The Philippine marine ecosystem is one of the world's richest, but it is also one of the most abused. Today, only 5 percent of its coral reefs remain pristine. Seventy percent of the country's mangrove forests have been logged or converted to other uses. Half of all seagrass beds are now either lost or severely degraded. Antonio Oposa Jr. remains convinced that the situation can be reversed, for the sake of future generations.
The young Oposa found his sentimental home in his grandfather's seaside farm on Bantayan Island, in Cebu, and in his teenage years became passionate about preserving the environment. This passion later found expression in a career of wide-ranging and sometimes risky advocacies on behalf of Mother Nature: field enforcement of fishing and logging laws, environmental litigation, education on sustainable living, advising local governments on crafting environment-preserving legislation, establishing marine sanctuaries.
As a lawyer and environmental activist Oposa made his mark with an unusual case that later popularized the "Oposa Doctrine" in international legal circles. This was a class action he filed in which forty-three minors asked government to cancel timber licenses on the grounds that rampant logging violated their constitutional rights to a healthy environment. In a 1993 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the principle of "intergenerational equity," affirming Oposa's argument that the interests of future generations could be protected in court. A triumph of principle, the case set a precedent for how citizens can leverage the law to protect the environment.
Oposa demonstrated this in 1999 when a citizens group boldly filed a case holding government liable for the pollution of Manila Bay and responsible for its cleanup. Marshalling the resources of law and pursuing the case for all of ten years, he won a Supreme Court decision compelling twelve government agencies to coordinate their efforts in rehabilitating Manila Bay, submit action plans, and to regularly report to the Court on the progress of their work.
After earning a master's degree in environmental law from Harvard Law School, in 1998 Oposa decided to devote himself entirely to environmental work. Despite the attractions of a lucrative practice, he declared that from thereon "my clients will be the land, the air, and the waters."
Setting up his base on Bantayan Island, he organized the Law of Nature Foundation, a network of citizen volunteers engaged in monitoring coral reef sites, establishing marine sanctuaries, and assisting local governments in drafting environmental legislation. Coordinating with law enforcement bodies, he organized the Visayan Sea Squadron, undertaking sea patrols and raids on boat operators and dynamite producers engaged in illegal fishing. At great risk to his life, he organized and led some of the most daring enforcement operations against environmental crime syndicates behind the banned dynamite fishing.
Recognizing that education is the key to sustainable change, he founded School of the SEAs (Sea and Earth Advocates), a non-profit, experiential learning center that has already trained more than five thousand people in environmental awareness and sustainable living.
Hailed as one of Asia's leading voices in the global arena of environmental law, the ebullient Oposa describes himself as basically a storyteller for man and nature, and explains that law is only his medium. Nonetheless, he says that the law is important as "a tool for thinking," and to save the environment, "there must be a revolution of the mind, of attitudes." "We need," he says, "to change the way we think."
In electing Antonio Oposa Jr. to receive the 2009 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his pathbreaking and passionate crusade to engage Filipinos in acts of enlightened citizenship that maximize the power of law to protect and nurture the environment for themselves, their children, and generations still to come.
Once upon a time, there was a group of islands so rich and so beautiful one poet called them the Perla del Mar de Oriente, Pearl of the Orient Sea. Its people had ready smiles, a generous spirit, and happy hearts. They also respected the earth, for they knew that the land, the air, and the waters were the sources of their life.
One day, men from foreign lands came with symbols and fire. These aliens taught the happy people that to be happier, they should have more material things-things that they should take out from the earth as quickly as possible. In time, the islands were skinned of their life, disemboweled for a few pieces of silver, and the seas scraped for all they could give. And they called this economic development.
My friends, I am only a story-teller, and law is the medium by which I tell the story that the environment is not about the birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees. It is about life and the sources of life-land, air, and waters (LAW). The land and the soil are the skin and flesh; the trees and the forests are the lungs; and the seas and the rivers are the blood and bloodstreams of life.
The economic mindset of uncontrolled extraction and consumption is what got us into the environmental crisis that we are in now-among them the clear and present dangers of climate change. To get out of it, we need an opposite economic mindset-that of conservation, protection, and restoration or CPR. This is also known as the cardio-pulmonary resuscitation of the vital organs of life.
Today, the good Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation gives me this great honor. Thank you from my inmost heart of hearts. Thirty years ago, I met an accident and went through unspeakable pain and humbling suffering. It taught me one important lesson: honor and fame, like power and money, are important not for what they are, but for the good they can do.
And so I believe this honor belongs to all our co-workers in the environmental movement, especially to my fallen friend Jojo de la Victoria. This Award also belongs to the Supreme Court for reminding humankind that we are only trustees of the land, the air and the waters for the benefit of generations yet to come. May I ask my co-workers, environmentalists, members of the judiciary past and present, to please rise. This Award is for you.
Together, we Filipinos send this message to the world: everything that we have done so far was only warming up. The main event is about to unfold.
Together, we launch a movement to enlist ten million Filipinos for change. Not a change of personalities in power, rather a change within each and every one of us. Today, we also launch a revolution-a turnaround-in the government's priority for the sources of life.
Together, we will spark the natural genius of Filipinos and of Asians and restore our respect for the sources of life. Yes, we Filipinos and Asians restore are geniuses in our love for nature. After all, we live in the richest and most beautiful country and region on earth.
In this revolution, our weapon of choice is not violence. Rather, it is the sword of reason, the fire of passion, and the will, the force, and the power of the law. We cannot have peace on earth unless we have peace with earth. Together, we send this simple message to our leaders: environmental security is the highest form of national security. Anyone who does not understand that has no right to aspire for any position of political power.
Ten million, my friends, ten million... And that is only the beginning.
Yes, I am idealistic. But then, my friends, so is each and every one of you. In the veins of every Filipino runs the blood of idealism and greatness, waiting only to be awakened. Let us remember, my friends, that "ideals are like the stars. We may not reach them, but we can look up, see their beauty, and always try to follow where they lead."
Daghang salamat at magandang hapon sa inyong lahat.