TEN YEARS FROM RIO*
Isagani R. Serrano**
The Philippines is a curious case of one country having all the right words to
say about sustainable development but still could not do things quite rightly. Ten years
after Rio, the country is still stuck in a situation of high inequality/poverty and low
growth, even as the economy threatens to decline further, following the 1997 Asian crisis
and the recent September 11 tragedy that shocked the global economy already rolling well
into recession. Environmentally, not much has changed by way of restoration from 1992
baselines. The Philippines continues to face three broad environmental challenges: 
urban air and water pollution;  natural resource degradation; and  declining
quality of coastal and marine resources. There’s no shortage of policy and legislation
on sustainable development in the Philippines. Democratic restoration has brought about
greater citizen voice and participation in the running of society and the economy but
governance issues continue to pester. It seems Philippine democracy needs a lot more
democratizing to be a means to sustainability. Yet quite a few positive initiatives by
reformers in government, social and environmental activists, media, business, churches,
schools, workers, farmers, fishers, women and youth organizations, and local communities
have kept the hope alive that one day the country can make a real shift to the path of
Keywords: sustainability, policy-action gap, democratizing democracy, civil (‘evil’)
society, positive movements and local initiatives.
What could be expected from a country which claims some firsts in sustainable
development? The Philippines was the first in Asia to set up a national council for
sustainable development. The first to translate Agenda 21 into a national sustainability
plan. One among the firsts to come up with a GEF-funded conservation project.
And more, even prior to Rio. The Philippines already had translated the concept of
sustainable development into a strategy, as early as 1989, when the idea of a Rio summit
had barely entered the pipeline of UN resolutions. The country was one of the firsts to
do a debt-for-nature swap, also in 1989. And much earlier on, the Philippines played a
significant role in the predecessor conference of the 1992 Earth Summit, the UN
Conference on Human Environment in 1972 in Stockholm. That conference triggered a good
number of environmental legislations during the Marcos martial law years.
Given these, expectations could only run high. But where’s the beef?, as you might ask.
How have we really fared as a nation in grappling with the problem of unsustainability
and making progress toward sustainability? How far have we gone with the implementation
of our local version of Agenda 21 ten years down the road from Rio?
What changed in what direction?
Some things change, for the better or for the worse, others just stubbornly persist.
Social and environmental reality in the Philippines is much easier to caricature than to
understand and explain for why and how it sustains the way it does.
Poverty continues to pester. A succession of four post-Marcos regimes had declared war
against it but not one of them managed to deliver as promised. The poverty situation
would get more nasty every time a regime vowed to end it.
Poverty statistics are tricky, to say the least. Official numbers would show that from a
high of 44 percent in 1985, poverty incidence had gone down to 34 percent by 1991 then to
as low as 27 percent prior to the Asian crisis of 1997 then soared back up to higher
levels after that. By 2000 it stood at 34.2 percent, and many believed, barring official
confirmation, that it has shot up to over 40 percent in 2002.
The World Bank figures indicate near stagnation in poverty reduction, especially in
recent years. Filipinos living on less than US$2/day accounted for 61.3 percent in 1985,
53.5 percent in 1990, 46.5 percent in 1996, prior to the Asian crisis, and 45.9 percent
by the turn of the century.
Social activists and critics usually suspect official poverty statistics and believe they
are understated, generally. Perception surveys on poverty have consistently come up with
higher numbers, sometimes as high as 65 or so percent, of people who say they feel they
are poorer and their lives more miserable now than previously. These, too, are highly
Poverty as one form of social exclusion is intolerable and cannot be allowed to continue
for much longer. The promise of the present regime to eradicate it in ten years is a wait
too long for over 4 million families or more than 24 million of 73 million Filipinos now
suffering under this deplorable condition.
The poor are everywhere, in city slums and neglected rural villages. Majority of the poor
live in rural areas and depend for their livelihood on agriculture and natural resource-
based activities. So their lives are very much dependent on the health of the environment.
The rich-poor gap is wide and doesn’t seem to be narrowing down, although the latest
official survey claims that income distribution has become less unequal in 2000. The
income share of the richest 10 percent is said to have slightly gone down from 39.3
percent in 1997 to 38.7 percent in 2000 compared to the income share of the poorest 10
percent which remained at 1.7 percent during the same period.
The country is stuck in a situation of high inequality and low growth, even as the
economy threatens to decline further, following the 1997 Asian crisis and the recent
September 11 tragedy that jolted the global economy already rolling well into recession.
Environmentally, not much has changed by way of restoration from the 1992 baseline.
The Philippines confront three broad environmental challenges:  urban air and water
pollution;  natural resource degradation; and  declining quality of coastal and
The first set of challenges is called “brown agenda”, referring to pollution caused by
industrial, urban, transport and energy sources and the measures to address them. The
second is called the “green agenda”, to describe environmental impacts caused by
agriculture, deforestation, land conversion and destruction of protected species and the
conservation measures intended to address them. The third, the “blue agenda”, refers to
all forms of water resources management.
Pollution problems affect the whole country but cities account for a greater share of
Metro Manila in particular is so heavily polluted with levels of particulate matter
exceeding by more than twice the national air quality standards.
Nearly half of the Philippines’ classified rivers have water quality falling below
Household garbage collection has improved somewhat but ecologically-sound disposal is a
huge problem as many cities continue to dump their wastes in open pits. The practice of
waste recycling is spreading through the initiative mainly of local communities and
Disposal of hazardous and toxic waste has emerged as a major environmental problem.
Natural resource degradation and depletion have not abated and now poses a very serious
threat to agricultural production, forests and biodiversity.
Massive conversion of forestlands and grasslands to urban use has worsened land
degradation. About 45 percent of the Philippines’ total land area of 30 million hectares
suffers moderate to severe soil erosion.
Salinization and waterlogging are increasing in scope and severity causing major drops in
agricultural harvests in lowland areas. Land scarcity and population pressure have
driven millions of poor and landless people up into the mountain slopes, inducing
cultivation of fragile upland areas and more soil erosion. Intensive use of chemical
fertilizers and pesticides have seriously poisoned the soil and contaminated surface and
Despite differing estimates of deforestation, nobody can deny the substantial reduction
of Philippine forest cover in the past forty years. Among the causes are shifting
cultivation, illegal logging, forest fires, and increasing urbanization. The number of
timber licensing agreements (TLAs) may have been reduced since 1992 but illegal logging
has continued despite heroic efforts by environmentalists and community groups to stop
it. Reforestation programs by the government have been erratic, as indicated for example
by low survival rates. Community-based forest management efforts have done better and
promises to be a centerpiece approach to reforestation.
The rich biodiversity of the Philippines, recognized as having global significance, is
now under serious threat due to the loss of forest cover and habitat. With the current
growth of infrastructure, it is estimated that up to 1.6 million hectares of biodiversity-
rich ecosystems will be affected. And this, on top of what had already been lost.
The number of protected areas has grown but so has the rate of destruction of forest and
habitat. The institutional mechanisms responsible for managing the protected areas are
handicapped by shortages of money and personnel. Indigenous and community organizations
in and around these protected areas and who live off them have not been fully mobilized
and enabled by government to help protect these areas and benefit from their efforts.
Water resources, fresh as well as salt water, are in serious trouble. The condition had
come to a point where government was compelled to declare a national water crisis in
People used to take water for granted, as though it comes from bottomless sources. When
nothing was coming out of the tap, water was all that mattered.
There’s inequality in access to water. During the water crisis of 1994, the rich could
afford to fill their swimming pools even as the poor got nothing to drink. There’s also
a spatial dimension to such inequality: urban dwellers consume proportionately larger
amounts of water that comes from distant rural sources.
Pollution, destruction of watersheds, saline intrusion into acquifers, overextraction,
excessive use and misuse, rising demand by a growing number of people, commercial and
industrial establishments are major causes of the depletion and degradation of water
resources. Poor planning and management, and weak law enforcement have also aggravated
the situation. Many of the Philippines’ river basins are degraded and mismanaged.
The Philippines’ coastal zones, fishing grounds and seawaters have seriously
deteriorated because of marine and land-based pollution sources. Coral reefs have been
stressed and destroyed by siltation, pollution, overfishing, and destructive fishing
techniques. Mangrove forests are fast disappearing because of logging for construction
and fuelwood, and conversion to aquaculture. Rising local and foreign demand for fish
and marine products exerts further pressure on these areas. Poor artisanal fishers and
their communities suffer the most.
Efforts at restoration by government and citizens organizations have not been as
successful as hoped for. Regulation of open-access fisheries, especially in municipal
fishing grounds, are generally unsuccessful because of official corruption and pressures
from big fishers. Resulting tragedy of the commons hurt the small and poor fishers more
than the big commercial ones.
Community-based coastal resources management seems to be making some headway.
About policy and legislation
Discourses and debates on sustainable development in the Philippines, though seemingly
endless and paralyzing at times, almost always resolve in some policy or a piece of
legislation. And if it’s all there is to sustainable development, the country should
have been well on its way to sustainability which doesn’t seem to be the case.
There’s no shortage of policy and legislation on sustainable development in the
Philippines (see following Table). If nothing else, this country would never miss making
a law or creating a committee for every problem that crops up.
Table. Key Policies, Legislations and Programs
Marcos Era· (1969) Republic Act 4850 – Creation of the Laguna Lake Development
Authority · (1975) Presidential Decree 705 – Forestry Code· (1975)
Presidential Decree 704 – Fisheries Code Revised and consolidated all laws and decrees
affecting fishing and fisheries in the country· (1976) Presidential Decree 1067 –
Water Code · (1976) Presidential Decree 984 – Pollution Control Law– Provides
guidelines for the prevention, abatement and control of pollution of water, air and land·
(1977) Presidential Decree 1219 – Coral Reefs Conservation · (1977)
Presidential Decree 1181 – Vehicular Emissions Control Law– Prevention, control and
abatement of air pollution from motor vehicles· (1977) Presidential Decree 1151 –
Philippine Environmental Policy– First mention of concept of environmental impact system
· (1977) Presidential Decree 1151 – Philippine Environmental Code – Provides
guidelines on land use, air quality, water quality, waste management, and natural
resources management· (1977) Presidential Decree 825· (1977) Presidential
Decree 856 – Sanitation Code· (1978) Presidential Decree 1586 – Philippine
Environmental Impact Statement System – Mandates EIS for government and private sector
projects affecting the quality of the environment· (1979) Presidential Proclamation
2146 – Environmentally critical projects and environmentally critical areas· (1980)
Presidential Decree 600 – Marine Pollution (1976-as amended by PD 1698)
Post-Marcos Era· (1986) Philippine Constitution – This contains the State’s obligation
to protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology.
(Article 2, section 15 and 16)· (1987) Executive Order 192 – Creation of the
Department of Environment and Natural Resources· (1987) Republic Act 6657 –
Comprehensive Agrarian Reform – Exempts lands devoted to reforestation, wildlife, etc.
from land conversion· (1991) Republic Act 7076 – People’s Small Scale Mining
Program· (1991) Republic Act 7160 – Local Government Code – Strengthens the role of LGUs
in the country· (1991) Ratification of the Montreal Protocol· (1991) Inter
Agency Committee on Climate Change· (1992) Republic Act 7279- Urban Development and
Housing Act · (1992) Executive Order 15 – Philippine Council for Sustainable
Development (PCSD)· (1992) Republic Act 6969 – Toxic Substances, Hazardous and
Nuclear Waste· (1992) Republic Act 7586 – National Integrated Protected Areas System
(NIPAS)· (1993) Philippine Population Management Program (PPMP)· (1993) Power
Crisis · (1994) Ratification of Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC)· (1994)
Philippine Strategy for Biodiversity Conservation · (1995) Water Crisis ·
(1995) Republic Act 7942 – Mineral Exploration, Development and Conservation·
(1995) Republic Act 8172 – Act for Salt Iodization Nationwide or ASIN· (1995) Social
Reform Agenda· (1995) Gathering for Human and Ecological Security (GHES) · (1995)
Executive Order 247 – Bioprospecting· (1995) Executive Order 263 – Community-
Based Forestry Management Strategy · (1995) Philippine Action Plan for HABITAT II
· (1996) Philippine Agenda 21· (1996) Executive Order 291 – Improving the
EIS System established in 1978· (1997) Republic Act 8371 – Indigenous People’s
Rights Act· (1997) Republic Act 8435 – Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization·
(1998) Republic Act 8550 – Fisheries Code · (1999) Republic Act 8749 –
Comprehensive Air Pollution Control Policy (otherwise known as the Clean Air Act)·
(2001) Solid Waste Management Act
Sources: Philippines Environment Monitor 2000, The World Bank, July 2000
Rio in Retrospect: The Philippines and Global Agenda 21 1992 – 1996,
If it’s so good, why is it not happening?
Long on word, short on action. Or the word holds no sway on the action. Or the word makes
little sense in the real world.
The Philippine Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), established three months after
the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), a.k.a. the Rio
Earth Summit of 1992, was intended to be the oversight body for sustainable development.
Its main job is to ensure that the government’s commitments in Rio are translated into a
national sustainability plan and to monitor the implementation of the plan down the line.
How did it perform?
Ten years had gone by and judgments of PCSD are at best ambivalent. Views vary widely.
Some harsh critics of PCSD say it’s a useless body. In contrast, gung-ho supporters of
PCSD hold it to high heavens, as it were. Probably, neither of these views is right or
fair. Those who say that PCSD is but an advocacy mechanism for promoting the concept and
practical implications of sustainable development might be closer to locating where PCSD
was and has been all these years.
Interagency mechanisms, like PCSD, are a talking shop of sorts. Their resources are
barely enough to run meetings. Making sustainable development work rests on line agencies
which have money and people to run programs and projects. And yet these same line
agencies can just pay lip service to sustainable development and go about their business
as usual without having to worry about any sanction from PCSD. Agencies in finance and
trade hardly ever talk of sustainable development and yet their business has a lot to do
with its success or failure.
Leading the crafting of Philippine Agenda 21 (PA21) might well be PCSD’s signal
contribution to sustainable development. There was broad participation in the process.
The outcome document was good.
As well, the creation of local PCSD mechanisms has helped in a big way to promote
sustainable development locally and to re-orient local development plans along this
concept. Since the establishment of the first such mechanism, the Palawan Council for
Sustainable Development, and that even prior to the formation of the PCSD, several other
regional and provincial councils have been organized. As multi-stakeholder bodies
involving state and non-state actors, these mechanisms serve as a platform for debating
issues and building social consensus.
How far these mechanisms have enabled the shift to a sustainable path remains a subject
of review. As yet, nothing conclusive can be said as to whether regions and provinces
which have organized these mechanisms are really that much different in the way they
pursue development from those that have not followed suit.
But then again we cannot ascribe to PCSD and PA21 whatever is going right about
sustainable development in the Philippines any more than we can blame them for everything
that’s not working and continues to go wrong. For all we care, people and institutions
responsible for those rights and wrongs may not even have heard or bothered at all about
PCSD or PA21. Certainly, PCSD and PA21, to say nothing about the leadership of the
economic development planning minister who had presided over them from the start, have
helped in a big way to raise government and public awareness about sustainable
The inquiry as to why sustainable development is not happening in the Philippines must go
deeper and beyond PCSD and PA21.
It can’t be sustainable development
Partly, maybe. But wholly? Surely not.
Way back to when government subscribed to the Rio Declaration, the Agenda 21 and the
three other Earth Summit agreements on biodiversity, climate change, and forest
principles, the Philippines has been doing mostly development as if the problem of
unsustainability didn’t exist. The regime that enabled the creation of PCSD and PA21,
the Social Reform Agenda, and a number of other reform measures was indeed profuse in
sustainable development rhetoric. But action, as we know it, speaks louder.
The Ramos regime wanted the Philippines to become the next tiger of Asia, referring to
the newly industrializing countries (NIC) of Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. But with a
difference. It’s not just a tiger but a “green tiger”, meaning a NIC subscribing to
sustainable development principles.
How on earth this could happen was a huge problem of strategy. The NIC phenomenon was
basically a story of “growing now, paying later”. In other words, grow the economy at
any costs and do the social and environmental payback later, if it does happen at all.
The NIC strategy made sense then, under the circumstances and processes through which the
strategy was played out. It’s a big wonder if it would work in the Philippines under
post-Marcos authoritarian conditions.
In any case, the Philippines is way, way off the mark. It’s far from becoming a tiger,
much less a green one. It has never even come close enough to applying some of the
positive lessons of the NIC experience. And that is, that those countries [a] made good
on asset reform, especially land reform; and [b] invested hugely in human resource
development, especially education and training in science and technology.
The successor regimes to Ramos’ have been merely a continuation along the same path of
Curiously enough, not much has changed since Marcos. And that is, with respect to
adhering to the dictum of growing the economy to reduce poverty without altering the
structure of inequality in society, and with environment and people’s participation as
mere add-on. That early, Marcos had already drawn up his own strategic vision of a NIC
that seemed to fascinate Philippine presidents who came after him. And though contested,
there are claims that, comparatively and nominally, the Marcos regime transferred more
lands to small tenant farmers than all successor regimes combined did. Too, many
environmental legislations were enacted in Marcos time. The growth strategy then even
included a mix energy scenario balancing fossil fuels and new and renewable sources.
But that was a different time, an authoritarian era, a time when we had only voiceless
growth. And that made a big difference.
Yet about now, from the post-Marcos regime of Aquino in 1986 to the present, the
Philippines can’t seem to do things quite rightly either.
Democratic restoration brought about different sorts of trade-offs and pains. There has
since been greater citizen voice and participation in the ways and means of running
society and the economy. Media’s having a field day, at times to the point of license
and outright sensationalism. So are the other institutions, like the churches, wanting
to project their clout and power on governance. There has been a strong resurgence of
social and environmental activism. The so-called Philippine civil society dynamism has
surged so high as to be able to bring about regime changes, to the extent of being
branded at times as uncivil, arrogant and moralist. Unsympathetic critics in media and
elsewhere sometimes joke about this civil society as “evil society “.
There had been many rebellious challenges to government’s legitimacy and capacity to
govern. All these had had both destabilizing and strengthening effects on our democracy.
Post-Marcos regimes have come and gone in constitutional and extra-constitutional ways.
These regime changes and transitions have been occasioned by people power revolutions, so-
called EDSA 1, EDSA 2, and EDSA 3 . Recent stirrings among the massive underclasses, the
urban poor of Metro Manila especially, suggest of a coming EDSA POOR which the current
regime has been trying its best to pre-empt.
Governance issues continue to dog the nation. High in the list is corruption assumed by
many as having permeated government bureaucracy from top to bottom, and so seriously as
to infect all of society as well. The economy continues to stagnate. Social inequality is
as entrenched as ever.
It seems our brand of democracy needs a lot of democratizing to be a means to
More than words
A quick scan of discourses in the Philippines would tell us there’s hardly anything
that’s not been debated about sustainable development. The list of policies,
legislations and programs is one clear indication.
So what’s exactly eating us? Political will, as often many would say? Strangely or not,
it seems there’s enough of that around, except that it’s a weird kind of political
will. Which is, that there’s one part of this political will that makes politicians say
the politically correct things and another part that drives them to persist at politics
and development as usual. And how so easily people can shift from one to the other and
manage this sort of schizophrenia without apologies.
We’ve gone past the narrow debate around economic growth. Growth with equity, equity
with growth, growth with equity and environmental responsibility, growth with social and
environmental justice, and so on. Put it any which way you will. It may be said that we’
re still caught up in the frame of sustainable growth, which is not sustainable
development. In many ways and senses, yes, and without being defensive about it.
That the Philippines needs to grow is out of the question. Where we are divided is around
the nature and quality of growth. Government insists on a liberal path, which in reality
means sidelining social and environmental costs and postponing full-cost accounting for
later considerations. Social and environmental activists and reformers in and out of
government insist otherwise. Land and asset reforms, poverty eradication, more social
spending on education, health, housing, and poor-friendly infrastructures, environmental
restoration, citizen participation all the way, etc. in the here and now and not later.
The debate on globalization has sharpened the divide. Government sees mostly good in
globalization and wants to orient the whole economy towards the global trading system.
Opponents tend to see more of the downsides, without dismissing the benefits of global
linkages that comes with the process of globalization. But they insist on putting more
emphasis on strengthening the local economy before plunging in what they believe is a
highly unequal playing field where countries like the Philippines surely stands to lose
more than it could gain. The 1997 crisis, the agonies and hardships of farmers as a
consequence of hooking our agriculture to global trade, and many of the same outstanding
issues concerning global inequalities are making a good case for social and environmental
Such is the nature of the divide. And this would express in many ways and forms of
engagement, ranging from plain lobby and advocacy for policy reforms to street
mobilizations and people power revolutions, to development cooperation, even to the
extreme option of armed struggles, such as those being launched for many years now by
communist and Muslim rebels. For good or ill, things just tend to get polarized.
Living stories on strivings for sustainability are many and diverse. It needs time and
effort to track them. These are stories worth telling the people.
A number of these have been reported already by the Philippine government in connection
with the Rio+5 review. Three PRRM cases, among many others, have been included in that
report:  sustainable agriculture as practiced and promoted by ecological farmers of
KALIKASAN in the province of Nueva Ecija;  community-based coastal resources
management in Orion, Bataan being co-managed by a local fishers organization SUGPO with
the municipal government; and,  new and renewable energy to light up a small distant
mountain village, utilizing local indigenous knowledge and modern technology, in the
northern highland of Ifugao.
The Local Government Code of 1991 is a landmark legislation that creates an enabling
environment for sustainable development. By breaking the concentration of resources and
authority, the law allows wider latitude for local government units in deciding their
development priorities. Greater local autonomy, of course, does not necessarily bring
about local sustainability. Indeed, it might cause the return of negative localism, as in
renewed dominance of local bosses and patronage politics of old. Much of what could
happen depends on civic initiative and vigilance, public awareness and readiness to move
local development in a more sustainable direction.
Good practices at the local level are increasing and getting duly rewarded. If it is any
indication of brighter prospects for sustainable development, the Galing Pook Awards, a
program to honor best practices in local governance, has so far honored 120 LGUs since
1993. These practices cover a broad range of concerns—environment, health, basic
services delivery, agriculture, economic enterprise, organizational development and
The are many examples of local government-citizen cooperation for the environment. These
range from public information and awareness raising campaigns to solid waste management
and cleaning up of river systems. Reforestation programs that have succeeded in many
parts of the country account their performance to this kind of cooperation. A number of
business corporations have also gone past green-speak and have launched environmental
projects jointly with civic groups and local communities.
It’s not all bad news in the Philippines. There are many positive stories to tell about
how sustainable development is struggling to be the central agenda of nation (re)
building. These stories are being created everyday by reformers in government, social and
environmental activists, media, business, churches, schools, workers, farmers, fishers,
women and youth organizations, local communities, ordinary citizens.
Hopefully, these struggles will one day succeed to bring our country closer and closer to
the path of sustainability.