It is always heart-warming to be honoured for what others recognize to be one’s achievements in life. It is doubly heart-warming for one, like me, to be honoured for things that I did because of things that I love and feel passionate about. And to be honoured with a tribute like this ... well, what else can I say other than to thank you from the bottom of my heart.
This evening, a number of things have been said about my love for the environment and my environmental advocacies. We have also been fortunate enough to enjoy the launching of three books that, I hope, will contribute greatly to our familiarity with our environment and our native trees. I would like to conclude the formal part of our program by sharing a few thoughts with you.
We are a country of more than 7,100 islands covering roughly 300,000 square kilometres. Sometime in our past, 94% of our country was covered with forests. It is said that as recently as 1945, two-thirds of the Philippines was still covered by old-growth forests. Today, that number has shrunk to 7% and only 3% of our lowland forests remain in pristine condition. The numbers are worse when one talks about our coral reefs. And yet, we continue to be regarded by the scientific world as a biodiversity hotspot in view of the remarkable diversity of our flora and fauna. I am sure that many of you here tonight are familiar with all this. And, like me, many of you are concerned with the alarming rate of depletion of our forests and are trying to do something about it.
But this is the first thought I would like to share with you. Just planting trees will hardly make a dent in the environment if there are those who continue cutting them down faster than we can plant them. This is what I would like to happen. I have already suggested this to Secretary Paje, that Congress pass a law empowering all barangays to plant trees in the vacant public lands in their areas and to care for these trees until maturity. The barangays will have to employ experts in tree care including those in Green Convergence and the Hortica Filipinas Foundation. I know this plan sounds ambitious but it’s better than doing nothing, and it may just work. Anyway it’s worth a try. It is just a first step, other improvements will follow later on.
Those in the Barangay who have planted and nourished the trees have left a legacy for caring and stewardship for the trees in the barangay and for the environment. They will not let those who are uncaring and irresponsible cut the trees down.
This leads to the second thought that I would like to share with you. The most valuable gift that my siblings and I inherited from our parents was the set of values by which we live our lives and conduct our businesses. It is this set of values that has enabled us to rebuild the Lopez businesses from the devastation of the martial law era, and it is this set of values that enables us to successfully manage our businesses today. One very important lesson and principle imbedded in those values is the sense that, above all, we are stewards of our businesses and our businesses are, in turn, stewards of the environment in which they operate and prosper.
We exist in a capitalist system and we manage our businesses to earn profit by providing valuable goods and services to society. As professional managers, we try to generate the best returns possible for our stakeholders. As stewards of our businesses, however, we also try to leave our businesses in better shape than when we first assume control of them. This means that we must, at all times, act responsible, prudently, avoid wasting any resources and ensure that the environment in which we operate remains intact and healthy in order that our businesses can remain sustainable.
The Energy Development Corporation’s BINHI program is a living example of how this can be done. EDC needs a healthy forest cover to sustain the underground reservoirs that make geothermal energy, EDC’s core business, possible. And so, since 1989, EDC has vigorously been reforesting the denuded areas of its geothermal sites. Three years ago, when EDC became part of the Lopez Group, we redoubled its reforestation effort and added a further dimension to it, that of reviving the healthy regeneration of invaluable native hardwoods like tindalo, yakal, tanguile, mangkono and others. What makes BINHI special is its focus on the rare and highly valued Philippine tree species that, at the same time, also provide ecosystem benefits such as landslide protection, water catchment and storage, supply of oxygen, absorption of carbon dioxide and a source of organic substances for food and medicine.
The third thought I would like to share with you is simply this. We are not always free to pursue what we are passionate about as our life’s work. If that were the case, then perhaps I might never have left the academe, or I might have been a farmer. But if we cannot build careers over the things that really turn us on, that does not mean that we cannot create meaningful room in our lives for them.
I did once seriously think of going into farming. Unfortunately, in the course of my search for the ideal farming property, my young family, then consisting of my wife Connie and my first two children, Cedie and Cary, and I were involved in a near-fatal plane crash in Bukidnon. Our near escape convinced me that perhaps I was really meant for another profession. But I continued to satisfy my passion by learning as much as I could about trees and other plant life. Later, I was able to steer some of our corporate pursuits in that direction, with a successful reforestation project in Sacobia, Tarlac, and with various planting trials in asparagus and cut flowers, not to mention prawn-growing and other aquaculture pursuits.
In the course of doing these, I met remarkable people and organizations who contributed added richness and meaning to what I learned and experienced.
Among those I met in the 1990’s was Peter Seligman, Chairman and CEO of Conservation International during one of his trips to the Philippines. He invited me to join the Board of Conservation International and I readily agreed. For the next 4 to 5 years, I attended his meetings in different parts of the U.S. and the world and I got a broad view of the philosophy and practice of biodiversity conservation as practiced by Conservation International or C.I.
In order to keep track on what was happening in the Philippines, C.I. operated a 16 hectare area in the mountains of Palanan, Isabela. It was in Palanan that I met Leonard Co, who was doing a lot of work for C.I., and with whom I hiked some of our remaining old growth forests in Palanan. Leonard was a veritable walking dictionary on the taxonomy of Philippine flora. He could identify, and launch into a treatise, on virtually any plant form that we came across. Individuals like Art Valdez and the members of the Philippine Everest Team, with whom I have been able to climb the highest mountains in each of our major islands and appreciate the beauty of our mountains.
As if I were not already the luckiest person for having been able to do all these things and forge such friendships, over the past three years, I have been conferred honorary doctorate degrees by four of our country’s most prominent educational institutions, in part for my involvement in environmental advocacies. I should, therefore, like to take this opportunity to thank the Philippine Women’s University, De La Salle University, Ateneo De Manila University and the University of the Philippines for the degrees with which they have honoured me. I shall strive to live up to the lofty ideals that your institutions represent by continuing to champion causes and activities that promote respect and care for our environment. We will shortly be partnering with the Ateneo, La Salle and UP on a collaborative research effort that will look more deeply into climate change and the natural hazards that are created as a result, on how some of these hazards can be mitigated, and on how we can improve our collective ability to warn our countrymen about impending hazards and provide them the time and means to remove themselves from harm’s way.
And so, again, kindly accept my most sincere thanks for the tribute that you have accorded me this evening. To those who worked so hard to create the books that we have launched today, I extend my warmest congratulations. To those who have guided and mentored me through my environmental adventures, I thank you for your generosity and companionship. And to those who tagged along on those adventures, I hope that enough rubbed off on you so that you become environmental champions in your own right. Please enjoy the rest of the evening.