The Philippines: Right of Future Generations to a Healthy Environment

The Philippines: Right of Future Generations to a Healthy Environment End Impunity for Crimes against Future Generations

In July 1993 the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled in favour of a group of children, acting on their own behalf as well as that of future generations, and supported by the environment NGO ‘Philippines Ecological Network.’ They had asked the Government to cancel timber licences on the grounds of a violation to their constitutional rights to a healthy environment but found themselves appealing to the Supreme Court on a question of legal standing. The Supreme Court recognised the rights of future generations to a healthy environment.

 

At a Glance
  • Future generations recognised as legal persons by the Supreme Court of the Philippines.
  • The plaintiffs had originally requested a cancellation of Timber Licence Agreements (TLA’s) which had led to excessive deforestation by claiming their constitutional right to a healthy environment.
  • This ruling is highlighted as exemplary for its recognition of intergenerational responsibility.


Policy Reference

Philippine Supreme Court, Minors Oposa v. Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (“DENR”), 1993. [English]


Connected Policies

Constitution of the Republic of The Philippines, 1987 [English]:

Section 15, Article II: The State shall protect and promote the health of the people and instill health consciousness among them.

Section 16, Article II: The State shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature.

Administrative Code 1987, Title XIV, Book IV, Sec. 1 [English]:

The State shall ensure, for the benefit of the Filipino people, the full exploration and development as well as the judicious disposition, utilization, management, renewal and conservation of the country’s forest, mineral, land, waters, fisheries, wildlife, off-shore areas and other natural resources, consistent with the necessity of maintaining a sound ecological balance and protecting and enhancing the quality of the environment and the objective of making the exploration, development and utilization of such natural resources equitably accessible to the different segments of the present as well as future generations.


Selection as a Future-Just Policy

In July 1993 the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled in favour of a group of children, acting on their own behalf as well as that of future generations, and supported by the environment NGO ‘Philippines Ecological Network.’ They had asked the Government to cancel timber licences on the grounds of a violation to their constitutional rights to a healthy environment but found themselves appealing to the Supreme Court on a question of legal standing:

“Petitioners minors assert that they represent their generation as well as generations yet unborn. We find no difficulty in ruling that they can, for themselves, for others of their generation and for succeeding generations, file a class suit. Their personality to sue in behalf of succeeding generations can only be based on the concept of intergenerational responsibility insofar as the right to a balanced and healthful ecology is concerned. Such a right, as hereinafter expounded, considers the ‘rhythm and harmony of nature.’ Nature means the created world in its entirety. Such rhythm and harmony indispensably include, inter alia, the judicious disposition, utilization, management, renewal and conservation of the country’s 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. Needless to say, every generation has a responsibility to the next to preserve that rhythm and harmony for the full enjoyment of a balanced and healthful ecology.”

Opinion of Associate Justice Hilario G. Davide Jr., Minors Oposa v. Factoran, 1993

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, the Government had already issued an order prohibiting new logging in the remaining virgin forest. When the case was returned to the lower courts it was not pursued any further. It is highlighted here for its recognition of “generations yet unborn” as legal persons and as a best practice in terms of “intergenerational responsibility.”


Future-Just Policy Scorecard

Our “Best Policies” are those which meet the Future-Just Lawmaking Principles and recognise that interrelated challenges require interconnected solutions. The World Future Council’s unique research and analysis ensures that important universal standards of sustainability and equity, human rights and freedoms, and respect for the environment are coherently considered by policy-makers.

   Sustainable use of natural resources

  • The action was presented in the context of public forest land with the aim of stopping harmful deforestation.
  • The Supreme Court ruled in favour of both Filipino children and future generations citing their right to a healthy environment and includes the judicious disposition, utilisation, management, renewal and conservation of natural resources.

   Equity and poverty eradication

  • Ruling in the favour of the plaintiffs, consisting of children and future generations, is an example of both inter- and intra-generational equity.
  • The right of all people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature is constitutionally protected.
  • However, interviews revealed that the administrative action taken by the Government in anticipation of the ruling failed to compensate for a loss of jobs in the logging sector.

   Precautionary approach

  • The Government issued an administrative order against the excessive granting of TLA’s prior to the Supreme Court ruling.
  • The plaintiffs cited the negative consequences of deforestation and the need for immediate action. Risks included water shortages, water salinisation, a massive loss of soil fertility and a reduction in agricultural productivity, the extinction of unique flora and fauna and the disappearance of indigenous culture.
  • Each lower court in the legal system of the Philippines must follow this ruling. The 1993 ruling sets a precedent in terms of its interpretation of the constitutional right to a healthy environment for current and future generations.
  • The duty of today’s generations to tomorrow’s was also emphasised by the ruling under the principle of intergenerational responsibility.

   Public participation, access to information and justice

  • The case began as an isolated action of the lawyer Antonio Oposa and environmental consciousness at the time has been described in our interviews as very weak.
  • Few media outlets followed the case deeming it not to be an issue of national importance.
  • The ruling however, is often referred to in the context of legal studies.
  • The plaintiffs were also able to access data put into the public domain to support their case against the DENR.

    Good governance and human security

  • Administrative action to review and curb corporate logging was taken by the Government prior to the Supreme Court ruling. There is however, no confirmed link to state this as a consequence of the legal action.
  • However, the Supreme Court ruling only determined the standing of future generations and the justiciability of the subject. The question of the TLA’s themselves was returned to the lower courts, where it was not pursued further.
  • The ruling set a precedent for intergenerational responsibility and the consideration of future generations and their right to a healthy environment but failed to explicitly tackle the deforestation question at its heart.

   Integration and interrelationship

  • The right to a healthy environment is protected by the Constitution and is applicable to Government decision-making.
  • The consideration of the wider impact of unsustainable deforestation upon the Philippines, and its natural resources, was incorporated into the ruling.

   Common but differentiated responsibilities

  • The protection of the environment for the benefit of present and future generations is recognised as crucial to maintaining the biodiversity and natural resources of the Philippines.
  • The ruling did not directly address prior responsibility for the excessive granting of TLA’s.
  • A lack of debate on the balance between environmental and labour rights failed to consider the negative impact upon workers in the logging industry.


Context

From the 1965 to 1986, the Philippines lived under the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. In February 1986, after bold election irregularities, a revolution broke out, leading to the escape of Marcos from the country and the proclamation of Corazon Aquino as the new President of the Republic.

The 1987 constitution is particularly innovative with regards to its consideration of sustainable development principles. In its ruling, the Supreme Court quotes the Constituent Commission which had stated in its debates that the right to a healthy environment “implies, among many other things, the judicious management and conservation of the country’s forests. Without such forests, the ecological or environmental balance would be irreversibly disrupted.”

The plaintiffs to the case put forward evidence explaining how just 25 years before, the Philippines possessed 16 million hectares of rainforests (53% of its land mass). At the fall of the regime, these same rainforests had fallen to just 1.2 million hectares, a mere 4% of land mass – highly unsustainable for a tropical environment and harmful to future generations. In 1989, Government data revealed TLA’s for 92 logging corporations for an area covering 3.9 million hectares. Continuing at this rate of deforestation, it was doubted whether any rainforest would remain at all by the end of the ensuing decade.

In 1990, civil case n.90-777 was initiated at the Regional Trial Court of Makati, Metro Manila. A class action was filed against the Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) demanding the cancellation of all existing timber license agreements in the country and the end to receiving, accepting, processing, renewing or approving new timber license agreements.

In 1991, the case was rejected by the Regional Trial Court for a lack of juridical personality. It was determined to be of a political nature, unsuitable for the courts to decide upon. On appeal, the case then passed to the Supreme Court which ruled in favour of the plaintiffs and their locus standi, i.e. their right of action.


Objectives

Claiming that today’s children, and future generations, may never see, use, benefit from or enjoy the “rare and unique natural resource treasure,” the plaintiffs demanded:

“(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.”

Minors Oposa v. Factoran, 1993

The plaintiffs asserted that the unsustainable deforestation in the Philippines was a violation of their constitutional right to a healthy environment. Ultimately however, the Supreme Court appeal does not focus on this point, rather the question of the legal standing of future generations and whether it is possible to bring a case on their behalf.


Methods of Implementation

On the 30 July 1993, the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled as follows:

WHEREFORE, being impressed with merit, the instant Petition is hereby GRANTED, and the challenged Order of respondent Judge of 18 July 1991 dismissing Civil Case No. 90-777 is hereby set aside. The petitioners may therefore amend their complaint to implead as defendants the holders or grantees of the questioned timber license agreements.

Minors Oposa v. Factoran, 1993

The Manila Regional Court had been overruled in its rejection of the case as political and without legal standing. The appeal had succeeded – “generations yet unborn” could be represented within the legal system and the case, in so far as its demands relating to TLA’s, was returned to the lower courts. For lack of resources and an administrative ruling of the Government prohibiting new logging in remaining virgin rainforest, it was not pursued further.

The Philippines has a hybrid legal system with elements of both civil and common law. The ruling by the Supreme Court on the legal standing of future generations acts as a precedent to be followed by all other courts in the Philippine legal system.


Impact

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, the Government of the Philippines had already begun a review of the number of Timber Licence Agreements. DENR Dept. Admin. Order No. 24 prohibited logging in old growth forests. The number of TLA holders significantly reduced. However, this was not a direct result of the legal case at hand, rather administrative action. In our research interview, it was commented that few local media followed the case and it was barely mentioned in national newspapers. It is however, very well known in the academic arena, serving as a classic text in legal studies and highlighted for its significance in terms of intergenerational justice.

Nonetheless, the right to a healthy environment can be considered integrated into the new national motto, announced in 1998 as “For God, People, Nature and Country.”

Unfortunately, our interviewees also commented upon the increased danger of environmental civil engagement. In April 2006, during a campaign for the protection of the Philippines’ marine environment, Elpidio De La Victoria, a colleague of the plaintiffs’ lawyer in the Supreme Court case, was murdered.


Potential as a Transferable Model

The precedent set by the Philippines Supreme Court could be replicated in other legal systems without much foreseeable difficulty bar a lack of will and opportunity. The ruling recognises a constitutional right to a health environment for both present and future generations, also confirming the legal standing of the latter.

There are some other cases of note, worth mentioning here:

Farooque vs. Bangladesh 1997

President of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, Mohiuddin Farooque, presented to the Court an extended interpretation of the right to life, stated in the Bangladeshi Constitution, which covered the right to a pollution-free environment. Claiming to represent present as well as future generations, Farooque referred to Minors Oposa v. Factoran. The Court however, did not grant locus standi to future generations, ruling that the Constitution of Bangladesh did not expressly provide rights to future generations per the Philippine Administrative Code 1987.

Canada’s Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, 2010-2013

In October 2010, the Government of Canada approved the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy 2010-2013, in which the right of future generations to a healthy environment was clearly stated: “The Government of Canada understands the importance of protecting nature for current and future generations of Canadians.” The strategy has been renewed for 2013-2016.


Additional Resources

Inter-American Development Bank. Los Planes de Recolección de Armas en Latino América [The Weapons Collection Plans in Latin America]. Prepared by Diégo M. Fleitas, August 2010.

Website of Argentina’s National Programme for the Voluntary Surrender of Firearms.

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