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[OPINION] How the Philippines can build back greener after COVID-19

Protecting the world’s land and ocean resources outweighs financial costs at least 5 to 1. Globally, this can lead to $250 billion in increased yearly economic output, plus $350 billion in improved ecosystem services annually.

By investing in the natural systems that give Filipinos clean water, air, and other resources, we can generate jobs and create a more resilient nation.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the vulnerabilities of many Philippine sectors. The Department of Labor estimates up to 10 million Filipinos may lose their jobs by the end of 2020. Environmental frontliners have been particularly hard-hit.

In Occidental Mindoro, 35 wardens and 24 rangers from the Mts. Iglit-Baco Natural Park and Tamaraw Conservation Program were affected. Around 100 rangers protecting the Pasonanca Natural Park in Zamboanga lost their jobs.

HOME. The Mts. Iglit-Baco Natural Park (MIBNP) in Mindoro is home not just to the tamaraw, but many kinds of endangered plant and animal species as well. Its mountains and forests also supply fresh water for Mindoro’s lowland agricultural communities. Photo by Gregg Yan

To keep some of these frontliners afloat, several institutions launched creative fundraising initiatives. The Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) of UNDP and DENR through the Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) for instance, raised over P1.4 million for Mindoro’s rangers and wardens.

Investing in nature key to resiliency

Safeguarding biodiversity reduces future health risks and makes society more resilient.

This piece hopes to spur ideas to generate resources and jobs for conservation, while helping better guide the allocation and implementation of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases or IATF’s P1.3 trillion stimulus and recovery package.

Around P650 billion of the stimulus package has been allotted for the Enhanced Build, Build, Build Program, which covers the construction of climate-smart and resilient infrastructure.

These include greenscapes, rainwater harvesting systems, nature-based solutions to floods, droughts, and typhoons, green infrastructure in public parks, integration of wastewater management, plus the creation of new spaces such as greenways and community food gardens. All these can enhance biodiversity and ecosystems in a given locality.

The related ARISE Act recommends the development of an Economic and Ecological Resilience Plan (ERP). Climate change adaptation and mitigation investments are highlighted to reduce emissions and welcome climate-resilient development paths towards a green economy. Relevant provisions include better strategies to improve air quality, water availability, and the proper treatment of solid and infectious wastes.

GREEN. Many of the Philippines’ forests, lakes, and rivers supply vital freshwater for nearby barangays, towns, and cities. Shown is a portion of the Biak-na-Bato National Park, which is both ecologically and historically significant. Photo by Gregg Yan

Most of the investment provisions in the proposed ARISE Act aims to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 while jumpstarting the economy. The stimulus package is heavy on economic provisions and budget appropriations to enable the country to recover faster, but with proper environmental considerations. Nature-positive solutions can create stable jobs and protect our planet.

Below are 7 steps for the country to build back greener:

1)     Include Protected Areas (PAs) and key biodiversity areas (KBAs) as key elements of nature-based solutions. We need to leverage our natural capital, particularly the untapped potential of our PAs, and ensure that protecting nature is central to our green recovery agenda.

2)      Invest more in our PAs and KBAs. Our protected areas have been heavily-dependent on government appropriations and external fund sources. The passage of the ENIPAS Act is a breakthrough for PA investments, but a large financing gap remains.

For instance, the proposed budget for FY 2020 was P3 billion. In a survey conducted by BIOFIN and BMB with PA officers in 2018, the country’s legislated PAs need at least P14.3 billion to operate at full capacity from 2020 to 2022. BIOFIN estimates the annual PBSAP gap to be almost P19 billion, revealing the need to find alternative ways of raising funds.

This will cover personnel cost, programs, management and operational expenses for biodiversity and habitat protection, research, monitoring and restoration; community development and resource management; conservation and public awareness programs; and institutional strengthening, partnerships and capacity-building.

Both the Senate and House of Representatives should ensure that our PAs and KBAs have adequate funding. Our PAs have the potential to generate jobs for displaced workers and new business opportunities.

3)    Fast-track the passage of the following congressional bills:

a.       House Bill 00260 – An Act strengthening the national policy on access and benefit-sharing from the utilization of Philippine Genetic Resources.

b.      House Bill 00265 – An Act providing for a revised Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, appropriating funds therefor and for other purposes.

c.       House Bill 00268 – An Act providing for the collection, characterization, conservation, protection, sustainable use of and access to and benefit-sharing of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, appropriating funds therefor and for other purposes.

d.      House Bill 2894 – An Act institutionalizing the Poverty Reduction through Social Entrepreneurship (PRESENT) Program and promoting social enterprises with the poor as primary stakeholders.

e.      House Bill 2895 – An Act rationalizing the economic regulation of water utilities, creating the Water Regulatory Commission and for other purposes.

House Bill 6878 – An Act strengthening the implementation of the National Organic Agriculture Program amending for the purpose Republic Act 10068, or the Organic Agriculture Act of 2010.

4)      Embrace agrobiodiversity. Agrobiodiversity encompasses the variety and variability of animals, plants, and microorganisms used for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry, and fisheries. Examples of programs that support this are the National Organic Agriculture Program, Philippine National Aquasilviculture Program, Fisheries Resources Development, and so forth. The stimulus package should embrace, fund, and help prop up agrobiodiversity programs.

5)      Leverage partnerships and private sector engagement for PAs. This includes CSR and potential models of people-centric programs for PAs. As PA managers prepare management and investment plans to comply with the ENIPAS Act, they should venture into project design and development.

This will allow PAs to generate viable programs, projects, and activities that the private sector can invest in. Examples are biodiversity-friendly enterprises, assistance to displaced workers, technical and vocational learning, and so forth. Likewise, LGUs should increase investments and interventions to support PA development by allocating significant portions of its 20% development fund to support PA programs.

6)      Strengthen human resources. There is an opportunity to maximize incentives and leverage the provisions of the Philippine Green Jobs Act of 2016 (RA 10771). Local and district programs should encourage engaging TESDA and local state colleges and universities to provide skills-training for rangers and park service-providers.

Many of these rangers are farmers, fisherfolk, or indigenous people and have been risking their lives to patrol our PAs. Together with DENR, it is time to develop a course which can be accredited as a minimum requirement for rangers to be regularized and given plantilla positions.

7)      Maximize technology and citizen engagement. As the country shifts to a new normal, maximizing the use of technology and online platforms becomes more relevant. In light of PA and park closures, creative means must be employed to generate revenue. DENR and PAMOs with private-sector partners can explore the possibility of doing online or virtual tours, similar to those being done by museums and zoos, with certain fees or donations. Products and services from this initiative can also enrich the education of online students.

WATER. Lake Manguao in Taytay, Palawan is a haven for birdwatchers, hosting at least 138 different bird species. It is also a vital watershed for the region. Photo by Gregg Yan

* * *

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that PAs and KBAs cannot rely solely on government appropriations and other traditional income sources. Our PAMOs and other partners must determine appropriate finance solutions best suited to their respective programs, projects and activities.

As UNDP-BIOFIN puts it, finance solutions are not limited to generating revenue or mobilizing new resources: they entail realigning of existing resources, preventing future costs, and improving the delivery of existing finances. To weather these tough times, our PAs and managers must learn these elements to make their respective PAs financially resilient. 

This global crisis is the country’s best opportunity to rearticulate development strategies and policies towards truly equitable, environmentally-sound, and sustainable growth.

We are in the midst of one of the most trying times in our history. But by correcting our past mistakes, we can mend our broken relationship with nature. – Rappler.com

Congresswoman Josephine Ramirez Sato of the Lone District of Occidental Mindoro is the principal author of the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (ENIPAS) Act of 2018. She is the Chairperson of the Committee on Accounts and Committee on Science and Technology of the Commission on Appointments.