In March 1990, 43 Filipino children – acting on their own behalf and on behalf of future generations – wrote a letter to Fulgencio (Jun) Factoran, then Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The children demanded that the DENR suspend all logging concessions in the Philippines within 15 days. They argued that at the rate at which old-growth forests were being cut down and wiped out, there would be nothing left in 10 years for them or for future generations.
The letter of request was not only extravagant and reckless. It was totally ridiculous.
A few days later, one afternoon, the phone rang. The lady told me that the Secretary of DENR Factoran wanted to talk to me. I almost fell off my chair. Now I’m going to get reprimanded, or so I thought.
Before becoming DENR Secretary, Jun Factoran was a renowned human rights lawyer. He graduated with honors from the University of the Philippines Law School and held a Master of Laws degree from Harvard Law School. But beyond that, he had the courage to stand up to the powers that be.
Expecting to be reprimanded for asking for the impossible, to be lectured with a long law lesson, Jun Factoran instead said, « OK yan, pare!1». He went on to explain the reasons for his agreement. He fully understood that this was not a trial, but a story. As a brilliant lawyer, he saw how this could be a lever for more ambitious action. He had wanted to stop the plundering of the Philippine forests for a long time, but was under pressure from petty political games.
Those words, those 3 short words – “OK yan, pare“. That’s what made all the difference.
With the flame of courage lit by 3 simple words, we had filed the case in the trial court. He was the defendant only in his capacity as Secretary of DENR, as required by the rules of the court. However, it was never the case of “Oposa versus Factoran”. It was always Oposa with Factoran. After the filing, and to emphasize that this was not a personal attack, we even invited the DENR executive leaders for coffee2. The plan was now in place for the exercise of an enthusiastic courtroom narrative. It promised to be an ideal setting for informed discussion, as well as a pathway to firm action.
Government stupidity being what it is, the Office of the Attorney General took a different view. Instead of proceeding with the trial of our story, the Attorney General, as the official lawyer of the Philippine government, filed a motion to dismiss. This was a “technicality” with a solid legal basis:
- the first fundamental element being that the State cannot be sued;
- the second fundamental element being that children – acting on their own and with the foolish claim of acting for future generations – do not have a legal personality before a Court of Justice.
The story in front of the Court
Of course, I was supposed to know that. It is part of the basic principles of the Rules of Court that are taught in law school. Maybe I was absent the day it was taught, or maybe I hadn’t been paying attention to the class. But for me, this was not a legal matter. It was a desire to tell a story. It was about sending a message at that moment, and calling for help against the widespread destruction of the forests of the Philippines. Yes, it was a simple message that every generation has a duty to future generations.
Why does this story have to be told in a court of law? Well, if we started shouting it in a public square, who would listen to us? We might even be arrested for disturbing the peace. In the media? Assuming it was broadcast, our message would probably be heard…15 seconds.
But in court, we can deliver an authentic narrative without having to shout at each other. In a court of law, we can lay the issues on the table for orderly debate, supported by evidence. In a court of law, those who wish to do the right thing will have the protection of legal authority. And in a court of law – sooner or later, one way or another, win or lose – there will be an outcome. And the story will have an end.
I was terribly disappointed by this snag in the legal mumbo jumbo. I was left alone with no moral or logistical support. On the contrary, I was mocked by some conventional lawyers. They thought it was strange that someone would spend so much time defending trees and fish that couldn’t afford legal fees. Plus, I had a very young family to support, and I was totally broke. The perfect recipe for professional disaster.
I confided my concerns to Secretary Jun Factory in a personal note that I faxed to him. But his hands were tied by government rules. As Secretary of the DENR he could not contradict the official government lawyer – the Attorney General. In a word, I was stuck!
And so, after more than a year of legal wrangling in the court of first instance, the case was simply dismissed! Boom!
The genius of the Factoran team
But the native ingenuity of Jun Factoran’s heart was multiplied. He used the case as a lever to do something for which the country would be forever grateful. With the stroke of a pen, Jun Factoran banned logging of the country’s remaining 800,000 hectares of old-growth rainforest. These Philippine forests – compared to the fame of Charles Darwin’s Galapagos Islands – are far richer…probably ten times richer! 3
Jun Factoran also had a genius for choosing excellent collaborators. He created a team of superheroes – Victor Ramos, Bebet Gozun, May Gonzales, Rolly Metin, Yoyong Magdaraog, Ebert Bautista, Romy San Juan, Celso Roque, Delfin Ganapin (father and son), Tony Tria, Rene de Rueda, and co.4 Together they took historic steps that changed the rules of the game from plundering to protecting:
- Logging was prohibited in the last remaining old-growth forests in the Philippines (DAO 24, 1991). These forests became, by law, the initial component of the :
- National Protected Areas (Republic Act 7586). This landmark legislation, another legacy of Jun Factoran, was approved in the last month of his term as DENR Secretary (June 1992).
- The change in mindset was further encouraged by the new reforestation contract program launched by Jun Factoran and his team in their time. This program turned the tide in the way we treat trees – from reckless logging to a new world of careful care.
- It also marked the transition from large-scale logging to community-based forest conservation, protection and restoration.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, consider this: 4 of Jun Factoran’s collaborators later became DENR Secretaries themselves – Victor Ramos, Bebet Gozun, Horace Ramos, and Mon Paje.
Kuya Jun and I met again in between. I was with him in particular during difficult times when he was caring for Ate Kaye, a fellow Bisaya. Kuya Jun loved Kaye with a “love that was much more than love”.
In April 2018, nearly 30 years after the case was closed, we met for lunch. I gave him a copy of my book and pointed out the importance of his role in protecting the forests of the Philippines. Thinking back to then and now, we saw how what seemed impossible then – a total ban on logging – had now become unavoidable. We also thought about how our simple story is now being told around the world. “Oposa miners with Factoran”.
Today, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s celebrate Jun Factoran’s life and legacy with a song. Please download it and listen to it. Then recite the words out loud, and if you wish, sing along. Don’t be shy. No one is listening to you. But sing from your heart, please. It is a sweet song, a silent prayer, and a wonderful whisper of hope on the wind.
I also want to share with you this small illustrated book “Shooting Stars and Dancing Fish: A Walk to the World We Want”. Jun Factoran’s name is mentioned on pages 60-61.
“Dance like no one is watching. Love as if no one has ever hurt you. And sing as if no one was listening to you”.
Thank you, Kuya Jun,5 For your Life, your Love and your Light, “The past days are only dreams And tomorrows are only visions. But a today well lived makes every yesterday A happy dream, A vision of hope”. Kuya Jun, you have lived a life full of magical moments. You have lived a life that makes our yesterday A happy dream, And our tomorrow A vision of hope.
Tony Oposa, April 22, 2020, 50th Earth Day
1 “It’s okay, brother.” 2 Romy San Juan, Assistant Secretary for Legal Affairs, and Ric Serrano (+), Director of Public Affairs. 3 Heany and Regalado, Treasures of the endangered Philippine forests. 4 Also directors and executives such as Nards Paat, Boy Montejo, Mon Paje, Horace Ramos, Peachy Gonzales, Jerry Dolino, Willy Pollisco, and co. 5 Kuya – A Filipino term of endearment used to name or refer to an older brother.