Country report - 1. The Philippines

Posted: 19 July 2001

'A moral obligation' Rapidly indusrialising Asian countries are experiencing severe environmental damage. But in the Philippines, as elsewhere, some buisnesses are trying to 'go green'. Henrylito Tacio reports.

The problem of pollution is no longer a monopoly of industrialised countries. Developing countries like the Philippines now also suffer from pollution as a consequence of increased business activity, the concentration of population in urban areas and the use of advanced technology.

"Pollution is a problem of no mean proportion simply because it is detrimental to human health and welfare," notes Gregory Ira, former environment specialist of the Cavite-based International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR). "This is precisely why we often hear of people in a vigilant campaign against pollution." child fishingYoung boy fishing in polluted river© Mark Ostergaard/Still PicturesIn Cebu, for instance, a Philippine-German company has been meeting with resistance since it proposed to set up an oleochemical plant in 1995. Owners of beach resorts near the project site say the US$300 million plant will pollute the waters.

In San Roque, Pangasinan, a plan to build a dam is stirring dissent. The Marcopper mining disaster in Boac, Marinduque, has sent alarm signals to local populations hosting mining companies as well as those still awaiting exploration results.

Environmental protests against industrial projects have never been so marked as they are today. The influx of investments and the rise of environmental awareness have brought about this phenomenon.

"We shall have to be more zealous in promoting the Philippines as a major investment site," said former President Fidel V. Ramos who, during his term, was the country's foremost salesman, frenziedly travelling to Asian and Western capitals to invite investors. "There is simply no getting around the argument that we need to create new jobs for our people, and that investments bring these jobs."

Polluted water

But environment has to bear the cost. In Davao del Norte, gold mining has been endangering the natural water systems in the nearby provinces. Small-scale miners employ inefficient techniques of ore extraction and metal recovery by using mercury in their operations.

Government monitoring of water in the affected areas reveal high concentration of mercury up to 62 parts per million (ppm) in sediments and 0.0204 ppm in water, which is way above the 0.002 ppm standard set the by the World Health Organisation. Studies have also indicated that about 100 metric tons of mercury were flushed into the surrounding environment between 1986 and 1989. Seventy-five per cent of the people exposed to mercury for an average of 30 months, or who lived within 500 metres of a source of mercury, show clinical symptoms of poisoning. panning for goldPanning for gold using mercury has polluted Philippine waters.© Chris Stowers/Panos PicturesSmall-scale mining often leads to vegetation loss as hillsides are cleared when miners follow a vein of gold. Forest is also felled to make way for airstrips and working areas. In less than two decades, rampant and unlicensed gold mining and illegal logging have eroded Kematu's hillsides in T'boli, South Cotabato and dried its rivers.

Environmental responsibility

Despite such examples, some Philippine industries are beginning to realise that it is their corporate responsibility to contribute to reversing the worsening condition of the country's environment.

They have been encouraged in this by the Philippine Business for the Environment, Inc. (PBE), a non-profit organisation incorporated in 1992 to assist local companies in dealing with environmental issues and concerns. "We are committed to the principle of sustainable development where economic growth is balanced with environmental responsibility," said PBE in a statement.

One of the chartered members of PBE is San Miguel Corporation (SMC), the largest beverage, food and packaging company in the Philippines. Founded in 1890 as a small brewery, the company and its subsidiaries today generate about four per cent of the country's gross national product and about six per cent of government tax revenues. Its manufacturing operations extend to Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Taiwan, and its products are exported to 24 countries around the world.

"Care of the environment postulates respect for life and human dignity," said Andres Soriano III, SMC chairman and chief executive officer. "Being the only creature on earth gifted with intelligence, reason and choice, the human being is the rightful steward of the environment, which is man's natural domain. As responsible stewards, we have the moral obligation to care for the environment and preserve its heritage for the next generations."

Recycling waste

The SMC adheres to the prevailing environmental laws and regulations governing the particular country where it operates, but concern for the environment transcends mere compliance.

In the Philippines, all major SMC plants are equipped with wastewater treatment facilities. Through this process, water is rid of its effluents and even recycled for irrigation, cleaning and livestock purposes in some areas. In certain plants, the treated water is discharged into a pond where tilapia fish are bred and harvested when mature, as in the SMC Brewery in Granada, Bacolod City.

Solid waste in the brewing process does not go to waste. The sludge is used as fertiliser and the spent grain is converted into animal feeds by B-Meg Feeds, a division of San Miguel Foods, Inc. recycling toxic wasteRecycling toxic waste, Philipines.© Julio Etchart/Reportage/Still PicturesWaste segregation is practised in SMC plants. Some plants use the colour coding system to determine the different types of waste and into which particular bins they should be discarded.

Preventing pollution

In Valenzuela, Metro Manila, the SMC's Polo Brewery launched its Clean Air programme in 1993, banning vehicles emitting noxious gases from entering the plant premises. A certification has to be obtained as proof of compliance from the Pollution Control Unit in Metro Manila which, in turn, is presented to Polo Brewery to earn a six-month gate pass. A vehicle undergoes a smoke emission test every six months.

Pollution prevention is a key factor in the operations of San Miguel Packaging Products, which uses whenever practicable, materials, processes and practices that reduce or eliminate the generation of pollutants and wastes at the source. This includes sourcing and use of environmentally preferable materials, efficient use of energy and water, and careful use of conservation of resources.

On the other hand, many industrial firms near the rivers and other bodies of water simply treat the wastes generated in their production processes. This entails the establishment of wastewater treatment facilities for liquid wastes and the installation of devices like electrostatic precipitators for air pollutants. While this strategy admittedly helps in efforts to control industrial pollution, these so-called end-of-pipe treatment processes are very expensive.

Looking forward

As such, many companies are now looking for measures that are much less expensive but effective nonetheless in controlling industrial pollution. This is where the concept of waste minimisation enters. This idea primarily encourages the reduction of wastes right at the source.

By simply installing devices that remove fine particles from its wastewater, the manufacturing plant in Bohol of Philippine Starch Industrial Corporation has significantly reduced the biochemical oxygen demand of its effluent, from a high of 163 mg/L to only 54 mg/L.

New technology, experts say, now make it possible for companies to drastically lessen pollution and keep operations clean.

Despite such efforts, Filipino pessimists believe that the country's environment will continue to deteriorate. As the country moves towards to industrialisation, arable land has to give way. Trees are cut extensively. Endemic wildlife species vanish into extinction one after the other. Air, particularly in Metro Manila, is grossly polluted. Coastal eco-systems are deteriorating. Mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses are not spared from depletion.

"Pollution levels are still high, poverty is all around," commented Danilo Songco, who heads the largest federation of non-governmental organisations in the Philippines.

But, Nicanor Perlas, one of the principal advocates of sustainable development and a recipient of UNEP's Global 500 Award, believes there's still hope. "If we expect changes in two or five years, we will be disappointing ourselves, but if you look towards the longer-term, I think there is a fighting chance."

Henrylito D. Tacio is a five-time recipient of the Science and Technology Journalism Award given by the Philippine Press Institute. He was recently elevated to the Institute's Hall of Fame.