In one of my annual visits to the dentist, he told me about the time that he was taken ill from an unexplainable disease. After many tests, he had to be flown to Manila from Mindanao to be properly treated at the toxicology unit of a state-run hospital: the diagnosis was chemical poisoning. "It must be something in the water," he told me.
My dentist was lucky, he could afford to fly to Manila for adequate diagnosis and treatment.
Some communities aren't so lucky. They are poor and don't have the means to access the proper diagnosis of chemical poisoning so very often victims simply go untreated.
In my six years with Greenpeace campaigning on toxic issues in the Philippines, I have encountered many fellow environmental workers and community members who have been actively campaigning against toxic pollution. Sometimes they have been successful, but more often they have been frustrated by the lack of information and proper regulation on our 'Right to Know' which pollutants have been released into our rivers and environment.
The 'Right to Know' gives the power back to people: the power of information to protect their environment.
In the struggle to protect our rivers it's critical to have access to the data on the hazardous chemicals being released into the environment. Communities can use this data to pressure companies to eliminate risky substances by demanding accountability from corporations or public officials, as well as being better prepared for chemical contamination. More importantly, this kind information enables communities to track, as well as have input into, development in their area.
For more than a year Greenpeace campaigned in the Philippines to raise awareness about the value of a pollution disclosure system via a Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR). The process of engaging government entities was extremely slow but late last year we saw a concrete sign of progress when on December 12th 2011 Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago filed a bill. This bill seeks to establish a Philippine Pollutant Release and Transfer Registry Act, and acknowledges Greenpeace's campaign role in shaping the decision.
The bill came as a surprise but was very much welcomed. It would have been the perfect Christmas present if the following days our country had not been hit by the worst cyclone in years.
The excitement of colleagues, allies and friends was brought to a sudden halt by the sad news of the many victims and destruction caused by the floods.
However, this step forward in Philippine regulation is also a sign of hope when facing these tragic events. The implementation of this register will enable governments and communities to identify potential toxic hotspots in times of extreme weather events, put measures in place to prevent the spread of contaminated waste, and most importantly, place additional pressure on industry to eliminate the use and release of hazardous waste in the first place through substitution and environmentally friendly chemistry.
This change in policy sends a clear message to the textile industry, and those brands engaged by Greenpeace in our Detox campaign, that people will not stand by and allow their rivers and environment to be polluted, nor will they be denied their rightful access to information. We want more information, because with it we can help shape our own future.