A FEW years back I had a radio interview with Mary Jane Ortega, former mayor of San Fernando La Union. Her administration was so successful with the waste management system that they implemented in their city – particularly their modern sanitary landfill – that the Asian Development Bank showcased it and brought Ortega around the world to spread the good news way beyond her terms in office. Today, Ortega continues to highlight this in governance courses in the Ateneo School of Government.
Beyond the discussion of the deployment of the best sanitary landfill technology and innovations like having Ylang-ylang plantations surrounding the facility, what struck me is the key element that made the whole program successful: Ortega revealed that most of her terms as mayor were spent in a door-to-door campaign for waste segregation. Yes, it all starts with convincing and educating each household to separate their recyclables from biodegradable waste.
This gives us a couple of important points in environmental action:
- An environmentalist must be on the ground, right there where the action is, to make a real impact.
- Environmental protection involves getting regular people involved, with the game change in their own daily lives.
More often than not those who are active in environmental action are after the “big ticket” items, those involving large scale activities that have only one corporation, agency or organization as the culprit. This is ok, but you can only have so much of these.
Environmental disaster is caused by the collective action of small entities like individuals and households who are often below the radar of government regulators.
In most cases, large companies, land developers and industrial operators are the most compliant with environmental safety and quality standards simply because they have all the regulatory requirements to fulfil even before they can start their business.
So why do they become “tree hugger” targets? Because it’s easier to train your guns on one big target that multiple (hundreds if not thousands or millions) of small targets.
In addition, media-wise, it is sexier to have a known brand on the hot seat than little old Juan and Maria de la Cruz.
The sexiness sought by media extends to the type of environmental celebrities that take up the cause. On many instances these activists are not even on the ground. They are on their couches in Manila or even overseas, just monitoring and commenting on hashtags on Twitter and Facebook.
I don’t mean to bash those in the broader environmental policy arena like Lory Tan and his team in World Wide Fund for the Environment (WWF), Haribon, Eco Waste Coalition, Bantay Kalikasan and other such organizations. Their work is top notch and has real impact.
The same with key media players like the late Dr. Gerry Ortega whose work against illegal miners in Palawan caused him his life.
But like I said, we can only have so much of these.
Just look at Baguio City. One must be blind if you don’t notice the destruction of the environment by the unabated building of houses on the mountainsides. You look around and you ask: is there urban planning at all?
And what about our rivers and waterways? It was sexy for a while for government leaders to talk about ridding the urban waterways of squatters and any flow obstruction. Where is that now? And isn’t it a fact that big companies have been compliant with their operations by the waterways and the real culprits for pollution and water flow blockage are the households and individuals that just do as they please?
We need a reality check when it comes to environmental activism. The true environmentalists indeed have a great and useful impact on our lives. But those charlatans – those pseudo environmentalists – are wasting more time, energy and resources than they pretend to be protecting. To them, we must say: “off with their heads!”