Environmental justice: the case of the Haiyan disaster

The country’s regions, led by the Regional Development Committees (RDCs) of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) incidentally a vice-chair of the National Disaster Risk Reducation and Management Council (NDRRMC), have prepared their Regional Physical Framework Plans (RPFPs) covering a period of 25 years.  The current plan is for the period 2005-2030.  This year the regions should be into their eighth year of implementation.   From the approved physical framework plan of Region VIII, below are the designated protected areas in the region, proclaimed and still for proclamation. The maps show us that most of Samar (Northern, West, Eastern) are protection areas.  The plan defines land utilization or activities in these areas as the rehabilitation, conservation, and management of sensitive or critical ecosystems to preserve their integrity, allow degraded resources to regenerate and to protect the people from environmental hazards.

Source:  RPFP Region VIII, NEDA Region VIII
Source: RPFP Region VIII, NEDA Region VIII
Source:  RPFP Region VIII, NEDA Region 8
Source: RPFP Region VIII, NEDA Region 8

In the Special Management Zones, the plan identifies these as comprising areas under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) and non-NIPAS areas.  The latter further comprises the cloud forest, buffer zones, and coastal zones, which are environmentally critical areas and should be strictly protected to avoid natural calamities – hot air, water shortage, flash flooding, landslide, and typhoon surge.  As such, demarcation boundaries should be established on the ground. Strict protection land uses, on the other hand, are assigned in buffer zones of 20 meters both sides of the river in the forestland, 10 meters both sides of the river in the agricultural land and 3 meters both sides of the river in the urban areas.  Other land uses under this category include coastal forests (mangroves, romblon and nypa) and estuaries.  The plan reiterates that the vegetation within the coastal zone protects lives and properties from typhoon surges and are therefore critical to the life support system hence disturbing, destroying and devastating these strict protection areas will lead to calamities such as polluted air and water, landslides, soil erosion, siltation, salinization and typhoon surges, which costs lives and properties.

As a general rule, settlement in protected areas is disallowed or planned in such a way that human activities are accommodated without compromising integrity of the areas.  However, as I’ve been mentioning in this blog’s articles, LGU plans almost always remain just that, plans.

In Eastern Samar, designated protected areas are being used as settlement and production areas in an irrational manner, in other words, it does not conform with the approved plan.  It isn’t just outside agencies or individuals working in the area who have observed this.  Locals have been airing their minds over the worrisome destruction of natural assets in their areas.  I remember that these conflicts are quite the hot issue in the province meaning folks should fear for their lives when venturing into issues concerning sustainable development.  Earlier this year, a complaint was filed against Mayor Kwan of Guiuan and a contractor before the Office of the Environmental Ombudsman for illegally cutting and destroying mangroves in the town without permits from the DENR.  Looking at photos of the settlements flattened by Haiyan along the coasts of Eastern Samar and Leyte, I see that these are supposedly the no-settlement buffer zones which in the course of decision-making by god-knows-who were wrongly developed or allowed to be transformed into major settlement areas.

Destroyed houses along Guiuan coast via huffingtonpost

From the physical framework plan let’s go over to the approved development plan of the region for the period 2011-2016.  The plan states that Region VIII is vulnerable to geo-hazards as manifested by the number of disasters that happened in the region that resulted to loss of life and damage to properties.  In more detail (note that the whole of Eastern Samar is tsunami prone):

Source:  RDP Region VIII, NEDA
Source: RDP Region VIII, NEDA

As such, owing to the natural and physical environment of Eastern Visayas, there is a host of challenges that the region must contend with, to include being ready to face unpredictable weather conditions and protect itself from the natural geo-hazards to which it is prone and vulnerable. Socioeconomic standing is bleak, dubbed in the plan as a case of ‘worsening poverty’.  Tables below show details of poverty incidence and subsistence incidence (magnitude of food poor population).

Source:  RDP Region VIII, NEDA
Source: RDP Region VIII, NEDA
Source:  RDP Region VIII, NEDA
Source: RDP Region VIII, NEDA

To me, ‘worsening poverty’ in the region implies that duty bearers are not pushing themselves to do more to eliminate barriers or factors that perpetuate poverty.  The news, national and local, and courts document the events that explain why this is so. The region, based on the above key profile indicators, is highly at risk to disaster.  This information is a publicized fact substantiated in the region’s physical and development plans although in reality these types of information are kept within the limited circle of key public officials (in unfortunate instances, even mayors are oblivious to these).

What I’m pointing at is that the Haiyan disaster is 60-70% the result of human – public officials’ – neglect and irresponsibility.  They knew their areas are at risk and there are plans to counter it but they sat on them all these years and have persistently done their own thing.  After the relief operations and some stability has returned to the affected areas, the first thing in the recovery and reconstruction phase is for these public officials to be investigated as to the extent of their responsibility for the deaths and destruction in their areas.  The popular knowledge is that natural disasters is solely the “fault” of a natural hazard.  No.  We have to remember that disaster is the resulting interaction of a population’s exposure to hazards and vulnerability. Further, exposure to hazards and vulnerability can be reduced through mitigation, prevention, and/or adaptation measures.

The news have labelled questions posed by citizens and foreign observers of the Haiyan disaster as a ‘blame game’.  The intention, at least mine, is critical inquiry.  When death occurred under questionable circumstances, a critical mind is pushed to make clarifications of these circumstances.  What really happened?  Who is responsible?  Yes, there was a storm surge or probably a tsunami but then also public officials, especially those who signed the approved plans of the region, knew that Region VIII, their areas, are highly-susceptible to these hazards and naturally therefore the question in the aftermath of the disaster is what did public officials do about that all these years?  For instance, the laws of the country upheld in the plans say that there must be buffer zones, settlement in protected areas must be rationalized, etcetera; the approved regional plans outlined mitigation projects such as seawalls — but did public officials enforce these?

For so long, Filipinos have had casual regard for the questionable deaths of their kin as if it’s mere animals dying. We have come to regard murder as an ordinary event. Remember the Maguindanao massacre?  No locals there have persisted with lobbying the government or the courts for a speedy trial which is a right under the Constitution. Remember the flash flood in Cagayan de Oro?  Didn’t we say that it was primarily the result of denuded forest cover, that it took Typhoons Pablo and Sendong to expose the real problem?  We mourn a bit, wail a bit, and talk about it the event and after that we go our merry way.  Callous, I say.  We don’t dig further.  Or, is it that these things are simply offensive and contrary to our merry-making fiesta ways?  We don’t get sufficiently angry, even when it’s murder.  I suspect that this anger is under the guise of happily volunteering to repack emergency foodstuff until your bones ache and you can’t think or feel anything else other than exhaustion.  Or, well masked, maybe the better word is repressed, under the usually mindless beatings of our chests in church while the priest pelts us with the message that we should do more fasting and penance (my god our yoke is already heavy with the pain of poverty and corruption that another minute of fasting will make the act one of cultism.).  But if we keep very still, away from distractions, and be honest with ourselves, the anger is in there and we find with it a lot of unanswered questions piled up.

The Haiyan disaster puts a spotlight on the right to environmental justice (or, the right to a balanced and healthy ecology Sec. 16, Art. II 1987 Constitution).  We’ve had so many deaths and much destruction in past disasters and these ought be alleviated after Haiyan.  To me from my experience on the ground and in DRR research and evaluation we’ve had so many opportunities to act on the lessons presented in past disasters, here and abroad.  There is no lack of documentation of these.  The US experience of Typhoon Katrina has been documented and analysis of it presented in different angles (here is one).  We need only to go through them and learn from them.  When we want to have first hand knowledge other than these documentations there are expert communities in the US and worldwide that we can network with which by the way is not difficult in this age of broadband connection.  So, no more walking away free as if no one is responsible for why the deaths and losses in the Haiyan aftermath are this huge. As a colleague likes to say, tama naman na ang panggagago sa mga tao (stop making fools of the people already).  This time, the Haiyan disaster  should be investigated following the country’s protocols in environmental law.

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