INTEGRAL ECOLOGY: The MSPC XVII Statement on Ecology

LIBONA, Bukidnon (MindaNews / 12 Jan) —  After delivering my talk on “Becoming Ecological Communities in Mindanao Context” on November 9, 2022 — which is the third day of the MSPC XVII event — open forum and discussions immediately followed. The first to raise his concern was Fr. Jerome Millan of the Diocese of Marbel who informed the body about the coming Mindanao-wide consultation to be conducted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) supposedly on November 25, 2022 but this was reset to February 1 to 3, 2023 in Cagayan de Oro City. 

In this connection, he suggested that it would be helpful for MSPC XVII to come up with a specific Statement on Ecology, which would amplify the moral and pastoral position of the Mindanao Church on urgent ecological concerns. Fr. Millan proposed that this Statement should form part of the MSPC XVII Proceedings. 

With the authoritative intervention of Archbishop José Cabantan of Cagayan de Oro, it was decided that MSPC XVII will come up with a separate Statement on Ecology — and not just to include the Church’s response to the urgent ecological concerns as part of the general MSPC XVII Statement. 

Fr. Nathan Lerio of the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro successfully convinced the body that “if we decide to come up with a specific statement referring to the ecology concerns to be presented to the Mindanao-wide consultation, that should be a separate statement. And that should be adopted because, as tradition, we are only asked to produce one official statement of the conference.” 

Thus, at the last hour of the MSPC XVII event, a rough draft of this Statement was presented to the body in order to solicit relevant comments and suggestions for improvement. It was decided by the body that the Statement will be finalized after the MSPC XVII event and that a copy of its final draft will be sent to all the Mindanao dioceses before the DENR consultation. Here is the statement: 

MSPC XVII Statement on Ecology

“I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). 

1. Introduction

We, the 275 delegates to the 17th Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference – lay faithful, consecrated men and women, priests and bishops – have gathered together on November 7-11, 2022 to reflect on the theme: The Gift of Faith and New Evangelization as a Synodal Church. In our MSPC XVII Official Statement, we affirm our “seamless connectedness and interdependence with the rest of creation.” We also creatively appropriate Laudato Si’s (LS) vision of the community of creation as forming “a kind of universal family” (LS 89) and a “universal fraternity” (LS 228) whose kinship is rooted in the eternal communion of the Blessed Trinity from whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). From this Christian perspective, we hope to articulate our MSPV XVII Statement on Ecology. 

2. What is Happening to Our Beloved Mindanao?

Trees were cut in the name of development. The history of deforestation tells us about the decline of the forest cover in the Philippines. We are told that in 1900, the country’s estimated forest was 21 million hectares or 70% of its total land area. The peak of deforestation occurred during the martial law years of Marcos (1972-1981) when almost 90 percent of all forest lands were placed under TLA and lease agreement that cleared forests without replanting them and even going beyond their concession areas. Consequently, the forest cover shrank to 6.4 million hectares just after the 1986 People Power Revolution. “Since then, the country’s forest cover hovered at just under 7 million hectares on average,” or about 24% of the total land area. Ideally, according to the DENR, “forests should cover 54% of our land” in order to maintain an ecologically sustainable and healthy country.

After clearing the forests, agribusiness firms follow. In January 2010, Congress passed a law creating a Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), which points to agribusiness as a major area for economic development. For this reason, about one-third of Mindanao’s land area has been devoted to agriculture. The data from the Department of Agriculture shows that there is an ongoing land conversion in Mindanao due to the expansion of largescale pineapple, banana, coffee, coconut, corn, mango, rice, and sugar cane plantations. Unfortunately, the extensive monocropping patterns of agribusiness firms dependent on high levels of chemical applications cause depletion of soil nutrients. There is no sabbath allowed to the land as it is being continually squeezed dry beyond its limits. Their cultivation patterns erode the soil to the effect that the badly damaged soil would not be able to sustain any other crops for many years. 

Mining was also explored as another model of development. The passage of Republic Act 7942, otherwise known as the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, on March 3, 1995, paved the way for the mining liberalization policy in the Philippines. Republic Act 7076, signed on June 27, 1991, provides for the creation of “Minahang Bayan.” In Mindanao, Caraga hosts the largest number of operating mines of any region where close to 5% of the region’s entire land area are being mined for nickel, chromite and gold. It has been reported that 95% of mining operations in the country are employing open-pit mining, which proves to be causing massive destruction of forest ecosystems. For this reason, many advocates rightly opposed the mining operation in Tampakan in South Cotabato. Alarmingly, Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center reported that “49% of mining projects in the Philippines are in conflict with registered ancestral domains.” In Mindanao, the “fifteen biggest mining operations cover up to 131,775 hectares of land, which are situated on or near Lumad communities” (IBON Resources 2015). Under pressure, indigenous communities are forced to abandon their homelands to make room for “mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture” (LS 146).

The severe environmental impact of the foregoing extractive models of development on our water ecosystem cannot be underestimated. As “Land of Lakes” and rivers, Mindanao is gifted with eight major river basins, of which six have their sources in Bukidnon. Survey reveals that about 92% of its Alienable and Disposable Land has already been utilized for agricultural production that employs toxic synthetic agro-chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. These pollutants are so pervasive to the effect that they contaminated both the surface water  and groundwater. Moreover, the mismanagement of wastes from livestock agriculture is polluting our creeks and rivers that serve as tributaries of the major rivers. The study of the National Water Resources Board (NWRB) affirms that 35% of our country’s rivers and surface water areas that we consider potential sources of drinking need to be chemically treated completely first before they become potable (cited in ESSC, Environmental Science for Social Change). 

After decades of exploiting the country’s natural resources, dehumanizing poverty remains the prevailing problem in Mindanao. Based on the data released by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) in 2016, four out of the top 5 poorest regions in the Philippines are in Mindanao: Region IX (Zamboanga Peninsula), Region X (Northern Mindanao), Region XII (Soccsksargen), Region XIII (Caraga), and the (Bangsamoro) Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which is the poorest region in the country. This sad reality implies that the majority of Mindanawons are not benefitting fairly from the existing models of economic development. The unsustainable models of development have even unjustly displaced countless indigenous peoples who were forced to live in the margins.

3. What does Our Christian Faith and Morality Say about those Negative Ecological Realities? 

We need to overcome the tendency to interpret anthropocentrically the biblical mandate to “have dominion over” other creatures (Gen 1:26, 28). Pope Francis clearly teaches that this mandate cannot be used either to justify our abuse of nature or to allow us “to exercise tyranny over creation, to engage in war, injustice and acts of violence” (LS 100). Moreover, we are reminded that the biblical mandateto multiply, “fill the land and subdue it” (Gen 1:28) is not only addressed to human beings but also to other creatures (see Gen 1:22). It would be grossly anthropocentric to assume that the earth was created solely for the use of human beings. It is clear to us that God has called us to be His responsible stewards in order to “‘till and keep’ the garden of the world” (cf. Gen 2:15). 

We affirm that it is sinful to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, to strip the earth of its natural forests or destroy its wetlands, and to contaminate the earth’s waters, land, air, and life (LS 8). In this sense, human activities that threatened the rivers, abused the land, destroyed the watershed, and eradicated the biodiversity are ecological sins. There is “the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for ‘inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage’, we are called to acknowledge ‘our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation’” (LS 8).

At this time of climate emergency, it appears to us that purely environmental responses to the damages of ecological sins (e.g., planting/growing trees, segregating wastes properly, doing clean-up drive, etc.) are no longer adequate. The human induced ecological tragedies must be seen as urgent issues of justice between perpetrators and victims. The unsustainable practices (like logging and mining) that make our place grossly uninhabitable are considered moral violation of the principle of inter-generational justice. As Christians, it is not enough to prophetically denounce ecological sins. We must also facilitate the process to make the perpetrators recognize their sins, to undergo ecological conversion, and to make appropriate restitution by doing everything to eliminate the damage they have caused.

We listen to our bishops’ call to “renew our commitment to advance the Rights of Nature campaign. This is our contribution to the preservation of the delicate interdependence among all forms of life, recognizing that all elements of nature have the common right to exist and flourish” (CBCP 2019 Pastoral Letter on Ecology). This ethical principle maintains that “Every being has a right not to be abused by humans, a right not to be despoiled of its primary dignity” (Thomas Berry). Along this line, we embrace The 2010 Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth in amplifying that Mother Earth has a right “to regenerate its biocapacity and to continue its vital cycles and processes free from human disruptions.” Our self-regulating planet must be allowed to recover itself, not in order to resume plundering it again, but to allow it achieve and fulfill its desirable end as willed by our Creator. 

4. Imperative to Promote Transformative Ecological Praxis

Like Pope Francis, we also ask: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” (LS 160). The principle of solidarity and inter-generational justice demands that we should leave behind an inhabitable planet because, like us, the future generations also have “the right to [inherit] a safe and healthy environment” (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace). 

The Philippines Constitution of 1987 includes a State policy that “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” (art. II, sec. 16). Our Supreme Court affirmed this constitutional right by enunciating the concept of intergenerational responsibility to ensure the protection of this right both for the present and the next generations (G.R. No. 101083).

We support and believe in the national policy that we can establish and institutionalize “a system whereby the exigencies of socio-economic undertakings can be reconciled with the requirements of environmental protection and conservation” (Proclamation No. 2146). 

We, therefore, ask the DENR to protect the rights of every Filipino, now and the future generation, to a healthful and balanced ecology, as under its mandate and by virtue of its power and functions rest the protection of this right. We are convinced that this should be the primary responsibility of DENR relative to its other mandates. 

Specifically, we ask DENR to:

Respect the forests as protected areas for critical watersheds, critical habitats for endangered species and ancestral domains: home to indigenous peoples.

Restore forest cover beginning with the 60% of watersheds which are currently denuded.

Protect the remaining primary forests from resource extraction activities such as logging and mining.

Declare watershed areas and primary forest as no-go zones for resource extraction. 

Preserve the protected areas as such, in all regimes that these have been established (Congress, Presidential Proclamation/Executive Order) including those implemented by local government units, local communities and indigenous peoples. These areas should also be no-go zones for resource extraction.

Observe the no-go zones enumerated in Section 19 of the Philippine Mining Act of 1995, in particular old growth forests, proclaimed watershed forest reserves, wilderness areas, mangrove forests, mossy forests, national parks/municipal forests, parks, greenbelts game refuge and bird sanctuaries.

Retain the no-go zones in the following areas: prime agricultural lands, tourism development areas, island ecosystems, areas with critical slopes, recharge areas of aquifers and other environmentally-critical areas.

We expect the Department of Agriculture (DA) to take the lead in sustainable food production to: 

Spare the groundwater, rivers and lakes from chemical and industrial agriculture.              

Prioritize ecologically-sustainable agriculture and food production (including livestock). 

Arrest the overextraction of groundwater and surface water abuse/misuse by effective urban/land use planning and governance that recognizes the land-water continuum. What happens to the forest, and the unregulated developments/land use necessarily impacts groundwater, the rivers and seas.   

Empower local communities to become self-sufficient and economically productive.   Recognize marginalized sectors as active partners in economic development that does not breed nor further exacerbate poverty.           

With the civil society groups and other concerned government agencies, let us work together to pursue the urgent task of protecting our beloved Mindanao from the threat of the continuing ecological crisis. 

May St. Francis of Assisi, Patron Saint of Ecologists and lovers of nature, continue to intercede for us “in our struggle for justice, love, … peace” and the integrity of God’s creation.   

For the 275 Delegates of MSPCXVII,

Most Reverend José A. Cabantan, D.D.
Archbishop of Cagayan de Oro