Lito Atienza's Blog

DENR reform, can it be done? by Dan Mariano | July 31, 2009


By Dan Mariano
DENR reform, can it be done?

The country’s natural resources are there for anyone who can harness them for the nation’s good. However, the process has to be closely regulated—otherwise nothing would remain of nature’s bounty very soon.

We nearly did that to the forests that once blanketed the entire archipelago. In just decades, indiscriminate logging led to 90-percent denudation—perhaps more—of our islands. Moreover, it also enriched a handful of individuals whose main advantage was their “right connections.”

Not only did these avaricious villains ravage our forests, they have also denied the rest of the nation from ever benefiting from those resources. How they managed to do so can be attributed in large part to what some economists call the “capture” of regulating agencies.

Ironically, it was precisely because such agencies had the unquestionable power to award licenses and permits that certain influential persons and companies were able to denude our forests—as well as over fish our waters, cause environmental disaster through reckless mining, etc.

The issuance of licenses and permits has been so arbitrary and whimsical that certain strategically situated bureaucrats were able to make a bundle for themselves. All they needed to do was to make life difficult for applicants—and then arrange under-the-table deals with those willing to “come across.”

The more unreasonable the requirements and the more protracted the documentation process, the greater were the opportunities for graft. What’s worse was that those who managed to secure licenses and permits through this illicit route felt entitled to violate the very same restrictions spelled out in their licenses and permits. They felt that since they got their documents illegally anyway, what was to prevent them from exceeding the official limits to their operations? Who was going to stop them? The same bureaucrats they bribed to get their licenses and permits in the first place?

Here is one illustration of how corruption—rooted in bureaucratic inefficiency—accelerates environmental degradation. Thankfully, Secretary Lito Atienza of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has begun to do something about it.
At last week’s the Multisectoral Consultation on Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) System Policy Direction, Atienza candidly acknowledged the presence of crooks in the DENR.

Before dozens of business executives, government officials, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, foreign aid donors and newsmen assembled at the DENR Social Hall, Atienza spoke bluntly.

He said he has learned that applicants for, say, environmental compliance certificates (ECCs) were told by certain DENR employees that their applications were on his desk—but unsigned because “I was allegedly not at my office.” Atienza said, “You are told that they know someone who can get the applications signed but, for the right ‘considerations’ they can get the papers signed by tomorrow.” The businessmen in attendance greeted his remarks with knowing nods—and the DENR chief’s subordinates with embarrassed silence.
Several uncomfortable moments passed. After sensing that his point had sunk in, Atienza declared: “I want to put a stop to graft and corruption in the DENR in order to make the DENR and its services available to all investors and all Filipinos—and not just a few, who can bribe their way through the bureaucracy. Alam n’yo na, ‘yung SOP.”

Atienza said that he is determined to institute drastic reforms in the DENR by, among others, streamlining its operating procedures—starting with the ECCs issued to mining and forestry companies. “These changes, however, will not compromise environmental protection,” he emphasized. “In fact, they will pinpoint accountability.”

Among the reforms proposed by a DENR review panel is a policy that would reduce, Atienza said, from “six months, one year, sometimes never” to just 20 days the issuance of ECCs from the time an application is submitted and officially received.
Releasing non-coverage certificates will be made even quicker—from the current three weeks to just one day. “E hindi naman pala covered, bakit pa natin patatagalin?” he said.
“I assure investors and businessmen, both foreign and local, that the department will undertake reforms that would hasten the issuance of permits by removing unnecessary requirements that would impede their operation,” Atienza said.
“The simplification of the [ECC] procedures is not just about reducing processing time but, more important, [it aims] to strengthen accountability, improve efficiency, remove opportunities for corruption and promote transparency for sustainable development,” the DENR chief added.

Atienza’s announcement was eagerly received by the land developers, officials of mining and forestry industry associations, business groups, NGOs and representatives of international development agencies who attended the consultation.
And why shouldn’t they? Atienza, after all, is widely regarded as one of the best performing members of the Arroyo cabinet—if not the best.

Now, the hard part follows: implementation. All Filipinos of goodwill pray that the DENR and its chief succeed in this effort.

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