintiff children did not have legal personality. But the Supreme Court reversed the decision in favor of Oposa, thus setting the landmark “Oposa vs Factoran” that has been used as a legal precedent in courts as far away as Bangladesh.

“Antonio Oposa has contributed in many different ways to the international environmental movement,” Daniel Magraw, CIEL president, told ABS-CBN’s Balitang America.

“The case of Oposa vs Factoran was a major inspiration to many legal systems and many lawyers around the world. It focused on a local area as national law but it demonstrated an international legal theory, which gave effect to it. This is very important to the development of international law,” Magraw explained.

Although enforcement of the Supreme Court decision was pre-empted by moves by Malacanang and Congress to enforce a logging ban, Oposa vs Factoran created enough pressure to break bureaucratic inertia.

“It opened the eyes of the Filipino people,” stressed Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Hilario Davide Jr.

He was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that promulgated Oposa vs Factoran.

“Even in the Constitution there is a very specific provision in the Declaration of Principles prescribing it is the duty of the state to promote and protect the right of the people a balanced, healthy ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature,” Davide told ABS-CBN Balitang America.

“Tony Oposa was a blessing to the environmental protection in the Philippines because he was the first really to bring a case in the court not only in behalf of the present generation, but also to future generations,” he averred.

Helping gov’t do its duty

Intergenerational equity, Davide stressed, became a legal doctrine enunciated by the Philippine Supreme Court. “That is the special distinction of our Supreme Court,” he proudly declared.

“Because of that the government really started to follow certain policies that protect the environment,” Davide added.

This has led to the creation of a “legal arsenal of laws” designed to safeguard the environment.

“I think we have the most number of laws passed but in the matter of implementation much still has to be accomplished,” the UN envoy said.

Oposa next trained his sights on illegal fishermen in the Visayas Sea – that led to the arrest of several suspects in operations mounted by the Philippine Navy, Integrated Bar of the Philippines and other non-government organizations.

A colleague was shot dead and Oposa got death threats. A bemused Oposa told Balitang America that he only got to know at the awarding ceremony, after he got a chance to talk lengthily with Professor Weiss, that his friends in the US were ready to evacuate him from the Philippines.   

They did send some money and urged him to use it to hire bodyguards. Instead, Oposa invested the funds to establish the School of the Seas. He proudly reveals the school is totally powered by renewable energy, recycles 100% of its water and a good place to learn about sustainable living.

Oposa’s 10-year legal battle against the government to rehabilitate Manila Bay bore fruit with another victory in the Supreme Court last year. The suit aimed to obligate 12 government agencies to commit to cleaning Manila Bay, including setting a timetable to accomplish this.

He noted the Supreme Court decision reinforced the principle of intergenerational responsibility by establishing the right to sue governments on behalf of future generations.

“Tony Oposa has really taken the initiative to make it really the duty of the Philippine government to exercise political will to implement all our environmental laws,” Davide averred.


Bigger battle ahead

Oposa told his audience that the Philippines was especially vulnerable to climate change and global warming – his current and perhaps biggest battle.

To underline urgency, he showed slides of remote sensing images showing that the warmest waters in the world appeared to extend from the Philippine’s eastern shoreline running south all the way to eastern Papua New Guinea, and stretching all the way east to Hawaii.

“We are not only the most critical, we are also the most vulnerable,” he emphasized, pointing to the Philippine’s extensive coastline, location in the typhoon belt and fragile fresh water sources.

For Oposa, the threat is real and personal. He showed pictures of his beach-side property in Cebu, starting in 2006, marking the water line that seemed to advance through the years. He predicted, he would eventually lose his house to the sea unless global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps are reversed.

“We can not ignore climate change and global warming because it’s happening, now,” he averred.

The rising seas, he said, would also submerge large tracts of Metro Manila. In a disturbing animation, based on calculations made by the World Wildlife Fund about 70 percent of the Philippine capital region, from the Bulacan-Navotas-Malabon area all the way south to Cavite and Paranaque – and everything in between, including Malacanang and the Ninoy Aquino International Airport – disappeared from the map.


That apocalyptic scenario was based on predictions by NASA physicist Josefino Comiso that melting polar caps could raise sea levels by as much as 23 feet.

He said climate change has put nature in a fever. He recounted that the rains have started, before he left Manila. “It’s supposed to be the middle of summer, but it’s raining. This is a symptom of climate change. The sun doesn’t know when to shine anymore. Natataranta na ang panahon,” Oposa said with wry humor.

“I am challenging all my lawyer friends in the Philippines and all over the world. I’m calling for a revolution, not a bloody revolt, but a revolution of the mind, of attitudes. We need to change the way we think,” he stressed.

On June 5, dozens of lawyers will file suits, petitions and take other legal moves across the Philippines to dramatize the need for profound changes to stop climate change and global warming.

Oposa cited a 20-year-old law mandating the creation of rain water collection systems in each barangay across the archipelago. He lamented, very few even know that this law exists.

He said that by launching the nationwide legal offensive, Oposa said they hope to demonstrate the power of united legal action to produce urgent change. “Today, the Philippines; tomorrow, the world!” he declared.