Despite SONA promise, groups say Duterte has 'no concrete plans' for environment protection

For environmental advocates, what President Rodrigo Duterte said during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 27, was a far cry from what was happening on the ground.

In his speech, Duterte stated that "for the rest of my term, I hope to see concerted efforts in protecting the environment."

He added how the responsible extraction and equitable distribution of natural resources remain among his "non-negotiables," reiterating the need for a national land use law.

A 'non-negotiable' priority?

Four years since Duterte assumed office, Greenpeace Philippines said they have yet to see the President prioritize the environment and fulfill the commitments he made in his past SONAs.

Avril de Torres, Research, Policy, and Law Program head of the Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED) said that environmentalists were hoping for reassurance from the President, especially after his directive to Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi to quicken the expansion of renewable energy in the country in his previous SONA.

"The President seemed content with his motherhood statement, but environmentalists and renewable energy advocates would not be satisfied. They were looking for reassurance that Duterte is still on the side of the environment through a reaffirmation of his directive to Cusi in the previous SONA, as well as a declaration of support for coal divestment. There was no concrete discussion on that matter," said De Torres.

De Torres highlighted how there is a "very big gap between what is happening on the ground [and] what his Cabinet members are doing."

Days before the SONA, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu confirmed that his department will allow mining companies closed by the late secretary Gina Lopez to resume operations, even after being shut down for violations of environmental regulations.

Advocates fear extreme environmental degradation with the reopening of these mines.

'Narrow environmental agenda'

Aside from sharing his nonnegotiables in conserving the environment, Duterte on Monday reiterated the need for a Department of Disaster Resilience to better address and prepare for disasters.

Should the establishment of a Department of Disaster Resilience push through, Greenpeace Philippines country director Lea Guerrero believes that "responding proactively to the climate crisis must be the central agenda of the agency."

Beyond this, Guerrero said they heard no "concrete plans" from the President to address other environmental concerns, highlighting how this only mirrors the government's "narrow environmental agenda."

While CEED acknowledges the Duterte administration's efforts in recent years to rehabilitate highly commercialized areas, the group believes that it's not enough for the government to be content with trophy projects such as the Boracay cleanup to showcase its environmental efforts.

"We are in a health crisis that, as recent scientific researches show, emerged largely due to environmentally abusive practices. It makes no sense that the government is mum on key ecological issues, especially when these press on our people on a daily basis and, if left unaddressed, spell an even dimmer future for Filipinos," Torres said. 

Environmentalists appealed for a proactive approach in response to the climate crisis, and for the government to address advancements of the extractives industry in the country.

Appeal for a clear post-COVID recovery plan

Greenpeace Philippines also called for a clear and coherent post-COVID recovery plan that will protect the country against crises – including the worsening effects of climate change – in the future.

They suggested that the recovery plan should include phasing out coal plants and aiming for 100% renewable energy, moving away from fossil fuel transport, and addressing the waste crisis through plastic and waste importation bans, among others. 

In handling the pandemic, the group believes that environmental issues should be addressed as well since the two are closely associated. 

"The COVID pandemic is happening against a backdrop of environmental destruction that has been going on long before this pandemic," Guerrero said.

Greenpeace Philippines also hopes that the administration would realize that protecting the environment is also protecting the rights of the people and their communities, including their right to life, health, livelihood, a healthy environment, and a stable climate. 

Carl Cesar Rebuta, executive director of Earth Rights Philippines, noted that there was no mention of environmental and indigenous peoples rights in the President’s speech, showing that these are not a priority of the administration.

As Duterte enters his fifth year in office, Greenpeace Philippines called on the government to consider the suggestions of environmental groups as these can ultimately "lead to positive health outcomes that will make the country resilient against future pandemics." –

Khaela C. Vijar

Khaela C. Vijar is a Rappler volunteer from Ateneo de Manila University. She is an incoming freshman taking up a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science.