PHL’s natural resources near brink of depletion

THE Philippines continues to experience remarkable economic growth since 2010 and is forecasted to grow faster than expected with the strong private sector’s confidence in the administration of President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

Some business leaders feel that foreign investors are looking at the Philippines as the best investment hub in Southeast Asia.

In Photo: At the roundtable discussion of the BusinessMirror Coffee Table Club held on October 12, Department of Environment and Natural Resources Biodiversity Management Bureau (DENR-BMB) Director Theresa Mundita Lim identified that businesses that rely on natural raw materials have more reasons to invest in biodiversity.

Is the Philippines on the right path to sustain its economic growth?

Rich biodiversity

WITH the country’s rich natural resources and biological diversity, economic growth is expected. The Philippines is one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world.

It is rich in land and water, two very important economic resources, which support agriculture and fisheries; richly endowed with minerals and other natural sources with huge potential for renewable energy.

The country’s beautiful beaches, a good number of soaring mountains and vast forests with stunning landscapes, breath-taking rivers and waterfalls are ideal for ecotourism and natural resource-based economy, including the development of a plant-based pharmaceutical industry.

Resource depletion

WITH the rapid rate of biodiversity loss, the need to protect and conserve the country’s rich biodiversity to step away from the brink of natural-resources depletion cannot be overemphasized.

Aside from facing an uphill climb in terms of agricultural and fisheries production, the Philippines is also suffering from natural-resources depletion and is struggling to arrest the rapid rate of biodiversity loss.

Forest degradation caused by destructive human activities, including agriculture, mining, logging, timber poaching and wildlife trafficking, remains a big challenge.

The massive destruction of coastal and marine environment because of unsustainable fishing practices and pollution factored in aggravates the situation and paints a dim picture of the future of the Philippine economy.

Where does biodiversity protection and conservation come in all these?

At the BusinessMirror’s Coffee Club forum with the Aliw Media Group—which includes the Pilipino Mirror, dwIZ, CNN Philippines, Philippines Graphic and Locale—on October 12, the country’s top biodiversity official gave some insights on how biodiversity can help boost economic growth and ensure business sustainability.

Reforestation program

WITH half of its 30 million hectares of land classified as forest land, the Philippines was once thriving with high-value trees and lush forests. Logging, then a major economic activity, has contributed 12.5 percent to the country’s GDP in the 1970s.

Since the 1990s, the government started to implement a national reforestation program to recover from natural-resources depletion. Today, the wood industry relies largely on wood supply from other countries.

Home to plant and animal wildlife, the degradation of the country’s forests is one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss aside from the rampant illegal wildlife trade.

To mitigate the impacts of climate change, the government in 2010 imposed a ban on the harvesting of trees from natural and residual forests. At the same time, from 2010 to 2016, it implemented the National Greening Program (NGP), which is being touted to have successfully reforested 1.5 million hectares of open, degraded and denuded forest. Under the program, fuel wood, high-value crops, fruits and native species were transplanted.

The Duterte administration, for its part, implemented the P7.2-billion Enhanced-National Greening Program (E-NGP) to reforest the country’s open, degraded and denuded forests to continue the program until 2028.

Poor investment

UNDERSCORING the importance of protecting the country’s environment and natural resources, Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) said there is a need to increase public awareness and appreciation, encourage more investment through integration in businesses’ long-term plans and programs to make businesses “greener” and ensure business continuity in the face of climate change.

The BMB, a staff bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), implements various biodiversity-related programs and projects, including the management of protected areas under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act, a global strategy to protect endangered wildlife that are threatened with extinction.

Lim said investment in biodiversity remains wanting, with the government’s limited resources and businesses’ poor appreciation of biodiversity.

She said less than 1 percent of businesses in the country have integrated biodiversity in their long-term plans and programs.

The official said the DENR has no accounting of biodiversity investment from the private sector and it only started last year, in partnership with the United Nations Environment Program (Undp), a budget-tagging process for biodiversity finance of various government agencies to help narrow the financing gap for biodiversity protection and conservation in the Philippines.

Financing gap

A UNDP-backed program called Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BioFin) revealed that P334 billion or $7.4 billion is needed for biodiversity conservation in the Philippines over the next 13 years.

The amount covers actions on forest, coastal and marine, inland wetlands, caves and cave systems, protected areas, invasive alien species, agrobiodiversity, access and benefit-sharing and urban biodiversity. Such investment is needed to ensure funding for the implementation of the Philippine Biosafety Strategy Action Plan (PBSAP)

With such investment in biodiversity, we can expect a minimum return of $10 billion per year from fisheries, ecotourism and pharmaceuticals derived from genetic resources, according to UNDP Philippines Country Director Titon Mitra.

Under the PBSAP, annual funding requirement is pegged at P24 billion until 2028, but current annual budget allocation by the government is only pegged at P5 billion, thereby leaving a yearly budget gap of P19 billion.

PA management

THE DENR is encouraging stronger protection and conservation measures through the protected area management under the Nipas. There are currently 240 protected areas (PAs), but only 13 of them are backed with legislation, while the rest are backed by Presidential Proclamations or Executive Orders.

A bill that passed third and final reading in the Senate and approved by three committees in the House of Representatives, the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (E-Nipas), aims to include more on the list of PAs. The Senate version is seeking to add 97 PAs, while the House version is seeking to add 94 PAs.

Both proposed measures aim to impose a stiffer penalty and higher fines against violators.

The House version is seeking to give tax perks to businesses for their donations specifically for the management of these PAs.

Budget woes

THE management of most of the PAs has poor funding, given that no specific funds are allocated under the DENR’s annual budget.

Before, funds generated by these PAs go to the National Treasury. The budget-release process takes so much time, discouraging the PAs to actually seek fund for particular projects or programs.

Last year, the Integrated Protected Areas Fund (Ipaf) Retention Law was enacted, allowing the PAs to retain 75 percent of the revenues they generate, which allows the Protected Area Management Board (Pamb) and the park managers under the Office of the Protected Area Superintendent (Opas) to swiftly implement rehabilitation and development programs.

Lim said the old Ipaf law has put in place a system that ensures the use of such funds for PA management.

“The bill itself outlines a process that is adopted under the previous RA [Republic Act, 7586] of the Integrated Protected Areas Fund. The checks and balances are there,” Lim said. “The government audits the money, including COA, and our agency monitors the fund.”

The DENR-BMB is encouraging public-private partnership activities, including tourism-related programs or projects, to hurdle the PAs’ financial challenges.

The DENR, Lim said, is launching a campaign to increase public awareness to boost appreciation about biodiversity, noting that many remained oblivious of the interconnectivity of plant and animal wildlife and the ecosystem.

Increasing awareness

ASKED about the level of awareness about biodiversity on a scale of 1 to 10, Lim rates the average Filipino gets a poor rating of 5.

Lim said the DENR-BMB has ongoing programs to strengthen linkage with the traditional and social media.

“One of our programs is the reason why we want to have better linkage with the media. We are also taking advantage of social media. We are creating our Facebook page and we are uploading on Youtube information [on biodiversity],” she said. “We also work with the schools through our Dalaw-Turo [teacher-visit] campaign and [our] Education Camp with teachers and students.”

Relatedly, a promotional campaign on the upcoming Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals to be hosted by the Philippines from October 22 to 28 is also being pushed, wherein a renowned photographer and filmmaker will arrive to document and help promote Philippine biodiversity.

“There will also be a film showing. We have invited students to participate in the conference, too,” she said.

According to Lim, biodiversity is part of everyday life, which they intend to promote more through social media.

The DENR-BMB is ambitiously targeting 100-percent awareness about biodiversity.

Biodiversity defined

LIM said increasing public awareness and enhancing the people’s appreciation of biodiversity is challenging.

“It is really difficult. What is biodiversity? Can we eat biodiversity?” Lim said, narrating how people react when asked the question about biodiversity.

He cites the difference in the old days when there was already a strong appreciation of biodiversity. The food people eat, the wide variety of fruits, even the wild boars and deer, are allowed before.

“Our traditional medicines [are another example]. Where do we get all these medicines [but] from plants found in our forests. We lost track of those revenues,” she said. “We realize the benefit that we can generate from our biodiversity.”

Lim said it is frustrating, however, when “the diversity of the food the people used to enjoy is vanishing.”

“We keep on importing fruits but we do not realize that we have native fruits of our own. Now you see dragon fruits being propagated. We have native fruits. We want the people to realize that we are rich in terms of food derived from biodiversity,” she said.

Mining woes

ASKED about mining and its impact on biodiversity, Lim said Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu takes his cue from Mr. Duterte’s policy pronouncements.

To recall, former DENR Chief Regina Paz L. Lopez has ordered an audit of large-scale mining operations, which puts a premium on social, environmental and biodiversity considerations in mining operations.

Mining has been blamed by various quarters for the massive destruction of forests that results in biodiversity loss.

“Mining companies should take into account the biodiversity in their programs,” Lim said, citing Cimatu’s policy pronouncements. “We are now coordinating closely with the academy.”

She added mining industries that are really serious should take into consideration biodiversity.

“In other countries, we discovered that mining operations do not destroy all biodiversity. There are ways for a mining operation to avoid excessive extraction,” Lim explained. There is also a way [rehabilitation] wherein the topsoil should be returned.”

According to her, it is important for mining companies to coordinate closely with the DENR-BMB to establish baseline information about the biodiversity to be affected by their operations.

“Many times, they do not really know what important biodiversity species are there. Maybe they feel that because there’s an endangered species there that they would rather not report about it because it may become a reason to stop the project” she said.

Lim said mining companies have nothing to fear.

“Maybe we can help them wherein these resources can still be propagated elsewhere and later returned to the area during rehabilitation,” Lim said.

Sustainability plan

LIM said in the next few weeks, the DENR-BMB will start working to develop a sustainability plan for biodiversity in mining areas.

According to the official, the DENR-BMB is now closely coordinating with the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) to compel mining companies to do biodiversity assessment together with the BMB and its various conservation partners.

She noted that the country has many identified key biodiversity areas.

While she said there are ongoing environmental-impact studies being conducted by mining companies, it is important that when an area is identified as a key biodiversity area, an in-depth study should be conducted.

“We want to make sure that the information on the studies is complete. There are mining areas that overlap in key biodiversity areas. We want to see what they have and what we can share,” she said, noting that the DENR-BMB has previous biodiversity studies in many areas. “More or less, we have an idea of what are the biodiversity in the area. There are species that can be found only in those areas. We want to make sure that during rehabilitation, these species will be returned,” she said.

Lim said currently, the BMB is working through the MGB, the agency that has jurisdiction or mandate over mining projects. She noted that the MGB, which is a line bureau, has specific sanctions that can be imposed for mining companies found violating environmental laws.

“We are happy that Cimatu is encouraging active convergence,” she said. “It is about time that we worked together about this matter.”

Endemic species

BECAUSE the Philippines is rich in plant biodiversity, Lim said it is prudent to engage in bioprospecting to protect plants that may have pharmaceutical or medicinal value.

“We are an archipelagic country, that is why we have island-endemic [species],” she noted. Once lost, these plant or animal species that are site endemics may be lost forever if unprotected.

Since the Philippines is comprised of thousands of islands, Lim said biodiversity protection and conservation would have to be on a case-to-case basis.

“It will take serious discussion. We cannot recommend offhand one strategy. There should be serious discussions [with mining companies],” Lim said.

She added that the DENR has many serious conservation partners who are willing to provide help and assistance, again, insisting on the importance of establishing or creating baseline data before mining operation begins.

“One island is important and unique. We should be able to have baseline information,” she said. “We have ongoing talks about that.”

Bioprospecting

ASIDE from being a potential source of raw materials, food, water and livelihood, the country’s forest is endowed with a diverse species of flora and fauna ideal for bioprospecting.

Bioprospecting is defined as the search for plant and animal species from which medicinal drugs and other commercially valuable compounds can be obtained.

In this endeavor, Lim underscored the importance of recognizing the unique resources that can be found only in the Philippines.

People in the communities, she said, know their resources better than anyone else.

“If we talk to the older people, we will realize how it was during their time. That there is this kind of species, which can be used to cure this [disease, they would say],” she said. “They were there when we still have many Philippine Eagles and the beaches are still wide and our marine ecosystem is still thriving with fish. We need to bring back our love for the environment and our natural resources.”

She said there’s an impression from today’s generation that biodiversity is only about wildlife. “What do we get from wildlife, really? But, if we realize the interconnectivity, there we can bring back caring for our natural wealth.”

Lim said because of the country’s high endemism, even other countries look at the Philippines with envy.

“Like the tamaraw, if they become instinct, we lose them forever; it is gone,” she said. “We cannot find them in Indonesia. The younger generation should realize that. That is what we want to imbue.”

Business integration

WITH less than 1 percent of businesses actually integrating biodiversity into their long-term business plans and programs, Lim said businesses will endure the impact of natural-resources depletion in the long run.

Lim noted that despite the global trend of biodiversity integration in businesses, an ongoing campaign of the DENR-BMB remains to receive recognition.

She said the DENR continues to engage businesses to integrate biodiversity in their long-term plans and programs to ensure business continuity, especially in the face of climate change’s worst effects, like intensifying typhoons, widespread floods, drought and sea-level rise, to make businesses greener.

“That is actually our objective. Eventually, for business to integrate biodiversity into their plans and programs. But I cannot say that this is already broadly recognized,” she said.

Lim admitted that investing in biodiversity and integrating biodiversity into businesses’ long-term plans and programs would entail additional cost. Some companies, she said, are only after profits without realizing that investing in biodiversity has its benefits as it offers a return on investments other than potential tax perks.

“Because if you invest in biodiversity, there’s additional capital. What we want to emphasize is in terms of sustainability, because of climate change, we want to make them realize especially if their business relies on natural raw materials, there’s wisdom,” she said.

For instance, many of the natural raw materials, she said, come from the forest or the oceans.

She said there are poor awareness and appreciation of biodiversity among businesses.

Perks zone

ACCORDING to Lim, current programs of the DENR-BMB recognize biodiversity-friendly enterprise, wherein sourcing, processing, production and marketing aspects are evaluated using the lens of environment protection. Businesses may avail themselves of certain tax perks if they are found complying with certain standards.

“For instance, in the cottage industry, if they get resources and protect the source such as in Santa Teresita, in Region 2, if they will not engage in excessive harvesting, then we can say they are engaging in the sustainable gathering of raw materials,” she said. “If they are protecting certain species, like one species of lizard that feeds on the paraga, a pandan-type of [herbal] plant, then they are helping protect the species that naturally disperse the seeds of the paraga.”

Businesses that are classified as biodiversity-friendly are entitled to tax perks under the Wildlife Act.

Under the proposed E-Nipas, tax perks will be for businesses that donate a certain amount of fund for the management of the PAs.

She noted that there is also an allowable investment in multiple-use zones in PAs.

According to Lim, some PAs are already inhabited.

“What we really want to do is zone it to confine specific areas for specific activities so there will be minimal impact. The incentive there is the realization that ecosystem service is vital to their business,” she noted.

Other programs

OUTSIDE so-called PAs, the DENR-BMB is pursuing stronger ties with local government units to manage Local Conservation Areas (LCAs).

These are areas that have been set aside for conservation purposes through ordinances, with the local government taking the lead in implementing conservation and protection activities.

LCAs include areas of high biological diversity or those vulnerable to climate change and geological hazards and locally significant areas with ecotourism potentials.

The DENR is also implementing a program called “Strengthening National Systems to Improve Governance and Management of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities in Conserved Areas and Territories.”

Also called the Philippine ICCA Project, the program aims to strengthen the documentation of indigenous communities’ conservation areas (ICCA). Another objective is to enhance the capacities of IPs and popularize ICCAs in support of the country’s international commitments, particularly Target 11 of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Aichi Target 11 states that “by 2020, at least 17 percent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.”

The project is being implemented in 10 pilot ICCA sites with established ICCAs. These are in the provinces of Kalinga, Ifugao, Nueva Vizcaya, Aurora, Bataan, Palawan, Bukidnon, Agusan del Norte and North Cotabato. Specifically, these areas are identified to be rich in biodiversity, namely, Mount Taungay in Kalinga, Mount Polis in Tuwali, Ikalahan/Lakanguya Unified Ancestral Domain, Engongot Aurora Sector, Kanawan (Ayta Magbakon), Balabac ancestral waters (Molbog), Mount Kimangkil (Higaunon), Dinarawan (Mamanwa), Mount Apo (Obo Manobo).

ICCAs may be sacred spaces or ritual grounds. These include sacred forests and mountains, indigenous territories and cultural landscapes or seascapes. Other spaces are territories and migration routes of nomadic herders or mobile indigenous peoples, sustainably managed wetlands and fishing grounds and water bodies. Others could also be particularly sensitive ecological settings, such as sacred areas on the mountain and hilltops.

GDP contribution

ALL the programs Lim mentioned aim to boost the country’s growth and development, she said.

However, she noted that biodiversity’s contribution to the economy in terms of GDP remains unknown or unaccounted for.

“Unfortunately, we need to coordinate with several sectors to be able to compute that. We are talking with the DOT [Department of Tourism]. Almost all of the tourism areas involve biodiversity. Beaches are number one. Around 7 percent is the contribution of the tourism sector to the GDP. But biodiversity contribution is not disaggregated. We also need to talk to the Department of Trade and Industry [DTI] in terms of accounting exports that can be attributed to biodiversity,” Lim said.

There’s really a need to work with various government agencies to get the details and facts straight, she added.

Huge potential

ACCORDING to Lim, the country’s biodiversity has a lot of potential, citing the prospect of discovering new plant species and animal species with active ingredients that may be of pharmaceutical and medicinal value.

She explained there’s only a need to give incentives to scientists who may want to conduct bioprospecting. These incentives are needed if we are to develop a plant-based pharmaceutical industry given the country’s potential in that aspect, Lim said.

She believes other countries may help the Philippines in developing new products.

“Of course, we recognize scientists for the discovery, for instance, of active ingredients for certain cures for certain diseases. Encouragement and incentives should be the role of other countries,” Lim said. “Sometimes, it is frustrating because when plant species are discovered, they [Filipino scientists] talk to foreign pharmaceutical industries. We have not come to a point when we give recognition and incentives to scientists doing research.”

Protective system

LIM said the DENR-BMB is currently looking at the traditional practices under the ICCA.

“We support them to do their inventories of their resources and register that in recognition of their protection in that area. This is within the ancestral land,” she said. “The traditional system of protection is covered by the ICCA. We provide support for them to be recognized.”

Lim said the Nagoya Protocol does not look only at the resource but also the traditional knowledge linked to that resource. For instance, leaves that are used for facial skin care, if that resource is developed, the communities protecting that resource will get a share of the benefits.

Next year, Lim said about P25 million has been allocated for communities that are adopting biodiversity-friendly enterprises.

The Philippines is the richest in the world in terms of biodiversity on a per unit basis. Yet poor appreciation of biodiversity, lack of investment, is resulting in a natural-resources depletion that leads to biodiversity loss faster than the discovery of their potential contribution to the economy.

Image Credits: FAZON1 | DREAMSTIME.COM, Alysa Salen

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Jonathan L. Mayuga is a journalist for more than 15 years. He is a product of the University of the East – Manila. An awardee of the J. G. Burgos Biotech Journalism Awards, BrightLeaf Agricultural Journalism Awards, Binhi Agricultural Journalism Awards, and Sarihay Environmental Journalism Awards.

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