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Intergenerational Responsibility and the Right to a Healthy Environment

In taking care of the environment, we all have a responsibility not just to our generation, but for generations to come.

In taking care of the environment, we all have a responsibility not just to our generation, but for generations to come.

Preserving the Environment for Generations to Come

Whenever there is a major controversy involving the environment, the case of Oposa v. Factoran gains rightful relevance. A landmark case in Philippine environmental law, it too is recognized for its contribution to international environmental law where in fact the Filipino lawyer, Antonio Oposa, was awarded by the Center for International Environmental Law for his contributions. Needless to say, despite such a renowned Supreme Court decision existing in Philippine case law, environmental law in the Philippines needs more teeth.

Despite the Philippine archipelago being known for its 7,100+ islands, it seems like local government leaders get excited whenever they come across business people who wish to create more islands. Or better yet, expanding on existing islands – either through sucking matter from the bottom of oceans or scraping off from innocent mountains. Expansion, acceleration, modernization, build, build, build – these are the buzzwords that are sweet to several leaders’ ears, while they despise words like conservation, preservation, reforestation, stop, wait, don’t take.

Environmental law will only start to mean something if the leaders themselves will be at the forefront of making things happen. Economic growth and infrastructure improvement are both important to elevate standards of living, but these often come at the cost of losing something more valuable than most people realize. And worse, the loss is often irreversible, especially in the case of the environment.

The landmark case of Oposa v. Factoran needs to be brought into the light every so often so that people, especially leaders, know that when they make decisions that have a negative impact on the environment, their impact will be felt not just in their lifetime, but for generations to come. This case may have been cited and quoted far too many times, regardless, let’s go ahead and discuss briefly what happened in this case.

Oposa v. Factoran

The first thing you need to know about this case is that the full case name is an entire paragraph long, being a class suit. The first three names of the several named plaintiffs, “Juan Antonio, Anna Rosario and Jose Alfonso” were the minor children of Antonio Oposa, the Filipino lawyer who started the whole action and thus deserved to have his last name immortalized under the most famous environmental law case in the country.

The second thing you should know is that the defendant, Fulgencio Factoran, was the appointed Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources at the time of the controversy. In his defense, he asserted that the plaintiffs (the minors, represented by their parents) had no cause of action because they “failed to allege in their complaint a specific legal right violated… for which any relief is provided by law.” And the defendants “see nothing in the complaint but vague and nebulous allegations concerning an environmental right which supposedly entitles the petitioners to the protection by the state in its capacity as parens patriae.

Another major defense was that canceling the Timber License Agreements (TLAs) would constitute a violation of the constitutional right to the non-impairment of contracts – these timber licenses were said to be done deals and thus if the government said it was not going to fulfill them, then it would be impairing the contracts it had with the various corporations.

Third, the TLAs were written permissions granted by the government through the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources (Factoran, in this case) to various corporations to cut trees. These were logging permits, and they ran for twenty-five (25) years.

And fourth, the case was filed by the minors, represented by their parents with the end-goal for the defendant, his agents, representatives and other persons acting on his behalf to:

(1) Cancel all existing timber license agreements in the country;

(2) Cease and desist from receiving, accepting, processing, renewing or approving new timber license agreements.

The plaintiffs aimed really high. They were about to ask the Supreme Court to decide on a matter that had a monumental impact on everything that was going on in the country. Reading the Court’s decision, you can’t help but be shocked at the statistics that were being thrown by the plaintiffs. At the time, the rate of deforestation was at 200,000 hectares per annum or 25 hectares per hour. In the early 1960s, the Philippines had some 16 million hectares of rainforests which constituted roughly 53% of the country’s landmass – and 25 years later, satellite images revealed that only 1.2 million hectares of rainforests of 4% had remained.

If the government or the Courts didn’t intervene then, we would have been in a far worse place than we are today (which is still not so good, by the way).

Intergenerational Responsibility and Justice

Procedural rules aside, including the discussion on political question wherein the Supreme Court after the 1987 Constitution was ratified had an expanded function in deciding on controversies – the case of Oposa v. Factoran was really known for the doctrine of intergenerational responsibility. This matter was so important that Justice Davide who penned the decision placed it on the first paragraph of the decision so that everyone would read it first (unlike some Justices whose doctrines appear in the middle or near the end of the decision).

As Justice Davide wrote:

“In a broader sense, this petition bears upon the right of Filipinos to a balanced and healthful ecology which the petitioners dramatically associate with the twin concepts of inter-generational responsibility and inter-generational justice. Specifically, it touches on the issue of whether the said petitioners have a cause of action to prevent the misappropriation or impairment of Philippine rainforests and arrest the unabated hemorrhage of the country’s vital life support systems and continued rape of Mother Earth.

And as one of the main issues of the case was whether the minors had any standing to file the case against Secretary Factoran, Justice Davide further wrote:

“…We find no difficulty in ruling that they can, for themselves, for others of their generation and for the succeeding generations, file a class suit. Their personality to sue in behalf of the succeeding generations can only be based on the concept of intergenerational responsibility insofar as the right to a balanced and healthful ecology is concerned…”

What then is this right to a balanced and healthful ecology?

The right to a healthful environment is a specific fundamental right that predates governments and constitutions

The right to a healthful environment is a specific fundamental right that predates governments and constitutions

The Right to a Healthful Environment

This right, although not placed under the Bill of Rights of the Philippine Constitution, was not “less important than any of the civil and political rights” enumerated under the Bill of Rights. The right to a healthful environment considers the rhythm and harmony of nature. Nature means the created world in its entirety.

Such rhythm and harmony indispensably include the judicious disposition, utilization, management, renewal and conservation of the country’ forest, mineral, land, waters, fisheries, wildlife, off-shore areas and other natural resources to the end that their exploration, development and utilization be equitably accessible to the present as well as future generations.

“Put a little differently,” the Court said, “the minors’ assertion of their right to a sound environment constitutes, at the same time, the performance of their obligation to ensure the protection of that right for the generations to come.”

The Court ruled that the defendants were wrong – there was indeed a right being violated, a specific fundamental legal right. Additionally, it was a right belonging to a different category of rights because it concerned nothing less than self-preservation and self-perpetuation, the advancement of which may even be said to predate all governments and constitutions.

“As a matter of fact,” the Court said, “these basic rights need not even be written in the Constitution for they are assumed to exist from the inception of humankind.”

What is the Nature of a Timber License Agreement?

Not only did the Court strike down the assertion by the defense that the minors had no legal standing, but they also struck down the defense that cancelling the TLAs would amount to impairing contracts. The Court emphasized that all licenses may be revoked or rescinded by executive action. A TLA was not a contract nor a property nor a property right, as the Court cited Tan v. Director of Forestry:

“A timber license is an instrument by which the State regulates the utilization and disposition of forest resources to the end that public welfare is promoted. A timber license is not a contract within the purview of the due process clause; it is only a license or a privilege, which can be validly withdrawn whenever dictated by public interest or public welfare as in this case.”

Furthermore, even assuming that these TLAs are contracts (which they were not), property rights or contract rights are not absolute. The non-impairment clause must yield to the police power of the state: “Government cannot exist if the citizen may at will use his property to the detriment of his fellows, or exercise his freedom of contract to work them harm. Equally fundamental with the private right is that of the public to regulate it in the common interest.”

This decision was groundbreaking and was a big win for environmental activism. If only most environmental cases in the country were handled like Oposa v. Factoran. If only we put intergenerational responsibility and justice at the forefront of our decisions on whether we should alter our surroundings or simply leave them alone.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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