ENVIRONMENT Secretary Regina Lopez has ordered the creation of a P9.4-billion backyard industry for charcoal making that would exclusively benefit the private company Biochar, which is owned by her trusted lieutenant Undersecretary Philip Camara, a Lopez critic said Monday.
In DENR Administrative Order 2017-05, a copy of which was obtained by the Manila Standard, Lopez orders all regional offices, bureaus and attached agencies of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to implement the multi-billion-peso Biochar program nationwide.
The order designates DENR Undersecretary Philip Camera, who is also the president of the privately held Biochar, as the manager and supervisor of the program.
Earlier, Biochar was awarded the P9.4-billion contract without the benefit of a public bidding, and no feasibility or scientific study, said Manuel Galvez, a general partner of Airboard Co. and one of the 23 parties that opposed Lopez’s confirmation before the Commission on Appointments.
It was Camara who drafted and recommended the approval of the administrative order that he and Lopez signed on Feb. 23, Galvez said.
Camara said Biochar has the potential to provide alternative livelihood to local communities, given that the country consumes 22 million cubic meters of wood for fuel and charcoal per year.
Lopez added that the Biochar program was a “remarkable climate change mitigation technology with poverty alleviation through community enterprise.”
But Galvez said the program was unscientific and untested, with not a single pilot project to show how it works.
“That’s pure baloney. Biochar is not even a technology. Camara’s Biochar company has no project to show it’s working. Gina Lopez is giving her USEC some P9.4 billion in public funds when this private company did not even have a track record to speak of,” Galvez said.
“Gina Lopez is introducing a program that is untested and unscientific and will only encourage kaingin [slash and burn practices], violate the Clean Air Act and a move that will make a private company owned by Camara really rich at the expense of the public and the government. Gina creates a backyard industry for uling (charcoal) that legitimizes kaingin,” Galvez said.
“That’s a clear case of graft and corruption and in the case of Camara, a clear case of conflict of interest,” Galvez said.
Even before the program could start in full swing, Camara resigned on April 7 after the Civil Service Commission ruled he was not qualified to be an undersecretary.
“Biochar is neither an invention nor innovation as it is just a usual coal-making process done mostly in rural areas. With the DAO, DENR misleads the public by saying it is adopting a new technology. What Gina tries to propagate is an adaption of a private company’s business efforts using government funds. A clear case of graft: Biochar, a private company is not a non-profit organization, will manage the proffered business,” Galvez said.
Biochar, Lopez said, is charred biomass strictly from agricultural wastes like rice hull and straw, bagasse, pill shell, mango seed, coconut husk and shell and corn cobs, which are produced by high heating or not less than 500 degree Celsius with very limited oxygen.
Lopez clarified that cutting of any trees to serve as raw materials for biochar is strictly prohibited.
“However, biomass coming from trees such as wood chips, seeds, twigs and branches can be permitted,” she added.
Lopez said biochar has 52 known uses, including as feed additive in animal farming, carbon fertilizer, insulator, protection against electromagnetic radiation, water decontaminant, biomass additive, ingredient in cataplasm for insect bites and abscesses, fabric additive for functional underwear, and filling for mattresses and pillows.
Lopez explained that biochar also draws carbon from the atmosphere, providing a carbon sink on agricultural lands and that after its initial or cascading use, biochar can be recycled as a soil conditioner.
Fully depreciated when finally returned to the soil, the black carbon will slowly build up in the soil and over a few generations, the soil’s biochar content could easily reach 50 to 100 tons per hectare.
But Galvez questioned these claims, seeking any study to show that biochar would mitigate the effects of climate change.
He also questioned why a private entity, Biochar, would manage a government program.
Also on Monday, some environmental advocates said they were bewildered over the supposed influence being wielded by Leo Jasareno, a close adviser of Lopez.
Jasareno, former head of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, was fired by President Rodrigo Duterte last year but retained by Lopez as a consultant.
Pio Mercado, spokesperson of the pro-environment group Caraga Watch, said Lopez’s “over-reliance with Jasareno will likely cause her downfall.”
“And we don’t want that to happen because we support her [Lopez], we share the same advocacy,” said Mercado, whose group was tapped by Lopez as one of the non-government organizations that took part in last year’s nationwide mine audit.
Caraga Watch, a multi-sectoral group composed of religious and progressive sectors, has accused Jasareno of corruption and other irregularities when he was still MGB director.
“The problems hounding the mining industry today got worse when Jasareno was at the reigns of MGB. Before that, he was head of the tenements division, and was instrumental in approving dozens of new mining areas that should have been protected,” Mercado said.
Mercado said Lopez should have taken her cue from President Duterte when he fired Jasareno last September.
“The President had no trust in him [Jasareno], so that should have been Gina’s cue for her not to trust Leo.What’s so special about this guy?” the Caraga Watch spokesperson added.
Surigao del Norte Rep. Robert Ace Barbers echoed Mercado’s view, saying Jasareno had “clearly lost the trust and confidence of the President.”
Worse, Barbers said Lopez may be held liable by law for entrusting Jasareno with “sensitive government documents even without a proper appointment.”
“We found out that he’s [Jasareno] not formally employed with DENR, and he’s only acting as personal consultant of the DENR secretary,” Barbers said. With Lance Baconguis