It’s the first sweep of a new broom. Roy Cimatu (photo, right), the retired army general who stepped into the breach to take over as the Philippines’ Environment Minister, is getting to grips with the chaos left behind by his predecessor, self-styled Environment Tzarina, Gina Lopez (photo, left). What he inherited was a mining industry in meltdown and a raft of construction projects left to flounder. Now he’s setting about righting the ship.
On Thursday, Cimatu reversed an order put in place by Lopez before her appointment as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) was rejected by the Commission on Appointments in early May. She’d directed that all environmental compliance certificates (EECs) should be approved solely by her office – autocratically countermanding an executive order signed by former president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in 2001.
As far as we know executive orders can only be rescinded by presidents – or possibly the courts if they can be proved to be illegal or unconstitutional. It’s practically impossible even for Congress to nullify them. Certainly, we’ve never before come across a department head having the power to do that – but then, in fairness, we’ve never before come across a department head quite like Gina Lopez.
And that makes sense, when you consider that DENR staff out in the regions understand the local implications of such applications far better than someone sitting in an office miles away in Quezon City, Metro Manila.
It also makes sense from a purely logistical perspective. There are around 5,000 such applications filed daily. Delegating the job to qualified staff in the respective regions, therefore, wasn’t exactly a stroke of genius; but it was a victory for common sense.
And so, given that workload, it’s not surprising that there’s now a massive EEC backlog choking DENR HQ in Manila. Thus, what Lopez succeeded in doing was to replace traffic flow with gridlock – and for purely personal reasons. And she did it as every other part of government was being told to cut waste – particularly time waste – and sharpen-up their operations.
Lopez, however, wanted to be the permanent and sole judge for every single item requiring certification that could even remotely be interpreted as falling within the environmental sphere. Let’s look on the bright side though, at least she wasn’t offered the transport portfolio.
It’s also not surprising that the DENR staff in the provinces have also reached the end of their tether as they field complaints from businesses, contractors and individuals about the delays to their projects.
Jim Sampula, DENR Western Visayas executive director, remains at a total loss to explain why Lopez took that action. Speaking to the press he said: “Imagine, you need to go Manila to get an ECC for a small business?” Yes, imagine that if you’d applied for an EEC for a sports bar in Davao City 600 air miles away – and then of course when you get there they ask you to come back again tomorrow.
But then in light of her handling of the Philippines’ mining sector in which she chose to override all advice from the mining industry, as well as from the department’s own Mines and Geosciences Bureau – even from other DENR officials and from fellow members of the Cabinet – and pursue her own personal agenda, perhaps no one should have been surprised.
Officials like Sampula are under constant pressure from central government to process paperwork, carry out site inspections, slash the red tape of the past and streamline the execution of projects. They get assessed on the output from their regions; they get hauled over the coals – and rightly so – when projects are delayed and output falls.
The full economic impact of Lopez’s EECs ruling has not yet been assessed but what is known is that it’s held up a number of urgent projects including government housing for those still left homeless by super-typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) which struck the Philippines in November 2013 and left behind a total-damage bill of around PHP90 billion.
What did Lopez think, that those still living in tented accommodation four years after losing their houses and everything in them, would feel grateful to her for delaying their new homes to ensure they wouldn’t create some new damage threat to the environment? Heaven forbid that these homeless people who’ve endured one of the worst and most deadly environmental cataclysms ever to be visited on the Philippines, would be the unwitting recipients of homes that hadn’t been given Lopez’s personal seal of environmental approval.
But they aren’t the only ones who’ve been made to pay the price of Tzarina Gina’s high-handed action. Applicants who submitted EECs for commercial projects such as restaurants and petrol stations have also been left in limbo. These are small businesses; the vital lifeblood of any economy.
The idea is to make it as easy as possible for them to get up and running and contributing to the country’s economic growth. Government departments aren’t meant to get in the way of them; they’re meant to encourage and assist them. Of course, they should be environmentally sound; but the people in the field who’ve been vetting such projects for years – from long before the time Lopez became an instant expert – are well qualified to handle that.
Getting a small business off the ground is tough enough at the best of times. Now factor-in government – or rather department – interference of that order, and rather than stimulating entrepreneurship which the present government has sworn to do, it will deter it. Start-ups become non-start-ups; entrepreneurs quickly abandon their plans.
On a wider scale, what Lopez’s autocratic and stubborn handling of this issue has succeeded in doing is to send a clear signal to would-be investors in the Philippines that, despite all the assurances of fair play and the upholding of free-market principals, there’s always the possibility that a maverick government official can bestow himself (herself in this case) with special powers and overturn any previous agreement.
Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, has been at pains to reassure investors that on his watch there’ll be fairness and government accountability. The scandals of the past – such as the 2011 unilateral cancellation of a PHP18 billion flood-control project at Laguna Lake by former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino – was as repellant to investors as a ‘toxic-waste’ sign. Lessons from Laguna Lake.
Lopez’s across the board closure of 23 of the country’s 41 mines, mostly nickel, and the issuing of suspension notices to a further five, cleaved the Philippine mining sector in two and shook the nickel industry worldwide. Her explanation? “I visited the mines and I made my own judgment based on my own observations”.
Right; and now someone has to clean-up after her.
Duterte and all senior members of his government have worked hard over the past year to improve many aspects of doing business in the Philippines. What Lopez managed to do though was to throw a cloud over much of that and practically split the government into the bargain. Oddly too, while Duterte’s committed to devolving power to the regions, Lopez has been busy recentralising it.
There’s no doubt the administration was concerned on the wider-reaching effects of Lopez’s actions – particularly where overseas-investor perceptions were concerned. Little wonder that Cimatu, in his statement announcing the voiding of Lopez’s EEC order said that his new directive on the matter could be seen “as our contribution to making the country more investor-friendly”.
His statement added he’d done it: “in the interest of service and in order to expedite the issuance of [ECCs] in the regional level consistent with the directive of the President to fast-track issuance of government permits and licenses.”
That said, we believe most government departments are now working more efficiently than they have in years. Increasingly, government staff are buying into Duterte’s ethos that they’re there to serve the public – and not, as has traditionally been the case, the other way around.
The refreshingly quietly spoken Cimatu has a long way to go before all the damage caused by Lopez can be put behind this government. He’ll need to decide, and fairly soon, what to do about the mine closures and the suspension notices which she put in place. We believe the majority of these will be cancelled.
But he also needs to show his own environmental credentials to the public – otherwise he’ll be seen as little more than an antidote to Lopez. Shortly after his appointment he told Reuters that it’s possible to “strike a balance” between mining and protecting natural resources. And, of course, that’s true as the likes of Canada and Norway have shown.
Two areas he may go after are illegal mining and illegal logging which between them are responsible for billions of pesos worth of environmental damage. In 2015, there were some 300,000 small-scale miners operating in the Philippines without licences. Meanwhile illegal logging goes on a pace. In June, the DENR recovered around 112.7 cubic metres of illegally cut rare hardwood – some PHP2 million worth – taken from the Sierra Madre mountains across the provinces of Quezon, Laguna and Rizal.
Given the sensitivity which exists around environmental issues, Cimatu’s latest posting is unlikely to be a peaceful one. As a former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines – described by Arroyo as “the thinking general” – who captured more than 40 camps belonging to Moro Islamic Liberation Front insurgents in 2000, we believe, however, he’ll take it in his stride.