Thursday, September 3, 2009

RM Awardee Antonio Oposa Jr: RP lawyer uses law to protect Mother Nature

Phiilippine Daily Inquirer/Feature
IF HUMANS IN NEAR-DEATH situations need CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), ailing Mother Nature also needs CPR (conservation, protection and restoration/rehabilitation).
That’s according to environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr., who uses medical jargon to call attention to the alarming state of the Philippine environment. But more importantly, he uses the law to protect LAW (land, air and water).
The play on words and meanings is vintage Oposa, one of this year’s six recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay Award who were honored on Aug. 31 by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for their various contributions to society and for embodying that special RM factor—“greatness of spirit.”
The foundation hailed Oposa, 54, “for his pathbreaking and passionate crusade to engage Filipinos in acts of enlightened citizenship that maximize the power of law to protect and nurture the environment for themselves, their children and generations still to come.”
When this year’s awardees were announced, Oposa’s name was in the headlines—the result of a landmark case he filed more than 10 years ago with the Supreme Court on behalf of the polluted Manila Bay and future generations.

In December 2008, the high court upheld Oposa’s case and compelled the named government agencies and local governments to regularly report to the court their efforts and their results.

Alas, six months later, almost all the respondents failed to show proof of their efforts. The Supreme Court was not pleased.
Oposa raised the alarm once more to call attention to the blatant neglect, apathy and disobedience.

Environmental security
Coinciding with the Ramon Magsaysay Award rites at the Cultural Center of the Philippines was the launch of the Ten Million Movement, which Oposa and his fellow advocates initiated to urge Filipinos to sign up and commit to “environmental security.”

Signatories received dog tags embossed with “10MM” and a what-to-do list. Oposa said the signatures would be presented to political parties and candidates on Earth Day 2010.
“Environmental security is the highest form of security,” Oposa thundered while delivering his acceptance speech at the awarding ceremony. His miting de avance-type remarks at the formal occasion drew loud applause from a stunned and delighted audience.

In his speech, Oposa cited the efforts of Elpidio de la Victoria, his close friend and partner in the Visayan Sea advocacy, who was shot dead in 2006.

He said the award also belonged to the Supreme Court, “for reminding humankind that we are only the trustees of the land, the air, and the waters for the benefit of generations yet to come.”

Quoting David Brower who coined “CPR,” Oposa said: “We cannot have peace unless we have peace with the earth.”

Oposa has led daring operations against environmental crime syndicates.

In 2004, he led a raid by agents of the National Bureau of Investigation, Philippine Navy, Philippine Maritime Police and Bantay Dagat. They seized one ton of blasting powder and sent the culprits to jail.

He led the same team to serve warrants of arrest on owners of big commercial fishing fleets who were once untouchable.

Later that year, he led a special police team in a raid that resulted in the largest seizure ever of blasting powder and detonating devices and the arrest of the syndicate leaders.

Numerous awards
The Ramon Magsaysay Award is not Oposa’s first. In May, he received the Environmental Law Award (for 2008) from the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law—the first Asian to be thus honored.

For his work in advancing environmental law enforcement, he was chosen one of The Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) by the Jaycees. He was also included in the United Nations Environmental Programme’s Global 500 Roll of Honor.

A graduate of the University of the Philippines and Harvard Law School, Oposa founded the School of the SEAs (Sea and Earth Advocates) on Bantayan Island in Cebu, where he holds workshops and seminars.
“The school,” he said, “is an experiential learning center for sustainable living.” It is powered by renewable energy and recycles waters and solid wastes.

Together with volunteer fishermen, divers, scientists and ordinary citizens, Oposa organized the Visayan Sea Squadron in order to protect marine life in the Visayan Sea, one of the richest marine sanctuaries in the world.
Oposa also worked hard to establish the so-called maximum sustainable yield (MSY) that sets limits to commercial fishing in the Visayan Sea.

His argument: People cannot have everything to their hearts’ content and end up with what he calls “tragedy of the commons.”

“We are all losers that way,” he said.

New worlds
UP and Harvard Law, as well as seeing the rape of Mother Nature, unmade Oposa’s old horizons and broke open new worlds that lay hidden, in much the same way that life-altering events in his youth brought him to his deepest core and forced him to contemplate the crossroads before him.

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

He was a law student when a fire broke out in their ancestral home in Cebu, scorching big portions of his body. The tragedy turned his life around.

Oposa is the author of two books on the environment: “The Laws of Nature and Other Stories” and the authoritative compendium “A Legal Arsenal for the Philippine Environment,” a must-read for lawyers who want to defend Mother Nature.

“There was one thing I really cared about—nature,” he said years ago in an interview. “I have seen blast fishing and all forms of abuse of the sea.”

He sought the advice of legal experts and got interested in environmental law. But the question in his mind was: “Who will pay me my fees, the fish?”

In behalf of children
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 using the concept of “intergenerational responsibility.” This meant lawyering to preserve the environment in behalf of children and generations to come.

The lower court judge ruled that children had no personality to sue, and dismissed the case. But the Supreme Court ruled that children had the right based on “intergenerational responsibility.”

The landmark case is now discussed in environmental law subjects all over the world, according to Oposa.
“For me, law is a tool, a thinking tool to guide human conduct,” said Oposa, who thinks he might have had ADHD (attention deficiency and hyperactivity disorder) in his childhood when the condition did not yet have a name.

“I was not in love with law when I started off,” he told the Inquirer.

But then Oposa is not a conventional person. He is drawn to distant sounds and marches to different music.
For example, when his Harvard Law classmates picked him to deliver the graduation valedictory, he did not dwell on the law. He gave a speech titled “On Friendship and Laughter.”

And at the gala dinner hosted by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for the awardees, he regaled the audience by singing “Usahay” (Sometimes), a Visayan song.

Oposa is married to Greely Remulla, an accountant, with whom he has four children—Juan Antonio, Anna Rosario, Jose Alfonso and Jaime Agustin.

He continues to serve farmers and fishermen’s groups pro bono and is a consultant to governments and international agencies.

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.”

In his stirring speech at the awarding ceremony, he said: “Together we will spark the natural genius of Filipinos and of Asians and restore our respect for the sources of life. Yes, we Filipinos and Asians are geniuses in our love for Nature. After all, we live in the richest and most beautiful country, and region, on Earth.”
(Those who wish to add their names to the 10 Million Movement may contact The Law of Nature Foundation at