DENR, MGB defend budget
By Gina Mission

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) denied earlier accusations of environment groups that their budget allocations for next year reflect their respective pro-logging and pro-mining stands.

   In separate interviews with CyberDyaryo, representatives of both offices categorically denied that the budget allocations of DENR and MGB run counter to their common policy thrust of environmental protection as an inherent feature of all their programs.

   "If you’ll examine our budget closely, you’ll find out that the program which we have been accused of excluding from our budget, is actually incorporated in all the other programs of the MGB. It’s there, it is lumped with the biggest funded item of the budget," said Danilo Punzalan, a mining engineer of the MGB who led the team which planned the agency’s Year 2000 budget. The budget plan, Punzalan added, is a product of sectoral conferences and consultations conducted by their regional and national offices.

   A legal and policy advocacy institution assisting in the empowerment of the "marginalized and disenfranchised peoples" directly dependent on natural resources, the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center (LRC) has criticized the MGB of supporting massively the mining operations of the country, as reflected in the big fund allocation of P186.282 million out of its total P320.336-million budget for the Mineral Lands Administration (MLA) program.

   As it maintains that the MLA program should be limited only to the processing of mineral lands exploitation and utilization permit applications, the LRC says that MLA is, in fact, the direct operational implementation of the Mining Act of 1995, as it branches out into other related activities, such as the conduct of mineral land surveys and exploration and the regulation of mining activities.

   In the October of LRC’s Budget Alert publication, the organization recounted that in the MGB budget hearing last August 20, DENR emphasized the concept of sustainable mineral development as the guiding principle that the Bureau will follow, but which principle has been continually challenged. On this premise, according to LRC, MGB forwarded four new policy thrusts, the priority of which is the protection and rehabilitation of the environment as the foremost consideration in mineral resource development.

   If this were really so, why is it then that MGB’s Geosciences Development Services, which addresses environmental concerns such as water resources, sanitary landfills, land use, and coastal management, gets only P53.691 million, 19 per cent less than its 1999 allocation of P66.353 million, the LRC asked?

   Defending MGB’s budget, Punzalan said: "If you’ll notice, there are other environmental programs that are included in the other items of the budget." In the MLA alone, P11.798 million, Punzalan added, is allotted for the environmental component of the program.

   The Mineral Lands Administration, Punzalan clarified, does not stop after the approval of the mining permit, contrary to what the LRC might have thought when it made such accusation. In fact, he added, it is MGB’s responsibility to monitor that the mining activities in a particular area comply with the conditionalities set forth in the permit. "This is where the environment aspect of the work comes in," he explained.

   According to Punzalan, after a mining permit is issued to a company, the MGB – under its MLA program -still has major works to do. These include environmental monitoring of mining areas, verification of tilling produced, assessment of quarries made, assessment of river systems around the areas, plus technical assistance to small-scale miners, and others.

   Yes, Punzalan confirmed, the MGB’s budget is consistent with the agency’s thrust, and no, they are not supporting the mining industry as the LRC would have imagined. He, however, admitted that the P11.798M environment fund under the MLA is "not enough." Worse, this amount, when distributed to MGB’s regional offices, gets slashed into half for other, non-environment expenditures. Admitting that such budget slash is inevitable, Punzalan, still thinks that the ratio should be 70-30 in favor of environment protection, and not 50-50.

   "Along the way, there are other activities, the work is not really that focused on environment protection alone, Punzalan said. But this would not be repeated next year, he assured. "Na-incorporate lang dahil two years pa lang kami [{MGB’s environment protection mandate} was incorporated with other activities only because we have been at this for only two years.] Next year, we will have a separate funding for this component, because we now have realized that it should be that way," he said.

   For their part, DENR Undersecretary for Policy and Technical Services Ramon Paje, said that while LRC’s figures of the department’s budget is correct, the organization has "drawn conclusions [based] on wrong premises."

   The LRC has heavily criticized the DENR’s Forest Management Service (FMS) budget of P623.909 M as being low when taken in the context of a P5.8-billion budget. FMS, according to the LRC, funds the department’s support activities for industrial tree plantations and logging operations such as area surveys, delineation and issuance of Industrial Forest Management Agreements (IFMAs) and Socialized Industrial Forest Management Agreements (SUFMA), and the granting of timber licenses and permits.

   In contrast, the LRC further said, the Plantation Establishment, Maintenance and Protection Program, which funds DENR’s direct forest undertakings through private contractors will get only P180.875 million. Also, the Community-Based Forest Management (CBFM) program, which is the national strategy in the formulation and implementation of forestry programs, will only receive P97.367 million. In addition, the DENR’s two major forestry projects to save the slumping wood industry of the country, the Timber Corridor Master Plan (TCMP) and the Forest Resource Securitization Strategy (FRSS), are not reflected in the proposed budget.

   In his defense Paje denied LRC’s allegations that the DENR budget for next year is biased towards logging. He said: "This budget is not in support of logging alone, of harvesting alone, and our community-based effort is not limited to this P97.637 M alone."

   For one, Paje explained, 95 per cent of the FMS’ P623.909 M budget is for personnel salaries, leaving only P30,915 M for its operations. This amount for personnel salaries translates into one-forest-guard-per-4,000 hectares of land scenario, when the ideal ratio is one per 500, Paje added.

   On CBFM, he said that almost all of the department’s forest management programs are now community-based implemented by people’s organizations. On the two unfunded major forestry projects, Paje said: "The best way to achieve something is to do it through somebody else’s pocket. If the private sector will provide the money, then why will the government compete?"

   LRC has expressed concerns that the transfer of funding for these projects from DENR to the private sector excuses the department from any responsibility for the programs’ success or failure. With that kind of budget, Paje said, the department could not afford to fund such programs. But he assured that even if these are left to the private sector, still the government has all the right to regulate the scheme. However, he admitted that the DENR had to "make it very palatable for them" for private investors to be enticed into the program.

   "This is the free market at work. You attract investors through incentives and other free-market instruments," he explained.

   Earlier, Atty. Marvic Leonen, LRC executive director said: "By introducing additional stakeholders and interest groups into the scheme and treating the forest resource as separate from the community, FRSS goes against the very essence of CBFM. Instead, it again will perpetuate the control by large commercial interests of the little forest resources we have left."

   Everything in government, Paje said, is budget-driven. Out of the P6.5 billion national expenditure of the government for next year, the DENR only gets 0.9 per cent as its budget, despite the fact that, according to Paje, everything on this earth is somehow related to the environment and is therefore within the scope of the DENR’s operations. With this limitation, he said, it is not surprising that even its priority programs would not be fully funded. And yet, he added, the department is trying to make do with what it has, using their ingenuity in the process.

   Despite all, Paje said, forest protection and solving the country’s problem of wood supply remains the DENR’s priorities.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.11.18