Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Alternative to Oposa

I do not mean to suggest that the Philippine Supreme Court has abandoned the environment. Sometimes the solutions to our problems need not be remedies that straddle generations or excite international attention. There is still one alternative that the Supreme Court has preserved: local governments.

Local governments in the Philippines are not all allies of the environment. Too many local officials equate economic development with large-scale resource extraction activities such as mining and logging. But when cases reach the Supreme Court, the Court has been remarkably supportive of local governments and community efforts to protect the environment.

Two decisions of the Court come to mind. The first is Tano v Socrates (G.R. No. 110249, August 21, 1997). In that case the Supreme Court upheld the power of the local governments to enact laws to protect the environment pursuant to the general welfare clause of the Local Government Code of 1991. The Court pointed out that the Code seeks “to give flesh and blood to the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology.” Moreover, said the Court, the general welfare provisions of the Code “shall be liberally interpreted to give more powers to the local government units in accelerating economic development and upgrading the quality of life for the people of the community.”

The second is Social Justice Society v. Atienza (G.R. No. 156052, March 7, 2007). This case involved the enactment of Ordinance No. 8027 which reclassified a part of the city from industrial to commercial and directed the owners and operators of businesses affected to cease and desist from operating their businesses within six months from the date the ordinance became effective. Among the businesses affected were Caltex (Philippines), Inc., Petron Corporation and Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corporation. Mayor Atienza did not implement the ordinance because Manila and the Department of Energy (DOE) entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the oil companies where the latter agreed to scale down their operations instead. Petitioners filed an action for mandamus to ask the Supreme Court to compel Mayor Atienza to enforce the ordinance and to order the immediate removal of the terminals of the oil companies.

The Court granted the petition saying that the Local Government Code imposes upon the Mayor the duty to “enforce all laws and ordinances relative to the governance of the city.” As the chief executive of the city, "he has the duty to enforce Ordinance No. 8027 as long as it has not been repealed by the Sanggunian or annulled by the courts. He has no other choice. It is his ministerial duty to do so."

The Supreme Court pointed out that even if the terms of the MOU were inconsistent with Ordinance No. 8027, the local legislative council resolutions ratified it and gave it effect only until April 30, 2003. The Court concluded that "at present, there is nothing that legally hinders respondent from enforcing Ordinance No. 8027."

These are the cases that environmental advocates should study. They show that an engaged and responsible citizenry can elect local officials who are attuned to the needs of the environment and they can compel action on the part of those who refuse to act in support of this cause. The cases provide concrete results and do not revel in mere abstractions.


ipat said...

Hi Dan, Thanks for keeping up with all this. Just to let you know that during the Asian Justices Conference on Environment held at the Shangrila recently where Indian judicial activism stars gave inspiring speeches, CJ Puno asked Judge Brian Preston of the Land and Environment Court in Australia how they were able to remove barriers to public interest litigation. Hope this question signals a sea-change somehow.

DanGat said...

Hi Ips,

They should find a way to make the information available to everyone. I can't find a lot on what happened during that conference. I'm waiting for the tide to turn as well.