WE OFTEN HEAR IT SAID THAT we in the Philippines have no lack of good plans, programs, policies and laws, but our problem lies in enforcement and implementation. For example, we pride ourselves as being among the first in the world to have formulated a national strategy for sustainable development after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, with our Philippine Agenda 21. We’ve had carefully crafted six-year Medium Term Philippine Development Plans (MTPDPs) for at least three decades now. We often claim that we have a more mature legal framework for attracting business than, say, China and Vietnam. And so on and so forth.
And yet our environmental situation is not something particularly worthy of emulation. Our economic performance has benefited few, with poverty having, in fact, risen and education and health indicators worsened in recent years. And we have certainly been attracting a lot less business than China and Vietnam. There are, to my mind, at least three things that get in our way: (1) We do not enforce our laws, (2) our government departments and agencies have great difficulty with coordination and teamwork and (3) the laws themselves have inconsistencies and flaws that undermine their proper enforcement.
From simple traffic rules to laws against graft and corruption, offenders simply manage to get away with what they do, often with impunity. One often feels that our system actually reinforces, rather than deters, violations of the law, such that the obedient and compliant are the ones who lose out. Drivers who stay on their proper place on the road are the last ones to get through. There are too many “open secrets” of flagrant corruption and tax evasion, of which the recent World Bank debarment of seven firms is just the latest manifestation.
Law enforcement failures are particularly common for (but certainly not limited to) environmental laws. An example is the persistent incursion of commercial fishing vessels within the 15-kilometer zone reserved by the Fisheries Code to small artisanal municipal fishers. Another is the persistence of illegal fishpens in both inland and coastal fisheries. The problem in many cases is that powerful political interests are either behind or directly responsible for the incursions. The issue thus commonly boils down to the entrenched culture of corruption in government.
Development challenges usually require interagency, multisectoral and multidisciplinary approaches and solutions. The Philippines has actually been at the forefront of establishing coordinative and consultative mechanisms to deal with sustainable development and other governance concerns. But coordination difficulties persist, particularly because governments have always been organized along distinct sectoral lines. Even then, overlapping and duplicating functions across government departments and offices are common.
A prime illustration of this lack of coordination is the confused state of our land administration system, something already discussed before in this column (“Losing from land,” 2-12-07). In its Philippines Environmental Profile in 2005, the European Commission in the Philippines observed that “there is a complex situation of overlapping of agencies and laws. There are also multiple standards for land valuation, which offer ample opportunities for corruption.” The problems still persist, and our land administration and management system is in dire need of an overhaul that would require consolidation of functions currently lying within several land registration and administration agencies, which in turn fall within at least two government Cabinet-level departments (DENR and DOJ).
Flaws in laws
Some of the difficulties of past years stem from inconsistencies and ambiguities in the laws themselves. Among the most controversial legislations pertaining to the environment has been the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 (RA 7942), whose constitutionality had been questioned at, and later affirmed (but not unanimously) by the Supreme Court. Another major problem has been the inconsistency of certain provisions of the same Mining Act with the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (RA 8371), which recognizes and promotes the rights of indigenous peoples to ancestral domains and lands; their right to self-governance, economic and social rights; and their cultural integrity, including indigenous culture, traditions and institutions. However, the Mining Act is invoked by investors and certain government offices in allowing mining exploration and development activities in areas that would otherwise be barred from such by the Ipra.
From the above, the picture that emerges is one where the appropriate elements of a strategy and action agenda for the pursuit of sustainable development in the country would seem to be largely in place. The main barrier, however, to achieving desired outcomes and impacts is shortcomings in institutions and mechanisms–and in the people comprising them–for translating strategies, policies and programs into concrete action. Until we overcome our failures in politics and governance, moving our country forward would continue being a formidable challenge indeed.- Cielito Habito, Philippine Inquirer
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