Life in conservation (3rd of four parts)

I fully embraced working solely for conservation when I entered the Department of Environment and Natural Resources during the last part of the 80s.

The late Dionisio “Panoy” Tolentino Jr., the first Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer of Negros Occidental, encouraged me to work with him, although I was hesitant at first to join in the government. It was supported by another friend, who also worked with the DENR, Forester Federico Ibabao, whom I dearly called Manong Fred since he was like an older brother to me, but he, too, is already gone.

Both Panoy and Manong Fred were products of Decada ’70, or the First Quarter Storm, a popular student movement against the dictatorial regime of the late president Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Since the two of them took up forestry as a profession, it was their option to work with the former Bureau of Forest Development that was later on transformed into Forest Management Bureau of the DENR, which was organized immediately after the EDSA Revolution in 1986.

My communication background when I was in student movement and my exposure as a documentation staff in a human rights organization after my college days, in addition to my experience in community engagement, were factors, I think, why Panoy assigned me to establish the communication unit of the PENRO Negros Occidental, particularly on the Integrated Social Forestry Program of the DENR. The assignment forced me to study and learn more.

The ISFP was meant to secure the land tenure and livelihood of upland dwellers who were actually occupying a certain portion of the classified timberlands, through the issuance of the Certificate of Stewardship Contract. This land tenure instrument covers 25 years and is renewable for another 25 years. I found the program interesting as during that period millions of upland dwellers throughout the country were already occupying timberlands, with vast tracts of such areas already devoid of original forest cover.

I realized that the landlessness and absence of economic opportunities in the lowlands forced these upland occupants to settle in timberlands where they mostly practiced slash-and-burn farming or “kaingin.” Many of these forestland dwellers were displaced workers from the commercial logging and mining industries, which were rampant in Negros Occidental during the time of Marcos Sr.

I came up with two levels of a communication strategy, one focusing on raising the awareness of program participants on the importance of the land tenure and its associated guidelines, and the other was disseminating information for public awareness on forest conservation. Such assignment was further expanded when the late Forester Larry Cayayan became the PENR Officer of the province. Sir Larry, as many of us called him, was the first PENRO of Negros Occidental who was a true-blooded Negrosanon.

I could only assume that Sir Larry had already noticed my presence and activities at PENRO while he was still the Community Environment and Natural Resources Officer in Bacolod City. Sir Larry immediately instructed me, as soon as he assumed office, to set up the Public Affairs Unit of PENRO Negros Occidental, with expanded and multiple communication functions to cater to various audiences.

It was demanding since the issue of environmental degradation started to gain prominence, while forest protection was receiving attention from several groups that were demanding for the full implementation of total logging ban in the province, which was earlier granted by former DENR Secretary FulgencioFactoran Jr.

The updated assignment became an opportunity for me to study more on environment and natural resources management, including various laws, regulations, and programs, as well as discerning on crucial concerns on the management of our environment and natural resources. The publication by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines of the paper entitled “Living Lightly Over the Earth” immensely contributed to my further awakening on the complicated issues on environment.

The assistance of the DENR Region VI Public Affairs Office in Iloilo City, headed by Rhodora Capulso, Tita Duds to me, made my task much easier in operationalizing the public affairs unit of PENRO Negros Occidental. Part of my responsibility was to act as the public information officer, and, therefore, I had to be familiar and knowledgeable on all aspects of the DENR’s operations, as well as related matters.

I was so grateful with the DENR because the task given by Sir Larry provided me with a lot of opportunities to attend trainings, meetings, workshops, educational tours, and seminars that further shaped and molded my understanding of the complicated concerns on environment. In the process, I built a network of contacts and friends with the DENR personnel nationwide, and up to this day, I am still in contact with many of them.

I formed a team to work with me starting with Emmanuel Jabasa, a mass communication graduate, who assisted me in preparing press releases, briefing kits, and press conferences, among others. Emman is now the Sangguniang Bayan secretary of the municipality of Cauayan in southern Negros Occidental. We were actively supported by other pioneering PIOs of the DENR in the province, particularly Ruby Arribas from Cadiz, Teresita Gan from Bacolod, Zenaida delos Santos in Sipalay and Soni Gavaran, who was later on replaced by Susana Casalim, in Kabankalan. Several other personnel joined us in the team. I was happy that we gained the support of every officer and staff of the DENR in the province. Most of these personnel remain my good friends to date, especially our former human resources officer, Emy Balinario.

One of our immediate tasks was to engage mass media in disseminating conservation messages. It was good that prior to this assignment, I established a good network of contacts with local media personalities who were accommodating our releases and covering various activities of the DENR. Of course, it was also tough to address numerous and critical issues brought by the media to the attention of the DENR, but I viewed them as part of making the environment topics even becoming popular.

It was during this period that I ventured into radio broadcasting when I anchored the DENR-sponsored radio programs, at first, in DYRH, and later on, at DYEZ and DYHB, after attending a comprehensive broadcasting course at the then National Broadcasting Network.*(To be concluded)

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