Marcos Year 1

In a burning world, Toni Loyzaga plays by the rules

Iya Gozum

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In a burning world, Toni Loyzaga plays by the rules

STICKLER FOR RULES. DENR Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga want to bring together contributions from the government, private sector, advocacy groups in the DENR's work.

Art by DR Castuciano

In her first year in office, Environment Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga finds her footing in the bureaucracy of a department that deals with urgent issues and fervent movements

MANILA, Philippines – On an early Thursday morning in June, she was already up at 6 am for a Manila Bay cleanup event.

Despite the early call time, her hair was set well, in the usual way that has made it one of her striking features. She wore a blue button-down shirt over denim pants and a pair of hiking boots. It’s World Oceans Day, and a flurry of reporters followed Environment Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga as she walked along the seawall, inspecting and picking up trash. 

That same week, Loyzaga also led a tree-planting activity at the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center in Quezon City for World Environment Day, where she shoved earth onto a hole to plant a seedling of the rare tree lapnisan.

In this particular week, the media took the chance to ask the secretary, in person, questions on pressing environmental issues. It’s a criticism hurled at Loyzaga as she reaches her first year: that she’s not showing herself enough, even amid the biggest environmental crisis – the oil spill in Oriental Mindoro – in the first year of the Marcos administration. 

IN THE FIELD. Environment Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga shovels earth during a tree-planting activity on June 5, 2023, at the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center, a protected area at the heart of Quezon City. Rappler photo

“I’ve been told we have to start doing it, and that’s what we will do,” she said in response to these criticisms in her first one-on-one media interview nine months into office.

Loyzaga took over the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) after two Duterte-time environment secretaries with very different leadership styles: the impassioned Gina Lopez and military man Roy Cimatu. 

In the middle lies Loyzaga – a bureaucrat at the helm of a department that has to deal with urgent environmental issues, advocates and their campaigns, and big corporations with their own agenda.

When Loyzaga accepted her nomination as environment secretary, she already anticipated shocks and uncertainties as the norm in environmental work. True resilience, she said, was thriving – not just merely surviving – under these circumstances. 

To thrive under crisis, Loyzaga has so far played by the rules, as she had always done so in the past.

“Essentially, we want to get results done,” she said in the interview last April. “We work within our rules-based environment and that’s what we’re used to in the previous sectors where I came from.”

While initially optimistic about Loyzaga’s appointment, some environmental groups are now concerned that in its first year, her office did not deliver any real changes that could address the country’s most urgent environmental concerns. 

“One year of the Marcos Jr. administration has meant an abundance of platitudes on climate and environmental action, and little actual progress for ecologically sustainable development,” environmental network Kalikasan said in a statement.

Wealth of experience

Looking at her extensive network and her history in climate and disaster work, Loyzaga, on paper, is the perfect candidate to assume the role of environment secretary. 

Loyzaga studied political science at the Ateneo de Manila University and then eventually took her master’s in government at Georgetown University in Washington DC in the United States. 

She is married to former professional basketball player and commissioner Chito Loyzaga, with whom she has three children: daughters Celina, Cecilia, and son Jose Joaquin, who now serves as her head executive assistant at the DENR. 

FAMILY. Loyzaga with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and her family during her oath-taking in Malacañang on July 22, 2023. Photo from President Ferdinand Marcos Jr./Facebook 

From 2007 to 2016, Loyzaga served as the executive director of the Manila Observatory, a research institution working on sustainable development and disaster risk resilience. Around that same period, she was also part of Ateneo de Manila University’s Board of Trustees. 

Loyzaga also served as president of the National Resilience Council, a science and technology-based public-private partnership that supports the government, communities, the academe, and the private sector, from 2017 to 2022.

She is currently vice chairperson of Forest Foundation Philippines, a nonprofit organization working on forest conservation, and a member of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s Asia Pacific Science Technology Advisory Group.

Former DENR undersecretary Antonio La Viña, who has worked with Loyzaga in the Manila Observatory and has known her for almost 40 years since their student days in Ateneo, described the latter as someone who is not flamboyant nor a credit grabber. 

“In fact, she is quite deliberate, seeking to do the right thing the right way,” La Viña told Rappler. “I cannot think of anyone in government that is as conscientious as she is.” 

But her past work wasn’t just cerebral. Loyzaga also went out to the field.

In the wake of Super Typhoon Yolanda, the worst-ever natural disaster to hit the Philippines, Loyzaga – who was then already leading the Manila Observatory for six years – offered her expertise to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), tasked to organize a multinational humanitarian relief distribution at the time. 

According to a 2013 The Philippine Star report, it was Loyzaga who brought Luke Beckman, an American expert in disaster response and humanitarian operations, onboard to coordinate the logistics of relief distribution. 

Both Loyzaga and Beckman were recognized by the AFP for their contributions to the military’s disaster response. 

Consultative leadership 

Appointed environment secretary by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. last July 2022, Loyzaga brought this wealth of experience to the DENR, a 40,000-strong department tasked to oversee all the natural resources and assets of the country. 

When she took the reins of the DENR, one of the first things she did was hold a multistakeholder forum with the heads of the largest conglomerates in the country, scientists, thought leaders, and advocacy groups last October to tap into the different social and economic perspectives of the department’s work.

She also held forums on environmentally critical issues such as mining, water security, and reclamation, and created multisectoral advisory councils composed of experts from various fields.

Loyzaga uses these consultations as a chance to study the myriad of inherited issues besetting the country and predating any environment secretary. 

“She makes it a point to study the issue at hand,” DENR Undersecretary for Integrated Environmental Science Carlos Primo David told Rappler. 

“And if there are certain technical issues that would require an expert, we would call on colleagues from the academe and friends in the private sector.”

David met Loyzaga around 13 years ago when they worked together during a major flood event in Mindoro. He described her as a leader who is a “firm believer of science-based and data-driven policies.” 

Today, at the DENR, the two are working together again, with their latest project focused on establishing and running the department’s newly minted geospatial database office. In fact, last Tuesday, June 27, David and Loyzaga met with the President and other Cabinet secretaries to present the compiled natural resources database of the country

Since both of them came from the academe, was it a shock for the secretary to be on the other side of the fence? David said Loyzaga is adapting to the new environment. 

“Of course, everyone adapts when placed outside one’s original comfort zone,” David said. “And the situation calls for a different type of leadership. And I think she has adjusted well in government.”

As she continues to adjust in her first government position, Loyzaga sticks to the vision she set for the DENR in 2022: a democratic institution “where stakeholders can participate, where there is transparency in the department’s plans and decisions.”

MEETING. Loyzaga is flanked by Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos and Defense Secretary Gibo Teodoro during a sectoral meeting on June 27, 2023 at Malacañang. The DENR gives updates about the office on the National Environment and Natural Resources Geospatial Database. Photo by Yummie Dingding/PPA Pool 

For Loyzaga, the digitization and modernization of the department’s information systems are crucial in making sure the DENR’s services are delivered to the public more efficiently. 

The new geospatial database office created only last February is an example of this pivot. The office hopes to map and monitor the natural resources of the country by creating a comprehensive inventory of natural assets using satellite imagery and remote sensing. 

Last May, she also signed a memorandum of agreement with the Manila Observatory to create a climate change information management system. This will help the department create practical climate change adaptation measures – a subject the secretary knows like the back of her hand. 

In fact, one of her pet projects is Project Transform, which seeks to link the private sector, local government units, and concerned national agencies to build resilience and environmental sustainability.  

Loyzaga also recently reaffirmed the Philippines’ commitment to the Sendai Framework – a disaster management framework adopted by governments around the world – during the United Nations High-Level Meeting on the Midterm Review in New York last May.

A year-long warmup

But people directly affected by the destruction of the country’s biodiversity want to see more of an advocate than a bureaucrat in Loyzaga. 

While the secretary was in New York, residents from Sibuyan Island in Romblon trooped to the DENR to demand the cancellation of the mining permit of Altai Philippines Mining Corporation. 

Because Loyzaga was not around, it was her undersecretaries Jonas Leones, Augusto dela Peña, and David who met with the group to “recommit” sending experts to their island and opening communication lines. 

“We find her leadership weak in terms of the changes that we had expected her to make when she became DENR secretary,” lawyer Liza Osorio, Oceana Philippines’ legal and policy director, told Rappler in a mix of Filipino and English. 

Oceana Philippines is a nonprofit group currently involved in the Oriental Mindoro oil spill response and the campaign to stop the reclamation projects along Manila Bay. They were also part of the DENR’s conference last May on reclamation projects, where, according to Osorio, they didn’t have the chance to speak.

Despite the DENR’s conduct of a cumulative impact assessment on these projects, Osorio said there is already enough evidence for the department to revoke the projects’ environmental compliance certificates. 

“The adverse impacts of reclamation projects are very clear,” said Osorio. “You see how careful she is.” Osorio said expectations are high for Loyzaga to push the envelope because of her “highly vaunted qualifications.” 

Another group seeking Loyzaga’s audience is the Masungi Georeserve Foundation Incorporation (MGFI), who initially supported her nomination, citing the Manila Observatory’s “invaluable” studies on the deforestation of the Upper Marikina Watershed. 

Now, Masungi is grappling with a DENR that is leaning towards canceling its 2017 memorandum of agreement with the department, which covers 2,700 hectares of land for reforestation.

“The lack of intervention and ambiguous statements regarding the cancellation of the agreement are being exploited against us,” said Billie Dumaliang, one of the trustees of the MGFI. 

The issue, which has already reached the halls of Congress, remains pending as Loyzaga said the investigation on the contract was still ongoing – different from Leones’ statement in March when he said they were only waiting for the secretary’s decision. 

While Loyzaga is taking her time to decide on certain issues, some sectors are already getting impatient. 

The secretary ends her first year with neither a bang nor a whimper. Instead, she leaves the public waiting. –

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Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.