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A Mayor's Power to Close Down a Plant

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Political will comes in many forms. Defined under the Oxford Dictionary as “political intention or desire, specifically the firm intention or commitment on the part of a government to carry through a policy, especially one which is not immediately successful or popular”, we see it in action rather than have a succinct way to describe it.

Political will was involved when Donald Trump started building the wall on the USA-Mexico border, and quite recently when Joe Biden mandated vaccinations for employers with 100 or more employees. The action or outcome is often polarizing. And it’s not only with national leaders where we see political will being wielded – even the leaders of towns and cities all over the world manifest political will in different ways and in varying degrees.

Mayors are at the very heart of cities and towns. Considered as the patriarch or matriarch of that specific locality, the decisions they make and actions they take demonstrate their political will. They have the duty to promote the general welfare of the people in their locality – and this general welfare covers both economic progress and environmental preservation. Promoting business activity while protecting nature is challenging, and it is a dilemma that all the world’s governments continue to grapple with.

The power to shutter a business or to halt operations for harming the environment, is one legally vested to political leaders of a particular location. Through the 70’s to 90’s in the Philippines, the license to cut trees for timber was often a legal right that only the President or an appointee of his could grant. But with empowerment through the Local Government Code of 1991 and further legislations and Supreme Court decisions, power on the local level has gradually been made visible and more recognized. The case of Technology Developers, Inc. v. Court of Appeals is one such example.

Technology Developers, Inc. v. Court of Appeals

The first important thing you need to know about this case is that it was set in 1989, just three years removed from the People Power Revolution, a non-violent ousting that defines the Philippines until today, for the will and bravery of its ordinary citizens to rise up against a dictator who ruled for two decades and establish a new government. The Philippines was still new, as were other countries at the time, when it came to environmental activism. The classic case of Oposa v. Factoran which turned to doctrine the concept of Intergenerational Responsibility was still a few years away from falling into the Supreme Court’s hands. It’s a little ironic that it was during the dictator Marcos’ regime that both the Philippine Environmental Policy and the Philippine Environment Code were enacted. Then again, these were said to be just following the trends of the time, as Marcos’ Presidential Decree No. 1586 was almost a complete reproduction of the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act.

It was really during the following administration that these environmental cases started popping up in the Supreme Court, perhaps because the previous administration had a tendency to tolerate environmental abuse when it served the cronies of the late President Marcos.

The case of Technology Developers v. Court of Appeals stemmed from a closure order issued by the mayor of the town of Sta. Maria, Bulacan, a moderately sized municipality in the Central Luzon region. Technology Developers was a company that manufactured and exported charcoal briquette, a lucrative operation which by 2019 was a 950 million-dollar industry in Asia. The problem was that the company thought it could just be a cash cow sitting at some relatively unknown town that was happy to collect revenue through taxes. But not only did it not comply with the local permits required by the government, it was inflicting harm to the environment by not installing an air pollution device­. Such was the recommendation from the investigation report:

“Due to the manufacturing process and nature of raw materials used, the fumes coming from the factory may contain particulate matters which are hazardous to the health of the people. As such, the company should cease operating until such a time that the proper air pollution device is installed and operational.”

It’s unclear whether the operators were friends of the previous administration, which likely allowed it to operate despite the harm that was being caused to the environment and to the people of Sta. Maria. Technology Developers operated without a Building Permit, nor a Mayor’s Permit, and not even an Anti-Pollution Permit which was to be issued by the region’s DENR office.

The Acting Mayor, Vicente Cruz, sent the company a letter on February 16, 1989 and ordered the padlocking of the company’s premises on April 6, 1989. The company was not happy, and challenged the Acting Mayor’s order in court, but still lost, even on appeal with the Court of Appeals. Brought before the Supreme Court through a petition for certiorari, the high Court showed that an Acting Mayor has a responsibility to its citizens on matters concerning the environment.

Local leaders have the duty to protect their locality's inhabitants from environmental harm.

Local leaders have the duty to protect their locality's inhabitants from environmental harm.

Protection from Pollution, A Mayor's Responsibility

The Court had this to say about a mayor’s responsibility:

“It must be recognized that the mayor of a town has as much responsibility to protect its inhabitants from pollution, and by virtue of his police power, he may deny the application for a permit to operate a business or otherwise close the same unless appropriate measures are taken to control and/or avoid injury to the health of the residents of the community from the emissions in the operation of the business.”

Acting Mayor Vicente Cruz of the town of Sta. Maria, Bulacan was not out of touch. He knew and acknowledged his own constituents’ situation. In his letter, he called the attention of the company to the pollution emitted by the fumes of its plant whose offensive odor “not only pollute the air in the locality but also affect the health of the residents in the area.”

It’s not often that a town’s own mayor goes against a big cash cow for the sake of the health of his citizenry. This was a progressive move for his time, and one which mayors of today should have the political will to attempt.

Business versus the Environment

Too often, business and environment get pitted against each other needlessly. Today, there are more options to undertake a business activity that causes little to no harm to the environment and its inhabitants. The Philippine Supreme Court of 1991 did a little bit of environmental activism, and its closing paragraph of the decision read:

“Petitioner takes note of the plea of petitioner focusing on its huge investment in this dollar-earning industry. It must be stressed however, that concomitant with the need to promote investment and contribute to the growth of the economy is the equally essential imperative of protecting the health, nay the very lives of the people, from deleterious effect of the pollution of the environment.”

Environmental Protection Starts at Localities

The case above was one of the earlier cases of the Supreme Court showing everyone that even town mayors had the power to protect their own environment, and national agencies or the President himself weren’t the only ones who could make real change. This came as no surprise as the decision came about a month after the Local Government Code was implemented in the Philippines.

Environmental protection truly starts at the smallest unit of government. Sure, it is the national agencies and country leaders who make decisions of wide impact, but the setting of environmental intervention always happens at a specific district, town, city, or province. Local leaders have the power and legal right to protect the natural resources of the land for which they were elected to be fathers and mothers of.

Local leaders don’t always have to rely on specialized national agencies to make rules or decisions on whether a company has permission to touch a protected natural resource or not. If you’re a local leader who cares about the people living within that natural resource and for those who will live there for generations to come, you have an obligation to stop businesses from taking what they cannot give back or restore.

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