Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mother Nature’s RP lawyer hailed

MANILA, Philippines—Environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr., he of varied and risky advocacies for Mother Nature, is this year’s recipient of the Environmental Law Award (for 2008) from the US-based Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). He is the first Asian and Filipino to win the award.

Philippine Ambassador to the United Nations and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide was expected to attend the ceremonies to be held Tuesday (Wednesday, Manila time) in Washington, D.C.

The award “recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the effort to achieve solutions to environmental problems through international law and institutions.”

Previous awardees included Raul Estrada-Oyuela of Argentina (2006), known as “father of the Kyoto Protocol,” and Doctors Francoise Burhenne-Guilmin of Belgium and Wolfgang Burhenne of Austria (2005), “father and mother of environmental law.”

CIEL says its award reflects two realities: International environmental law has emerged as a rich and distinct field of public international law, and the world is confronted by serious environmental problems that require international solutions.

A graduate of the University of the Philippines and the Harvard Law School, Oposa founded the School of the SEAs (sea and earth advocates) on Bantayan Island in Cebu. Together with fishermen, divers, scientists and ordinary citizens, he organized the Visayan Sea Squadron to protect marine life in one of the richest marine sanctuaries in the world.

Oposa, 55, holds workshops at the School of the SEAs, which he calls “an experiential learning center for sustainable living.”

Manila Bay cleanup

Last December, Oposa won a landmark case when the Supreme Court upheld a 1999 petition of a citizens group and the ruling of the lower courts compelling state agencies and local governments to clean up Manila Bay and restore it to its healthy state.

Among the petitioners were his students in the UP and his youngest son. He even included the oysters, mussels and all suffocating marine life of the bay as petitioners.

The high court required that its orders be enforced through a novel legal instrument known as “a continuing mandamus.” This means government agencies are to do their work on Manila Bay continuously.

Oposa has filed cases to ensure that future generations will continue to have the necessary “life sources of land, air and water.” This is known as the principle of “inter-generational responsibility.”

Environmental criminals

He has also led daring operations against environmental crime syndicates.

In 2004, he headed a team of operatives in serving arrest warrants on owners of big commercial fishing fleets who were deemed untouchable. He also led police in a raid in Cavite province that resulted in the largest seizure of blasting powder and detonating devices in the country and the arrest of the syndicate leaders.

Oposa pioneered the practice of environmental law in the Philippines and is one of Asia’s experts in the field. He was chosen one of The Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) by the Jaycees, and was included in the United Nation’s Environmental Program (UNEP) Global 500 Roll of Honor.

Marching to different music

“For me, law is a tool, a thinking tool to guide human conduct,” says Oposa, who thinks he might have had ADHD (attention deficiency and hyperactivity disorder) in his childhood when the condition didn’t have a name then. “I was not in love with law when I started off,” he adds.

But then he is not a conventional lawyer and person. He marches to a different music. When his Harvard Law classmates picked him to deliver the graduation valedictory, Oposa did not dwell on the law—his speech was titled “On Friendship and Laughter.”

Coming from a well-to-do family in Cebu, Oposa led a charmed life in his youth but he also loved a Robinson Crusoe-like lifestyle on Bantayan.

For defending nature, he expects to make enemies, but most of all, friends.

In April 2006, Elpidio de la Victoria, a partner in the Visayan Sea advocacy, was shot dead in Cebu. Oposa says it must be related to their campaign to end illegal fishing and to rehabilitate marine life.

Sang at own wedding

Oposa is the author of two books on the environment, “The Laws of Nature and Other Stories” and an authoritative compendium “A Legal Arsenal for the Philippine Environment.”

Oposa is married to Greely Rumulla, an accountant. They have four children. “I sang at my own wedding,” he boasts. “While my bride was walking toward me, I sang ‘Ikaw Lamang.’”

The couple settled in Cebu. Soon restlessness set in. He had seen blast fishing and all forms of abuse of the sea.

He consulted UP Law Center’s Prof. Flerida Ruth Romero and lawyer Myrna Feliciano, who familiarized him with nature-related laws and cases. Prof. (now Supreme Court Justice) Leo Quisumbing got him interested in environmental law.

All the while, the question in Oposa’s mind was, “Who will pay me my fees, the fish?”

Fighting for the future

In 1988, Oposa got a scholarship to study energy planning and the environment at the University of Oslo in Norway. When he came back he thought of suing the government for destruction of environment, using the concept of intergenerational responsibility.

That meant lawyering for the cause of children and generations to come.

The Oposa vs Factoran case was going to be a landmark case. “To the credit of Factoran (former Environment Secretary Fulgenio Factoran), he called me and suggested we raise the issue in a forum. He also reduced the number of logging concessions and passed an administrative order banning logging in virgin forests.”

A lower court judge dismissed the case, saying children had no personality to sue. The Supreme Court, however, ruled children have the right based on “intergenerational responsibility.”

Changing the world

Oposa has also worked hard to establish the so-called maximum sustainable yield (MSY) that would set limits to commercial fishing.

But there is also time for play. Oposa scuba dives, rides horses, plays tennis, sails, writes and gardens.

He continues to serve farmers and fishermen’s groups pro bono and acts as consultant to governments and international agencies. Fish, he says, do not pay him fees.

Oposa often quotes anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt for a single moment that a handful of thoughtful and committed men and women can change the world.”

(Interested parties may contact The Law of Nature Foundation at