After the Flood – Big Business Helps Cast Watersheds In New Light

In Focus, August 2005

by Ben Jolliffe

Rivers jammed with illegally cut timber, flood-torn villages hit by cascading mudslides – the devastation that hit the northern Philippine island of Luzon at the end of 2004 were the scenes of an environmentalist’s nightmares.

Heavier monsoons than usual and mudslides exacerbated by unsustainable logging made for a disastrous wet season, while the severe water shortages that hit the capital city of Manila this summer woke citizens to the unwelcome truth that the watersheds supplying the city are no longer working as they should.

Yet perhaps the millions of pesos of damage and even the hundreds of lives lost will not be in vain: This most recent spate of natural disasters persuaded Philippine big businesses that sustainable development can be important to them, just as it is for conventional conservationists.

Heeding the Cry for Help

A coalition of companies led by Unilever Philippines— the local office of one of the world’s largest suppliers of food, home, and personal products— and including local branches of some of the world’s biggest multinationals, like Johnson & Johnson and Nestlé has agreed to invest in conservation of lands around Mt. Irid and Mt. Angilo, just north of Manila.

The mineral-rich area has some of the largest pristine areas of forest left in the country and is home to a number of globally threatened species including the Critically Endangered Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi), the country’s national bird that has become a flagship for species conservation throughout the Philippines Hotspot. The area also provides the main water supply for the greater Manila area.

In an effort to help ensure the protection of the forests of the southern Sierra Madre and sustainable use of its resources, the Philippine conservation group Yakap Kalikasan is building on the growing public awareness of how degraded ecosystems can affect all citizens.

With the help of a grant from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), Yakap Kalikasan, whose name translates as “Embrace the Environment,” is now working with First Philippine Conservation Inc. and Conservation International-Philippines as well as a network of business partners to help maintain the ecological balance in the troubled region.

Spiral of Degradation

The area’s natural wealth originally brought in commercial loggers and miners, leading to increased population pressure. Small-scale logging, hunting, and agricultural activities accompanied this growth, placing further pressure on the ecosystem and particularly its watersheds.

At the same time, logging and mining concessions have influenced the development of support industries in the neighboring lowlands to process timber and mineral products. These ancillary industries reinforce the primary extractive industries, and serve to influence political support and tolerance for their unsustainable practices.

The result: A degraded ecosystem that provides neither water in the dry season nor protection from extreme weather in the wet season.

Yakap Kalikasan’s solution is a multi-use protected area around Mt. Irid and Mt. Angilo to the northwest of Manila, which would encourage suitable economic development alongside ecosystem restoration and species protection. Last year the group conducted assessment surveys and now, it is running an educational outreach program as well as gathering further support for protecting the area.

Multiple Grants, Common Purpose

Earlier this year, the initiative received a further boost from a CEPF grant to Philippine Businesses for Social Progress (PBSP). The organization has a 30-year history in promoting business sector commitment to social development. By drawing on its 196 members, it brings business, government, and civil society organizations together to discuss how the commercial sector can help address critical social concerns.

It’s the lead organizer of the business sector’s key contributions to the Philippine targets for the U.N. Millennium Development Goals - particularly the seventh on environmental sustainability – and have made the proposed protected area project a top priority.

With the grant, PBSP set up a “CEO Forum on Business and the Environment.” The aim is to further help civil society—in this case, businesses and by association, consumers—advocate for better corridor management and against development harmful to conservation, a key CEPF focus for the hotspot.

“We’ve only just started the project, but already we’ve found a really committed group of companies willing to champion this cause,” PBSP Senior Program Officer Caroline Pedragosa said. “We hope to see concrete commitments from more companies soon.”

The grant will enable PBSP to leverage further funds for a Business and Environment Trust Fund, the first long-term, public-private funding mechanism for environmental projects in the country. One of its first projects is "Water for Life."

Working with Yakap Kalikasan as an implementing partner, the aim is to protect five watersheds in the southern portion of the Sierra Madre Corridor. The corridor is threatened by rampant illegal logging, slash and burn agriculture, and colonization by local people desperately trying to find a way out of poverty.

Replanting endemic tree species, such as the Critically Endangered light red mahogany (Shorea almon), the white lauan (Shorea contorta), and various members of the Dipterocarpus family, PBSP aims to cover 1,500 hectares within the proposed protected area. Bamboo replanting would also cover approximately 30,000 kilometers of riverbanks.

There are plans to provide livelihood and income opportunities for the communities inhabiting the protected areas through skills training and helping with start-up capital. Suitable businesses might include raising goats or honeybees and bioorganic vegetable farming.

Only too aware that without a reliable supply of water they cannot operate effectively, big business is increasingly willing to help with the investment necessary to kick-start such programs. During the first CEO Forum in March, Unilever Philippines Chief Executive Howard Belton told the remarkable story of how his company had to stop shampoo production at one plant because the additional chlorine required in order to use the local water supply was stripping out the dye out of their shampoo.

“There’s an awareness problem here,” he said, “For instance, the concept of running out of water is a foreign one to most people. Once we’ve woken them up to that danger, we have to link our sense of security to watershed protection.”

There are essentially two methods in which businesses can get involved. The first, an “Adopt a Forest Community” program is for those ready to commit substantial resources. It focuses on reforestation, the rehabilitation of degraded areas and investment in enterprise development schemes for local people.

Conserving biodiversity and restoring ecological balance to the watersheds should then go some way to providing a supply of clean water for the metro Manila area. The benefits to the whole population would be considerable while for the business community, it would generate a secure supply of useable natural resources.

“Up until now our partners have come from the public sector, but we have been introduced to a number of business networks and foundations through our work with CEPF,” Yakap Kalikasan Executive Director Sonny Martires said. “In fact, some of these partners are now seeking our help in implementing their social and environmental programs.”

Participants in the Forum have expressed interest in supporting environmental projects. Filipinas Kao, a subsidiary of the Japanese cosmetics giant, is looking into a bamboo riverbank rehabilitation project near its area of operation, while Dow Chemical Pacific has pledged to help local communities produce essential oils, soap, and herbs. Unilever and Nestlé are more interested in endemic tree planting.

A majority of the companies active in the Forum are also participating in Past’s Supply Chain Partnerships Program. This aims to improve the environmental performance of their network of suppliers and retailers. Efficient use of water, energy, and raw materials, as well as proper waste management, would reduce pollution and should also lead to savings, quickly repaying the initial investment in environmentally friendly practice.

The other approach is for companies to commit marketing and communications resources, raising awareness of the need for sustainability in business or contributing to the Business and Environment Trust Fund in general.

“Tangible ecological services make conservation easier for these sectors to grasp,” said Michael Atrigenio, head of the CEPF Coordination Unit in the hotspot. “Watershed programs might even be more effective than protected areas in terms of engaging more partners and improving species protection results.”

For the millions of people living in urban areas at one step removed from nature—and many kilometers from any protected areas—it can sometimes be difficult to hear, let alone heed, the conservation message. But if that message gets waterborne, hopefully it will soon reach out to and benefit all Filipinos.

For further information, contact PBSP Senior Program Officer Caroline Grace Peerages, or Yakap Kalikasan Executive Director Sonny Martires, .