The exchange between Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Michael Defensor and opposition Senator Jamby Madrigal, which occupied the front pages of some newspapers for the better half of the week just past, was on the surface about the environment. But it was actually all about staying in the public eye through the media. As in most controversies of this kind, it was about politics and its twin, ambition.

One of the most high-profile allies of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Defensor has his career mapped out for him: the Senate in 2007, and beyond that, Malacanang, assuming that the gods of Philippine politics will look with kindness on that goal.

Madrigal–who proved in the last elections that you don’t have to make sense to be elected to public office in this pathetic country, you only have to associate with Judy Ann Santos–could very well be thinking of what she should be doing next, after the Senate.

Defensor may be too young and Madrigal too inexperienced. But neither has to train his or her sights on Malacanang 2010, by which time the shift to the parliamentary system could have been affected. Parliamentary system or not, these worthies need only hang on long enough. Their time will come–if between now and whenever that time may be, they remain in the public eye and play their media and other cards right.

Madrigal’s from the Old Rich, and it’s been decades since someone with old money has occupied Malacanang. Since Marcos the Palace has been the almost exclusive residence of parvenus and bureaucrat capitalists who enriched themselves in public office, their bank accounts swelling as they climbed each rung–mayor, governor, congressman, senator, whatever–until the really big time, meaning the presidency.

Before Ferdinand Marcos the presidency had been mostly the front of the landed gentry in this country and their cousins the compradors (those whose economic interests are closely linked to foreign economic interests).

Marcos, however, refused to play that role, striking out on his own and even biting the very hand that helped make him president in 1965 and 1969. He monopolized political power by declaring martial law, pushing aside the Old Rich in favor of the Newly Wealthy–i.e., himself and his company of cronies from government-favored business and the civilian and military bureaucracy.

Given the Marcos experience, it must surely have dawned on the brains of at least some of the Old Rich that it would be far better for them to directly rule rather than to rule by proxy. Either that, or it’s true that the Old Rich has been severely damaged by generations of cousins marrying each other. So you can’t blame Ms. Madrigal or anyone else in the same class for wanting to be something else besides a representative or a senator–and as the politicians know by now, nothing beats being on the front pages and the six o’clock news to assure one’s name recall.

One needs a niche of one’s own in the putrid game of Philippine politics, however. Panfilo Lacson has law and order, Edgardo Angara education, Bong Revilla entertainment, etc., etc.

Given the devastation of the December 2004 floods, it doesn’t need a genius to conclude that the environment could be the niche of the month, of the year– even of the next two years at least. Environmental degradation is after all a problem that will take that long and more to address, and that’s even if the government had the will and the capacity to do so, which it doesn’t.

If Madrigal is settling into the niche once occupied by Loren Legarda, Defensor is doing the same on the administration side. After a term in Housing and serving as Mrs. Arroyo’s campaign manager–neither of which posts specially endeared him to most Filipinos although they did keep him in the media limelight most of the time–Defensor’s appointment at DENR could be exactly what the doctor ordered until 2007.

The DENR post is said to have been more than lucrative for most of those who have occupied it. What’s more, being environmental secretary’s a job likely to keep one in the center of media attention, so long as one can keep on stimulating the notoriously short attention span of the media by feeding them choice sound-bite morsels and quotes sensational enough to merit front-page treatment.

Jumping between stacks of confiscated lumber in one’s barong and being photographed doing so does tend to confirm Miriam Defensor Santiago’s description of her nephew as a juvenile. But how juvenile he is despite his 34 years, Defensor himself proved when he admitted that he wasn’t really sure if his claim that the Madrigals were in logging, cement and mining, since he didn’t do “much” (read: any) research. Madrigal had quickly debunked Defensor’s claim, for it seems that her family hasn’t been in any of these environmentally-destructive ventures for at least a decade.

At the end of the day, however, the Defensor-Madrigal teapot-tempest won’t be doing anything to halt the destruction of the Philippine environment.

It hasn’t moved Defensor an inch from his view that only the illegal loggers are to blame for deforestation, for example. It’s a view that ignores the role loggers armed with government permits and agreements play in the same process.

And yet this is at the core of the deforestation issue in that, as has been argued for years, the legal loggers do as much damage as the illegals, which means that all logging has to be stopped until Philippine forests recover from decades of exploitation, if that is still possible.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did ban all logging after the devastation of the December 2004 floods. But that announcement had been contradicted by her own Press Secretary and by Defensor within hours, suggesting a policy incoherence at the highest levels of the government. The same incoherence was evident when the Arroyo government applauded the Supreme Court’s affirmation–with its encouragement, of course– of the constitutionality of the Mining Act.

The lack of coherence in environmental policy can only lead to the usual negative results of most government campaigns, and worse. The media could have done the environment and the country a service by calling attention to that critical issue when the politicians started shooting off their mouths. They didn’t. While it made for good copy, the Defensor-Madrigal skirmish didn’t help make good policy.

By the time this column sees print, the likelihood is that whatever issues and questions and points suggested or raised in the course of the Madrigal-Defensor skirmish shall have left the front pages and the six o’clock news for resurrection months later when the rainy season comes and the floods and landslides return with added fury.

There you have the tragedy of this country. Like war, which is too important to be left to generals, halting the damage to the environment in this country and–wishful thought!– even reversing it is too critical a matter to leave to politicians. For the solutions to this country’s immense problems Filipinos will just have to look elsewhere.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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