Defender of the Law (Land, Air, Water) of Life
Award winner, lawyer, activist, teacher and author. These are all words others have used to describe Philippine attorney Antonio (Tony) Oposa Jr. “Certified beach bum” is how he prefers to describe himself.
Oposa is one of Asia’s most influential and unconventional, yet humble, environmental “warrior lawyers.” His passion, dedication and creative use of law underlie several momentous cases in the Philippines. He is also the founder of the School of the SEA (Sea and Earth Advocates; now known as SEA Camp) and the author of numerous works on law and nature. In countries like the Philippines, where Oposa describes laws as “often taken as mere suggestions,” his unique approach to legal action plays a crucial role in realizing environmental justice.
Oposa’s approach to law involves the use of stories, an emphasis on the journey and the importance of laughter. As he explains in his 2017 book, Shooting Stars and Dancing Fish: A Walk to the World We Want, “[w]ords are my paintbrushes, the Law is a medium, and the Court can be the canvas of the art of storytelling.”
Between his time at Oslo and Harvard, Tony Oposa decided to pursue his first landmark case, Minors Oposa v Factoran. When he brought this case to court, the Philippine government had granted 92 logging companies permits to cut down 3.89 million hectares of old-growth forest when only 850,000 hectares remained, and forests were being logged at a rate of 200,000 hectares per year. If the logging was not stopped, not a single old-growth forest would remain for future generations to enjoy.
So, what did Oposa do? He sued the government on behalf of current and future generations, telling the court a story of how his son, only three at the time, would no longer see these forests by the age of ten. When the case was dismissed, he persisted and eventually won a landmark judgment before the Philippine Supreme Court. Largely because of Tony Oposa, it is now illegal to log old-growth forests in the Philippines. However, Oposa would be the first to deny full credit, and recognition is also owed to Fulgencio Factoran Jr., the Philippine Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources who used the case to order a logging ban in 1992, and to Justice Hilario Davide Jr., who wrote the Supreme Court decision. The key holding arising from this decision is now known as the “Oposa Doctrine.” It grants current generations legal standing to bring actions on behalf of future generations with respect to environmental rights. July 2020 marked the 27th anniversary of the case.
Oposa’s ground-breaking work fighting for nature on behalf of future generations is highly relevant in today’s legal environment, when multiple cases are being brought by youth against governments for their failures to adequately address climate change and secure a healthy environment for current and future generations.
Oposa’s other landmark cases have led to the court ordered clean-up of the severe pollution in Manila Bay, targeted illegal dynamite and cyanide fishing near delicate reefs in the Visayan Sea and stopped resorts from privatizing beaches through the construction of illegal structures.