Anna Velas-Suarin

Philippine Agenda 21: Setbacks and hopes for the future*

We can no longer take our environment for granted. (Photo by Mary Anne Velas-Suarin)

We can no longer take our environment for granted. (Photo by Mary Anne Velas-Suarin)

Given the current state of the environment, the Philippines (along with many countries all over the world) did not fare well in terms of achieving or accomplishing the goals and objectives lined up in Agenda 21. The insights of our class members as well as the authors of different assessment papers reflect the general assessment that the country did not even accomplish half of what was intended or hoped for (Assessment of the Philippine Agenda 21, 2012, p. 29). The official assessment paper (2012) summarized the three glaring developments that somehow contributed to the slow progress of PA 21 and the worsening state of the Philippine economy, society, and environment:

o Economic, environmental, and social problems have persisted and even worsened (e.g., population growth, social disparities, pollution, deterioration of the environment, etc.);

o New challenges and risks have been compounding the already fragile state of the environment and the economy (e.g., climate change and accompanying natural disasters, unsustainable use of resources, etc.)

o Changes in priorities and approaches of the administrations after 1998 have relegated the importance of ‘sustainable development’ as a guiding principle (Assessment of the Philippine Agenda 21, 2012, p. 3)

PA21 had a lot of promises and put a strong message across, however, it “became a weak advocacy when subjected to the economic objectives of the nation.   PA21, in order to work, necessitates the changing of the framework and guardians of development from fundamental economics” (Draft Report: Philippine Rio+20, 2012, p. 37).

This reflection underlines the importance (and necessity) of developing and implementing development strategies that are strongly anchored on ecological principles and considerations. A country cannot be considered rich or its people prosperous if the  environment is degraded and in a sorry state.

Why did PA21 not deliver?

It is not fair to categorically that PA21 is a total failure. It was not. For one, it shows the country’s deep appreciation of ‘sustainable development’ as a concept and as a guiding principle. Secondly, it demonstrated a strong political will amid eras of weak governance structures. Many will agree that the launching of PA21 was probably the highest point of the administration of then President Fidel V. Ramos. As Malayang (1999) succinctly said, “…it carries a high level of legitimacy and has a significant social, political, and moral competence as such.”

Third, while there had been perceived “intervention gaps and omissions,” (Assessment of the Philippine Agenda 21, 2012, p. 29), it sets the foundation for a better and stronger policy environment and institutional development. It is not up to us to justify the seemingly slow progress of PA21 but the reality is that changes do not happen overnight; it is really up to our generation and the next to build on from what others had began and established and fix what needs fixing.

For the sake of understanding the slow progress of PA 21, the assessment paper offered the following insights:

o “The role and nature of the interventions partly explain the low ecosystem score. The available interventions, despite their strategic importance, have had little capacity to change or improve the conditions along the criterion in question, the low scores may be attributed to the low level of PPPP (policies, plans, programs, and projects) implementation and intervention gaps and omissions;

o The presence of intervention gaps and omissions reflects the failure to resolve governance issues and put in place the required governance mechanisms; and

o Although the governance is a determinant of the quality and adequacy of interventions–and hence the resolution of policy gaps and omissions–it does not merely apply to how a particular intervention is carried out. At another level, governance underlies the quality of all interventions across the four criteria.[1] It is substantively a criterion in itself…” (Assessment of the Philippine Agenda 21, 2012, p. 30)

I think that such an assessment is right on the dot. We have accomplished so much in terms of crafting the needed laws and policies and adopting international covenants but we have very weak governance structures, both in the national and local levels.

A perfect example is the governance structure in the environment sector. We have the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as the lead agency in all matters that govern the environment (including conservation, protection, and management) but it is also the same one that issues permits for mining and logging. It is like hiring a gardener who is tasked to protect your garden but equally given the discretion and powers to allow neighbors to harvest fruits and vegetables from it. In an ideal world where everyone is honest, this might work. However, reality dictates that such a conflict of interests within one body invites confusion, inefficiency, and corruption.

Putting PA21 back on track

Clearly, PA21 could have been a good start but it was marred by societal, economic, and institutional/systemic weaknesses and challenges. Even the document in itself had gaping holes, for example, baseline were not discussed and analyzed and most of the strategies do not have objectively verifiable indicators (Assessment of the Philippine Agenda 21, 2012, pp. 4-5).

Trying my best to avoid repeating what others already said about the ways to move forward, I recommend the following steps and strategies with the caveat that some of these may have already been articulated before:

o Improve, ‘re-energize’/reinstate PA21 and the Philippine Council for Sustainable Development (or a similar agency) as clear policy and institutional bases for sustainable development; ensure that PA21 (its improved version) is the framework that will be seriously adopted in development planning;

o Revisit the role of DENR (and other environment-related government agencies) and develop a stronger governance structure (e.g., establishment of an environmental protection agency, among other things);

o Review of all environmental laws and regulations and analyze which ones contradict each other, need enhancement/amendments, and lack enforcement mechanisms;

o Strengthen the capacity of local governments to enforce environmental regulations and protect their environment vis-a-vis the Local Government Code and existing mechanisms such as the local development councils;

o Strengthen environmental education and ensure this is meaningfully integrated in educational curriculum in both public and private schools;

o Launch a nationwide values formation and social marketing campaign to link corruption with poverty and environmental degradation; put media to task and require all media outlets to render public service (e.g., offering free airtime) for broadcasting/publishing of important environmental- and development-focused messages; and

o Establish formal PPP (public-private) mechanisms where everyone can contribute to setting up and management of environmental funds, education, programs, and policy/lobby work.

More importantly, there should be personal reckoning and transformation in every one of us–the environment is our source of life and sustenance; we can no longer regard it recklessly and impudently.

       We are part of the failures and successes of the past and future PA 21; we are answerable to our children and the future generations that they will bear.

[1] Natural capital protection, equity, poverty eradication, and efficiency in resource use.

*This is an essay/reflection that this author had submitted to Dr. Joane V. Serrano, faculty-in-charge for ENRM 221, Socio-cultural Perspectives on the Environment, UPOU, 16 January 2014.


Civil Society Counterpart for Sustainable Development. (2012). Draft report: Philippine Rio+20, country paper (civil society organization). Manila, Philippines: Lingkod Tao-Kalikasan. Retrieved from

 Malayang, B.S. (1999). Socio-cultural principles of human environment interactions. Quezon City, Philippines: UP Open University.

National Economic and Development Authority. (2012). Assessment  of the Philippine Agenda 21: The prospects for a green economy, and the institutional framework for sustainable development (Final draft). Pasig City, Philippines: National Economic and Development Authority. Retrieved from


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