Jun Factoran: Leadership and legacy in DENR

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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Jun Factoran: Leadership and legacy in DENR
'His eyes lit up whenever we talked about his time in government when he felt there was nobility in serving the public,' writes Marites Vitug

One of the best ways to remember Jun Factoran is to return to the immediate post-Marcos years, when he served as member of then-president Corazon Aquino’s Cabinet. In our recent conversations, his eyes lit up whenever we talked about his time in government when he felt there was nobility in serving the public. He was proud of those years. (READ: Jun Factoran, veteran lawyer and Rappler Board member, dies at 76)

The winds of democracy blew our country’s way in 1986, after 14 years of authoritarian rule under Ferdinand Marcos – and Jun was helping shape history during this difficult time of transition. He was appointed secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), taking over an institution entrenched in corruption. Marcos used the DENR to lavish his cronies, particularly through licenses to log wide swaths of forests, resulting in massive deforestation.

In the 5 years that Jun led the DENR, he shifted priorities, taking away many logging licenses of timber concessionaires so that stewardship of the forests be transferred to communities who lived there. He made reforestation his centerpiece program. He reorganized and decentralized the DENR in what is remembered as the biggest shake-up in the department.

Jun opened the archives of the DENR to me when I wrote Power from the Forest: The Politics of Logging (published in 1993). He instructed his staff to provide me with all the documents I needed because he always believed in transparency, in the freedom of the press. What I experienced then was in stark contrast to the last years of martial law when, as a reporter, access to information was almost nonexistent.

Below are excerpts from Power from the Forest that I wrote:

In March 1987, the vacuum [at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources] was filled by Fulgencio Factoran, [President Corazon] Aquino’s deputy executive secretary who was a human rights lawyer during the Marcos administration.

As deputy executive secretary, Factoran held office in Malacanang’s Administration building, quite distant from the Guest House where Aquino held office. Despite his physical distance, Factoran had the confidence and trust of the two most important Guest House tenants, Aquino and Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo.

Factoran and Arroyo’s friendship went back a long way, as human rights lawyers and street parliamentarians during the tumultuous and repressive years of Ferdinand Marcos. Before that, in the pre-martial law years, Factoran was staff assistant to Marcos’s Executive Secretary Rafael Salas. Under Salas’s tutelage, Factoran learned the ropes of government.

More than a decade later, Factoran returned to Malacañang to take on a more important job, helping the President run the country. When he was offered a Cabinet position, his first choice was to be Secretary of Transportation and Communications. President Aquino obliged. His appointment papers were ready but there was one hitch: Factoran owned a travel agency. It was a conflict-of-interest case and he was not willing to give up a source of revenue. He then withdrew from the Transportation post.

President Aquino, in a light mood one day, consulted her Executive Secretary on what Cabinet position Factoran wanted. Arroyo suggested the DENR and Factoran got it.

One of the first things Factoran did was to get basic, coherent and factual information on the state of the environment, particularly the forests. He needed statistics that reflected the reality, not bloated reforestation figures drummed up during the Marcos years.

Factoran wanted to know the extent of denudation of the country’s forests. He got the US Central Intelligence Agency to lend him satellite data that would show available forest stocks. He also asked the Swedish and German governments to provide scientific expertise in surveying the forests.

What was likewise nettlesome was dealing with a 24,000-strong bureaucracy, many of whom were nourished by the values of the Marcos years…Factoran overhauled the organization…

“I tamed the bureaucracy,” Factoran said…It was the biggest redeployment of officials and employees in the DENR’s history.

Housecleaning followed, with some results. The largest number of cases filed and won against erring personnel was recorded during Factoran’s time…It did send a signal that the new DENR leadership was serious in cleaning up the mess and there was to be little hanky-panky.

But there was a group Factoran had difficulty taming: the politicians. They would come to his office seeking favors…

Factoran tiptoed in highly sensitive political territory…”I was afraid of being saddled with unspecified charges that would lead to a critical mass of opinion that we’re not doing anything, that we’re corrupt…” admitted Factoran in a candid interview. He staked his name and his leadership at the DENR on reforestation, his centerpiece project.

Politics got in the way of work at the DENR as pressure came from various quarters. Said Factoran: “The political pressure I experienced was not from a higher-up asking me to do something against my will. President Cory never intervened. It was from the two houses of Congress.”

‘Conscious of history’

Factoran came at a time of awakened environmental awareness in the country, partly influenced by the environmental movement in the West. Along with the flowering of democracy after two decades of authoritarian rule, non-government organizations advocating environmental issues sprouted…

The political power of the logging industry was only too real…From a system whereby the rich and powerful had access to forests, the new DENR planted the seeds of change. It prepared the groundwork for the eventual takeover of forests by communities.

In retrospect, Factoran looked back and mused. He told a journalist, “Now, what have I done? …We’ve even prepared for the next politician to come around. They can’t just change things overnight…The next administration will have to reckon with these policies. No whimsical change is possible…What we’ve done is puny but it’s five times, 10 times more than what has been done before…I’m very conscious of history. I feel that a few years from now, people will know and I don’t want a blot on my record.”

The DENR, under Factoran, took the tentative first steps needed to combat the country’s deforestation. – Rappler.com

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.