Panel recommends DENR chief Paje’s confirmation

Pia Ranada
On the 7th hearing on his appointment, the DENR secretary is questioned for allowing the operations of a DMCI Mining's port and problems in the implementation of a reforestation program

LONG WAIT. The Commission on Appointments panel recommends DENR Secretary Ramon Paje for confirmation on June 10, 2014. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Despite gruelling questions from Senator Sergio Osmeña III and two more testimonies of opposition, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje got the blessing of the Commission on Appointment (CA) for his confirmation.

On Tuesday, June 10, Paje attended the 7th and last hearing on his ad interim appointment as chief of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). (READ: DENR chief grilled on reforestation program)

The CA panel heard from two more people opposing his appointment.

Former congressman Angelo Palmones accused Paje of lying about issuing a cease and desist order (CDO) against a port run by DMCI Mining in Sta Cruz, Zambales. It allegedly continues to operate without a Foreshore Lease Agreement (FLA), a requirement for an Environment Compliance Certificate. The ECC is a document issued by the DENR’s Environment and Management Bureau (EMB).

A Writ of Kalikasan was issued last January against DMCI and is now pending deliberation at the Court of Appeals. A Writ of Kalikasan is a special legal remedy given to ordinary citizens if there is threat of environmental damage, recognizing that such violations should be addressed at once.

‘Passing the buck’

Palmones demanded that DENR stop the port operations on the grounds that the ECC issued to them in 2007 is no longer valid because of the absence of an FLA. 

Though Paje admitted there was no FLA, he said the Philippine Port Authority (PPA) issued DMCI a 5-year special permit allowing the port to operate from 2013 to 2017. Because the case was “under the jurisdiction of the PPA,” the DENR failed to issue a CDO to DMCI Mining.

Osmeña, the only senator at the hearing, chided Paje for “passing the buck” on the PPA and using the pending Court of Appeals decision as an excuse.

“If the CA has not moved on it, has it prevented you from your mandate of taking care of the environment? I’m not asking what PPA is doing about it, although they probably need to be investigated too. What is the DENR doing about it? The port continues to operate. This is shameful,” said Osmeña.

Despite opposition from the local community that the mining operations continue to cut large portions of the mountain, Paje admitted no CDO has been issued to DMCI Mining.

The temporary provisional permit issued by the DENR in place of the required FLA expired way back in January 2009, yet operations went on as usual.

Paje’s roundabout way of answering Osmena’s questions and emphasis on the permits issued by PPA led the senator to say, “You always seem to lean backwards in favor of the operator.”

Seemingly frustrated by Paje, Osmeña called for the hearing to again be suspended. After being approached by CA officials during a one-minute break, he withdrew his motion.

Greening program questioned again

A second concerned citizen, Elizabeth Carranza, chairperson of Save Sierra Madre Network Alliance, also aired her grievances against Paje during the hearing. (READ: Paje’s office overspends P21.4M on meals)

A bulk of her testimony blasted Paje for his implementation of the National Greening Program, the government’s largest reforestation program.

“The NGP has not been implemented well. It has only been a venue for more corruption within the DENR. A large amount of the Kaban ng Bayan (taxpayers’ money) has been wasted and burnt,” said Carranza.

Based on research commissioned by her organization, people’s organizations contracted by the DENR to produce seedlings for the NGP had allegedly not been paid the P12 per seedling promised them.

In one case, a DENR forester was said to be conniving with the president of the Abuan Upland Farmers Association in order to pocket the money that should have been distributed to the organization’s members.

In Casiguran, bamboo seedlings were declared planted by the DENR even when they remained in the nursery.

Carranza also questioned the entire framework of the program, saying its name is deceiving. (READ: Is the gov’t reforestation program planting the right trees?)

“It is not really a greening program if the framework is to plant what can be harvested. Why doesn’t the DENR plant the native, endemic trees to bring back our forests instead of exotic, fast-growing trees?”

Paje replied by emphasizing that when President Benigno Aquino III approved the program, he did so on the condition that “it be primarily a poverty-alleviating program.”

Hence the planting of exotic, fast-growing trees like cacao, coffee and fuel wood that can be harvested by upland farmers and easily grow back. He added that the DENR is still planting endemic trees like lauan and narra in protected areas. These trees cannot be harvested.

It was Osmeña himself who moved that Carranza wrap up her testimony. The CA panel members then unanimously voted to recommend Paje for confirmation. His confirmation will presented to the plenary on June 11 for finalization. – Rappler.com 

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.