Tony Oposa: Earth’s leading litigator
teaches us the LAW of life
ATTORNEY Antonio Oposa, Jr. is an old soul with the charisma of an eloquent young man. He may be in his 60s but he is still passionately in love with a woman – Mother Nature herself. And as an attorney, she is her biggest (yet) non-paying client; he doesn’t mind though, remembering the wise words of a mentor.
“A lawyer who defends the Earth has God for a client,” Oposa quoted the late Odette Alcantara, eminent environmentalist, writer and artist. “In so many ways Odette was like every one’s loving aunt, but a staunch defender of the environment.”
Oposa has been lawyering for the environment way before it became fashionable to do so. And for decades, he found himself seemingly always at the losing end of big suits against the Philippine government for its actions (and inactions) with regards to our land, air and water (which he calls L.A.W.). Despite the odds, he never quit and eventually won cases for his most beloved “client.”
An eminent expert in international and environmental law (the principle of intergenerational responsibility or doctrine was named after him), Oposa is now teaching Filipinos and the world with his new book, Shooting Stars and Dancing Fish, which is part autobiography, part story book, part fable, part environmental bible and in between, the art, poetry and song of a man still in love with Lady Earth after all these years.
Beach Buddy Turned Environment Advocate
Oposa grew up in Bantayan Island in northeastern Cebu with his grandparents. “In 1954, after giving birth to me, my mother was diagnosed with throat cancer, and my father, being a doctor, brought her to the US for treatment,” he recalled. Given that situation, he found himself communing with nature at an early age.
When he turned 20, he noticed that Bantayan, the island of fishermen, had been victimized by dynamite fishing. He was enraged that his kababayan, whose generations had been dependent on fishing, were poisoning the waters and the fish for bigger profits.
“The biggest problem of this world is that we monetized food,” he said. “Now, no person can eat without having to shell out money first.”
He took up law at the University of the Philippines and eventually passed the Bar, but he felt there is a ‘higher’ calling for him.
“Soon after I became a lawyer, I realized that I was not only cut out for the life of a legal luminary. Deep inside, I knew that I could also be a storyteller,” he explained.
Mother Nature’s Leading Litigator
The biggest contribution of Oposa to the world of environmental law is the principle of intergenerational responsibility, now known as the Oposa Doctrine. This goes back to one of his more prominent cases, when he filed a class suit representing 43 minors, through their parents, against the Philippine government for all the illegal logging concessions in the country. The case was known as Oposa vs. Factoran, as he filed a case against then Environment Secretary Fulgencio Factoran, Jr. in 1990.
Despite the risks, the Supreme Court decided in his favor (after the Regional Trial Court earlier dismissed it). The Oposa Doctrine – which argued that future generations could be protected in court – set a precedent on how citizens can leverage the law to protect the environment.
“I argue that at the rate we were cutting down forests, there would be nothing left for my children to see, and other children of the generations and those yet unborn,” Oposa explained.
Even with the controversial case, Oposa found a believer in Factoran, who implemented an immediate ban on logging on all old-growth or virgin forests in the country. By the time it was implemented, the millions of hectares of virgin forests were reduced to a mere 800,000 hectares.
Oposa would later earn a master’s degree in environmental law from the Harvard Law School, and his classmates chose him to deliver the commencement speech. Soon after, he would devote his entire life – almost three decades – on fighting for the environment in the legal circuits.
“My clients were all non-paying ones – the fish, the trees, the air,” he kidded. He would have earned a lucrative profit from the private sector if not for his advocacy.
In 1999, he sued the government once again, this time holding it liable for polluting Manila Bay. Despite the odds, he won again, compelling government agencies concerned to clean the bay and report regularly on the progress of its rehabilitation.
For all his landmark legal victories and his practices on environmentalism and environmental law, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2009. Prior to this, he received The Outstanding Young Man (TOYM) in 1993 and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Global Roll of Honor in 1997, as well as the internationally acclaimed International Environmental Law Award in 2008. He was even dubbed in the media as “Asia’s leading environment lawyer.”
& Man of Action
When asked if he considered himself an activist, Oposa replied in the opposite. “I consider myself an ‘actionist’,” he declared. “Many activists tend to talk and theorize but do not make concrete action. When I have an idea, I translate them into actions.”
Right now, he is advocating two radical solutions that he felt would spell a big difference for the environment – edible landscaping with rain gardens and road-sharing.
Edible landscaping meant turning idle land into plots for growing vegetables and fruits.
“It would solve problems of starvation,” he said. “All people can benefit from it. People should learn to share resources like food and benefit from others, too. One setup may be to group planters into farming cooperatives to divide the harvests and the profits from selling cops.
“This way, even if you don’t have money, you don’t worry,” Oposa explained.
On the other hand, rain gardens are man-made catchments for rain outpour. “Instead of the water flowing out from canals, the run-off becomes natural irrigation for the plants and foliage.”
One of his most ambitious ideas yet would be the road-sharing scheme. The scheme involves proposing for a dedicated lane for public transportation, lesser use of private cars, and creating dedicated bicycle lanes.
At present, Oposa is rebuilding and repurposing his Bantayan Island property, which he previously called the School of the SEA (Sea and Earth Advocates) and now known as SEA CAMP (Sea and Earth Advocates of Culture, Arts and Music), which will include a mini-museum and gallery. He is inviting people to visit it as soon as the renovations are finished in 2018.
“I’ll give you a tour of the place myself,” he eagerly said. “Children and can do art activities and learning about nature. I have a rainwater garden where migratory egrets come.”
His newest book, which he launched last Thursday at Miriam College (and included an exhibit and sale of his paintings), was an intimate gathering of some of his closest friends and fellow colleagues in the environmental movement, which included former DENR secretaries Angel C. Alcala and Elisea ‘Bebet’ Gozun, former COA head Grace Pulido-Tan, former Puerto Princesa mayor Edward Hagedorn, and Zero Waste Philippines head Annie P. Guerrero.
Always the firm fighter, Oposa does not lose heart. “All my life I have always faced difficulties. For me this is not a battle, but a game,” he told the crowd. “In the end, life is not about the pursuit of happiness; it’s the experience of happiness.”