[OPINION] Heherson Alvarez writes 30
As the world celebrates Earth Day, it brings to mind one of the staunchest defenders of the environment, Heherson T. Alvarez. As senator, he authored the Senate Resolution declaring April 22 of each year as Earth Day in the Philippines, as well as almost all of the major pieces of legislation on the environment in his 12 years as senator, 3 years as Isabela congressman, and a stint as Environment Secretary, earning for himself the moniker, “Mr. Environment.” (READ: 300 PH scientists, conservationists call for 'a culture of care for nature')
Meeting the Senator
My first encounter with him was on an unusually hot Saturday morning in 1996 in his private office in Gotesco Towers in Malate, Manila. It was only my third week in this new job as a political writer in his Senate office. I was barely out of college and was still grasping with the rudiments of writing a press release, which my classes in Mass Communication somehow failed to teach me.
At that time, the public relations staff of senators were required to come in during weekends, and then you off-set your time-off during weekdays. Being the most junior among the 8 PR writers in his office (yes, we had writers for English and Filipino, for print, radio, and tabloid), I was assigned to man the office that particular Saturday.
By noon, a big environmental catastrophe struck – a massive fish kill along Manila Bay. Tons and tons of fish suddenly floated along the Bay. The local landline started ringing. It was from the landline of Senator Alvarez. I picked up the phone. A booming voice on the other end said, “Sinong writer ang nandyan? Pumasok ka muna dito hijo.”
I scampered to find a pen and paper, and shyly slipped into the conference room. He was standing, looking over the window, lost in his thoughts. His wife, PETA founder Cecile Guidote-Alvarez was also there, whom I vaguely recognized as the actress/host of Balintataw, a TV drama episode about hazing victim Atenean Leny Villa, which I watched on PTV-4 only a few weeks ago. I was in awe with the senator’s towering figure, and the animated discussions between husband and wife on what just happened in Manila Bay.
Senator Alvarez sat on his desk and asked basic questions. “What is your name hijo? Where did you graduate? What was your last job before this? Kelan ka pa ba sa akin?” And then he started dictating a press release. “Paki-draft mo nga itong press statement. Kamo, dumping of garbage in Manila Bay caused the fish kill from the 22 esteros that drain garbage into the Bay. Then call the BFAR and ask for a status report. Develop that storyline, tapos upuaan natin mamaya,” he said.
Being a weekend, my immediate boss, our PR head, was not around so I had to go straight to the senator for edits. When my final draft came back, at the bottom of the page, written in thick black fountain pen ink was the symbol “—30—.“ I knew in journalism class that the symbol meant it was the end of a story or article.
That was the first time I wrote a political press release, and it was for a senator of the land! The next day, a Sunday, I ran to the nearby newsstand first thing. And there it was. The headlines were shouting: “Wanton dumping of garbage caused Manila Bay fish kill – Alvarez.” I was ecstatic! It was my first published press release! From then on, I gained his trust, and him, my respect.
In the Senate, he was a maverick. He was ridiculed when, as Chair of the Senate Environment Committee, he pushed for a commercial logging ban against the total log ban popular among senators at that time. He argued that like a vegetable farm, you must harvest mature trees and immediately replace them with seedlings, earning from them and helping replenish the land at the same time. This was long before sustainable forest management was found to be essential for a balanced socio-economic mix.
Even before US Vice President Al Gore was shouting “climate change,” Senator Alvarez was already a lone wolf in the Philippines advocating for it. When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991, he proposed that explosives be donated at one face of the volcano. Editorial cartoons lampooned him. Until today, Central Luzon continues to get lahar flows, and volcanologists say carving canals, as what the senator proposed, would have saved many old Pampanga towns from obscurity.
In the House of Representatives, at a time when no one believed that President Joseph Estrada, who was elected with the highest margin of majority votes for a president, would be impeached, I saw a seasoned activist determined to bringing justice to a wronged people. (READ: ‘Undiminished passion of a patriot’: Senators, friends remember Heherson Alvarez)
No one wanted to co-author his impeachment resolution. Being in the minority, they simply did not have the numbers. They were talking at his back, saying he was an old fool for even just trying. He turned to an old Senate ally, Ernesto Herrera, to co-author it, followed soon by Rep. Mike Defensor. And then they got House Speaker Manny Villar and his group of congressmen on board, and the rest, as they say, was history.
But those who knew him well would agree that Senator Alvarez was not really your best team player. He was in his best elements as a legislator, with his independent ideas and visionary legislations, not to mention his controversial decisions.
So when he faced the Commission on Appointments as Environment Secretary-designate of President Glorial Macapagal Arroyo, he was grilled by those opposing his appointment, mostly from big businesses who were affected, in one way or the other, by his decisions as Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
A logging concession seeking automatic renewal. Lawlessness in a mining area. An indigenous land dispute. A fishing company’s permit to operate. One by one he faced them at the Commission. The champion UP debater in him refuted their allegations one after another, until he eventually got the Commission’s nod.
By the time he was appointed Vice Chairman of the Climate Change Commission, he thought he had come full circle – he was in the field where he felt right at home: environment and climate change. But again, controversy hounded him after committing in the United Nations that the Philippines would undertake both mitigation and adaptation measures as its share in fighting global warming and climate change.
Yet again, local and international environmental NGOs criticized him. After all, reducing the carbon emissions of developing countries like the Philippines, with their miniscule carbon footprints, would spell disastrous economic consequences. Let the rich countries – the top polluters of the world – carry that burden, with third world countries concentrating on programs to adapt to climate change, so they claimed. Today, his stand that the Philippines must do both mitigation and adaptation versus climate change has been the position adopted by the country in the international arena. (READ: Philippines commits to reduce carbon emissions by 70%)
A full life
Senator Alvarez seemed to have been born to controversy. And he loved it. He embraced it. As one of the youngest delegates to the Constitutional Commission in 1971, he was one of a few who opposed President Ferdinand Marcos and refused to sign the Marcos-dictated Constitution. He went underground after Martial Law to evade a shoot-to-kill order by the late strongman, and later went into exile in the US.
Using a fake passport, he slipped into the belly of a cargo ship in the dead of night, wearing a weird wig, theater make-up, and a curious limp – courtesy of Cecile’s PETA connections, of course. He sailed into Hong Kong, and then to the US to join Senator Ninoy and Cory Aquino in fortifying the overseas opposition to Marcos.
While in exile, his brother, Marsman, was abducted by armed men in Isabela. Marsman’s body was found mangled beyond recognition – skull cracked open, eyes gouged, and tongue plucked out. This also caused the death of his father, who succumbed to a heart attack.
When Ninoy was assassinated, he founded the Ninoy Aquino Movement (NAM), the opposition movement that lobbied to cut military and economic aid to the dictatorship. NAM also led the search and exposé of the hidden Marcos wealth in the US. This hidden wealth was sequestered and provided funds for the country’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), which incidentally was authored by Senator Alvarez in the Senate.
Returning to the country after the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution, he became President Cory Aquino’s first Secretary of Agrarian Reform in 1986. The following year, he was elected to the Senate where he authored the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL) (RA 6657), National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act (RA 7586), the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) for Palawan (RA 7611), Department of Energy Law (RA 7638), Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 (RA 8550), Solid Waste Management Act (RA 9003), Clean Air Act (RA 8479), Cooperative Code of the Philippines, National Commission on Culture and the Arts Law, and the Indigenous People Rights Law (IPRA), among hundreds of other laws, bills, and resolutions.
One of his election campaign slogans was “Alvarez, Walang Kapares.” Indeed, he was one of kind, this Heherson Alvarez. One of the last of a breed of senators who were scholarly, intelligent, patriotic, truly dedicated to freedom and democracy, and a pillar of integrity in public service – marks of a true statesman.
On April 20, 2020, at the age of 80, Senator Alvarez wrote 30. He succumbed to complications brought about by the coronavirus disease sweeping the globe. He left behind his wife, Cecile, and their children, Hexilon and Herxilia, whose name were carved with the word “exile,” reminding them of their father’s struggles, and his rightful place in the annals of Philippine history. – Rappler.com
Butch A. Garcia VI started as media affairs officer for Heherson Alvarez in the Senate of the Philippines in 1996 and in the House of Representatives in 1998. He joined Alvarez at the DENR in 2001 as Director of Public Affairs, and later as his Undersecretary and Chief of Staff in various offices under the Office of the President, Malacanang from 2003 up to 2011.