Leadership Profile: Elisea ‘Bebet’ Gozun, Chair ADB Compliance Review Panel on how Earth Day at 50 should be Earth Day every day

When 2020 began, climate change loomed as the global emergency that would define this decade, as calls for world leaders to take immediate action to reduce emissions and halt environmental degradation became impossible to ignore.

That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The world marked the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day while practising social distancing, isolated in our homes.

“What the pandemic has really shown us is just how much damage people are doing to the environment, and now without so much human activity, it’s healing itself,” says Ms Elisea ‘Bebet’ Gozun, Chair of the Compliance Review Panel for the Asia Development Bank (ADB). Ms Gozun has had an extensive career in environmental policy review and analysis for government, NGOs and the private sector.

The waters of Venice have cleared, wildlife is venturing into deserted city streets,  air pollution in cities such as New York has dropped, and many areas have seen a brief dip in emissions with sectors such as transportation at a halt. But whether these changes will continue when the world re-opens is another question, largely dependent on the priorities and commitments of people and government.

“I pray there will be change, but I suppose that’s all we can do,” says Ms Gozun, “Pray and hope that people and government won’t just go back to doing things the way they used to. Will there really be a shift now to more renewable energy and real sustainable development here? I don’t know.”

As the world observed the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day this year, digital action replaced demonstrations and social media lit up with calls for a global, sustained response to climate change.

“Earth Day should really be every day, for everyone,” says Ms Gozun.

Activism turned into environmentalism

Ms Gozun’s career has been about making a difference for the environment and climate. Her beginnings as a political activist in the anti-dictatorship movement transformed into a lifetime dedicated to environmental action. She was part of the team that reorganized the Ministry of Natural Resources and established the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) during the change of administration from President Ferdinand Marcos to President Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino.

“When I was working within the DENR, I realised just how important the environment is. I mean, we’re talking about land, air and water; without them, there’s no life. And so from a political activist, I became an environmental activist.

“We reviewed the policies at that time considering the very fast degradation of the environment. For example, we were losing so much of our forest with only a few benefitting and many suffering from its adverse consequences. Logging was going on in an unsustainable manner.

At that time, the value of forests in the Philippines was seen to be only in terms of the wood it produced. There was hardly any recognition of the ecological services which the forest provides. And the logs were just mainly exported to Japan. There was very limited value-adding and downstream processing within the country. An initial shift in policy involved banning the export of logs.  There must be some value addition within the country.  Another major shift came when the department realised how few people were actively benefitting from the forest.

“We had so many people living in the uplands, who were very poor and practicing slash-and-burn farming, not because they wanted to, but simply because they have no other source of livelihood. Who wants to live up there if you can live comfortably in the lowlands? It was because they had no place and no other means of providing food for their children. And that’s where we really saw how important the policies were in terms of achieving what you want,” says Ms Gozun.

“You first want to make sure that your watersheds are intact for a continuous supply of water. At the same time, you need to have the trees to hold the soil and all that water so that, given that we have monsoon rains here, we won’t have landslides and flash floods, or at least minimize them. But, taking care of the forest or the environment in general is not just about having blue skies, clean water and productive land, it’s also an issue of people and ensuring that they benefit.  Thus, it was also an issue of social injustice in terms of access to natural resources in the country. So, you know, this this all came together for me, given my background.”

That’s why, according to Ms Gozun, policies which are based on an understanding of how things are on the ground are essential, in order to ensure that they are implementable and impactful.

In her time with the Philippines DENR, Ms Gozun saw major changes in natural resources management. In 1986, there were an estimated more than 330 logging concessions, with many of them wantonly destroying the country’s forests. With little to no enforcement to ensure reforestation was happening and that logging was done sustainably, deforestation was going on at an alarming rate.

“We had a serious audit of performance, and in five years’ time, we were down to a little over 30 [logging concessions]. Only those who were logging sustainably and responsibly were allowed to continue.

But on the other hand, the key to managing any natural resource is that somebody manages it.

“If there is a logging concession of, let’s say, fifty thousand hectares or twenty thousand, they are supposed to manage and protect their concession area.  You take them out, and nobody’s in charge. Then you can have the tragedy of the commons, where everybody would just try to get what they can and nobody really cares what happens [to the forest]. With limited resources, at 1 forest guard for every 4,000 hectares, government could not effectively manage all the forests in the country on its own. A necessary shift in management was to move to community-based forest management to enable the upland dwellers to become active partners of government in properly managing and protecting the country’s forest.

Deforestation in El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

“We realised that the people who live in the uplands, they’re the ones who are already there; if they have a stake in it, they will manage it. They can be your allies in protecting the forest if they can benefit from the forest. We shifted to community-based forest management, giving tenure to the upland dwellers for them to manage and benefit from this natural resource for 25 years.  They are allowed to practice and are given training on agroforestry in the buffer and multiple use zones of the forest. But, in turn, they are required to protect the watersheds.  That’s going on up to now.

“Even for a simple thing like reforestation, after an area is deforested, whether it’s because of fires or man-made from illegal logging or slash-and-burn-farming, the policy before was the government would reforest it by administration. They would hire daily workers to plant the area. Of course, necessarily, they hire people from those who live in the area. But because these workers will only be hired for a given area, once that the area is a planted, they will no longer be hired. The government will move on and plant somewhere else and again hire those nearby.  Therefore, for those people who planted, there was no incentive to make sure that what they planted will actually grow.

“In fact, there is a big incentive for them to make sure that the seedlings die. And that is really the findings of a study done by the University of the Philippines in Los Banos (UPLB) as to why with government reforestation in the past, the survival was very low, something like 40 percent. We made the shift in policy to ensure that people take care of what they plant. An area to be reforested is contracted to them (families or communities) for three years, not for a year, and there is a target survival of 80 percent.  At the end of three years, if the survival rate is achieved, they are given a bonus.

“But at the same time, with good performance, then they can be given a long-term, 25-year lease over the area so that it’s theirs to use, for example, while the trees are still small. You could then plant in between them agriculture crops, that really largely agroforestry.  To give credit, these major policy shifts in natural resources management were done during the leadership of Secretary Fulgencio S. Factoran Jr. and I am honoured to have been part of his team as his Assistant Secretary for Planning and Policy.  I continued with other policy reforms on environmental  management when I became DENR Secretary.”

Starting Earth Day in the Philippines

After her time in government, during which time she was extremely active in the environment, Ms Gozun joined several environmental NGOs.

Earth Day had already begun in 1970, but in 1990, the celebration began to gain momentum globally. In November of 1999, the Executive Director of the Earth Day Network International arrived in the Philippines to meet with local NGOs and government partners. Ms Gozun was one of more than 80 people who met with him and agreed that indeed it was time to organize a local network and make the celebration a global movement. Through a massive membership campaign, the Earth Day Network Philippines attracted more than two-thousand initial members, (the largest network in the world then) in time for the 30th year anniversary of Earth Day in year 2000.

For a time, Ms Gozun ran the Secretariat for the network, and later became its President. When she re-joined government as Presidential Assistant Ii for Cliamte Change, she resigned from the position, but remained involved with the network in an advisory capacity.

When planning began last year for Earth Day’s 50th Anniversary, however, she became more active, co-chairing the organising committee.

Earth Day during a pandemic

Many Earth Day activities call for large group gatherings—like the nationwide clean-up the Philippines network had organised for the weekend of April 19th  and a major celebration on April 22nd.

Instead, they had to shake things up digitally.

Originally, the Earth Day Network Philippines (EDNP) had planned to publish 30-day countdown to Earth Day with suggested, simple actions per day which people could take as their contribution for  the environment.  They received the support of a leading national paper which committed to publish it daily until Earth Day itself.  But with COVID-19 coverage now taking precedence, this plan was dropped. Instead, the newspaper offered free space for an EDNP advertisement on April 22nd.

The Network had to adapt.  Instead of appearing in print, a TV station agreed to display the tips as a runner at the bottom of the screen during their news  portions.  And the countdown was shared digitally on various social media.

“In addition, with the COVID 19 crisis, we had to revisit the calls to action which run counter to the need for social distancing like ‘take public transport,’ ‘carpool with friends’  or ‘organize and event’—things that require people to be in groups or to go out. Instead we changed them to  things like ‘fix and DIY,  don’t buy’, ‘always bring your eco bag,’ ‘grow your own food.’ Things that you can do by yourself or with the family,” says Ms Gozun.

Some other digital 50th Earth Day celebrations included a webinar on the state of the Philippines environment with the Center for Environmental Concerns, and a series of more than fifty videos featuring celebrity personalities, business and government leaders, school officials, and others making their own commitment for climate action and calling for their respective sectors to pay attention to the threat of climate change.

Another member of the Philippines network, the Earth Day Jam Foundation, live-streamed a concert in support of their environmental message. There was also a call for members of the public to post a photo or a video of their Earth Day commitments on their own social media, tagging the Network  @EarthDayPH.

In spite of the cancellations, the global Earth Day network found a way to bring people together and raise their voices for climate action—from the safety of their homes.

“Everyone adapted and made the most of the situation,” says Ms Gozun. “There’s one global call to action – the urgent need for climate action. If all of us can just do what we can, all of this will add up to something really substantial that can really make a difference for Mother Earth.”


SRI Executive had the honour to collaborate with ADB in the selection of Ms Gozun as their Chair, Compliance Review Panel.