The race of Life

Posted at 04/23/2012 12:09 PM

(Commencement speech of the chairman emeritus of the  Lopez Group of Companies on the occasion of the 2012 Commencement Exercises University Of The Philippines; 3:00 PM, 22 April 2012 at the University Amphitheater, U.P. Diliman, Quezon City)

President Alfredo E. Pascual;
Chancellor Caesar A. Saloma;
Members of the Board of Regents;
Officers of the UP System and of UP Diliman;
Deans of the various colleges;
Members of the Faculty;
And most especially, dear Graduates and your proud parents:

Magandang hapon sa inyong lahat. Isang malaking karangalan ang makapiling kayo sa araw na ito.  Kung inyong mamarapatin, nais kong ihatid ang aking talumpati sa wikang ingles.

  I was a student for the better part of twenty-five years, but it was never my good fortune to have studied at the University of the Philippines. However, my father, Eugenio Lopez, Sr., whom, 37 long years after his untimely passing, I continue to deeply love and admire, earned his Bachelor of Laws from UP in 1923 but subsequently he was also given a degree Doctor of Laws, honoris causa  in April 28, 1968. It is, therefore, with the immense pride and gratitude that I express my appreciation for the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, that you, my father’s alma mater, have conferred upon me today.  This makes me a second generation Lopez honoris causa doctorate holder from UP. Maraming maraming salamat po sa inyong lahat dito sa Unibersidad ng Pilipinas.

Dear Graduates, as I stand before you this afternoon, I am reminded of a large number of world-class athletes, superbly conditioned and trained, massing before the starting line of an endurance race. Collectively, you make up a privileged few whose minds and aspirations have been shaped by the sacrifices and efforts of your parents and of the finest university of the land, as well as by your own hard work and sacrifice.  If you will forgive me the metaphor, you are now well poised for the endurance race of Life.

I feel that I came within sight of the finish line of my own race when I reached my seventies.   From the perspective of one who is now a young eighty two and has virtually completed the race, I have a few insights to offer to you who are about to embark on your race. 

First, understand that life is a long-distance race.  Run to your own capability, to your own cadence.  Pace yourself, but when you can, push yourselves beyond your comfort zone, understanding that in this race of Life, in the final analysis, there will really be no winners or losers, but only those who reach the finish line, and those who do not finish. 

Second, along the way, you will occasionally be running in the company of others.  Recognize that when you do so, you may be able to pace each other and support each other in a way that gives all of you a better chance at reaching the finish. 

And what of the finish?  At some point, you will discern the finish, guided by your dreams and aspirations, as well as by the brutal reality of just how capable you are.  Once you do, go for it! 

And now, I’d like to let you in on a secret.  As I ran my own race of Life, what I saw along the way, and who I came to know along the way, constantly changed what I defined to be the finish line.  I met my personal goals, in terms of getting married to a wonderful wife and the blessing of a large family.  I also met my professional goals. 

Understanding that I might one day be called upon to head our family businesses, I strove to prepare myself for the demands of leadership and to then exercise that leadership responsibly.  I met my corporate goals, in terms of facing up to business challenges when the time came for me to assume headship of the Lopez Group of Companies.  Our businesses were in better shape when I passed on the mantle of leadership, than these businesses were when I was forced to assume leadership due to the untimely passing of my brother Geny in 1999.  As steward to a business, that is as much as you can aspire for.  

But along the way, I also began to set new goals.  These may not have initially occurred to me as my own personal goals and aspirations, but when you see that things around you are not quite right, you cannot remain a bystander.  These causes that we take on over the course of our race of Life are what we call our advocacies.  I would like to take this opportunity to share one of them with you because I think that this particular cause is one that will affect all of you in your own race of Life.

Let me state the cause in no uncertain terms.  It is our responsibility, each and every one of us, to protect our environment from further harm. And also, I would like to emphasize, to protect ourselves from the harm that we have already wrought upon our environment.  For in abusing our environment, we have made ourselves vulnerable to the undesirable effects of that abuse.

We were a country so abundantly blessed by nature several hundred years ago.  We have more than 7,100 islands covering 279,179 square kilometers of primarily lowland rainforests dominated by towering dipterocarps prized for the hardwood that they could yield.  At higher elevations, our lowland forests were replaced by montane and mossy forests, mixed with savanna and pine-dominated cloud forests.  Those of you who have been fortunate enough to have climbed to the summit of Mt. Pulag (and it was my pleasure to have done so with members of the UP Mountaineers) will know how beautiful these diverse forest forms are. 

We were and still are one of the world’s biologically richest countries.  There are more than 9,200 species of plant life in the Philippines, six-thousand of which are endemic to us, meaning, they are restricted or peculiar to the Philippines.  We have 535 species of birds, 186 of which are endemic; 167 species of mammals, 102 of which are endemic; the list goes on.  We used to have over 27,000 square kilometers of healthy coral reefs.  No wonder the Philippines has been called the hottest of the world’s biological hotspots!!!

That was then.  Today, we are still often called a hotspot, but for the exact opposite reason.  We are called a hotspot because we are on the brink of an extinction crisis, and some would argue that we may already have crossed the line.  Of our old growth forests, only seven percent are left, and within that, it is estimated that only three percent of lowland forests remain in pristine condition.  As late as 1945, two-thirds of our country was still covered by old-growth forests. Of our coral reefs, it is reported that less than five percent remain in excellent condition, and only one percent in pristine state.  And yet, unmitigated logging and urbanization continue and we persist in depleting whatever few resources we have left. 

We even find a way to destroy those who love and try to protect our biodiversity.  I am honored to have been a friend of one of your own, someone who I hope will take his place in UP’s pantheon of heroes if he hasn’t yet, his name, Leonard Co.  His life was tragically cut short in November 2010 as he conducted forest preservation work for one of our energy companies, the Energy Development Corporation, but he and his other companions were mistaken as NPAs by the roving army security guards in the Leyte mountain areas.  But in celebration of his life and his significance, permit me to share with you the masterpiece that was his life so that it can be preserved as a model and inspiration for the many future generations of Filipinos who will never have the chance to know him in person.

Leonard’s mastery of the taxonomy of virtually every thing growing in our forests was awesome.  The forest was Leonard’s classroom, first as a student, and subsequently as professor.  He loved the University of the Philippines and he finally obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in Botany in UP more than twenty years after he started his course, at a time when the course no longer existed.  But more than UP, the forest was his classroom and what an interesting and compelling course he offered to those hardy enough to venture into his classroom.

I have never seen anyone so comfortable in the forest as Leonard was.  We, my colleagues and I, would be kitted out in the best hiking shoes, outfits and jackets that we could find, with our backpacks and canteens and insect repellents and all as we visited the Conservation International site in Palanan, Isabela province in northern Luzon.  Leonard…well, Leonard went around in slippers, in his camisa tsina and, would you believe, his umbrella!  For him, a place to sleep was a hammock slung between two trees.  That was his way, perhaps, that was the better way. He regaled us with stories, yes, but most of all, he regaled us with his knowledge of the forest and all the plants and creatures that he shared his beloved forest with.

Like everyone else who has been fortunate enough to have known Leonard, I was completely fascinated, enthralled, by his knowledge and passion for botany.  But what impressed me even more was his generosity.  He was always eager to share what he knew with anyone willing to learn.  And he gifted me with the singular honor of naming a particular plant after me, the Vaccinium oscarlopezianum, described in a 2002 issue of the Edinburgh Journal of Botany.  This shrub-like, epiphytic plant is known from only two sites in the Sierra Madre mountain range.

I have waited a long time to share my memories of Leonard here, in what was his home next to the forests.  I am so very grateful for this opportunity to have been able to do so this afternoon.

Dear graduates, this afternoon…this evening…the whole night would not be enough for me to detail before you all the harm that we, as a country and as a people, are inflicting upon our environment.  So I urge you to do your own research in your libraries, in the internet, wherever you can access information.  Assure yourselves that the threat that I have described to you is very real and very immediate.  Then take action and arm and protect yourselves, for this environment that we have so gravely abused has begun striking back at us in horrific ways that we could never have imagined. 

In the recent past, the build-up to, and the aftermath and consequences of the storms “Ondoy” and “Sendong” remain vivid in our minds.  But have we already forgotten the catastrophic landslide in Guinsaugon, Southern Leyte that claimed more than 1,000 lives and displaced more than nineteen-thousand countrymen in 2006?  Or the Ormoc flashflood in 1991 when more than 5,000 people perished?  Or the Luzon earthquake of 1990 and the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo the following year?  Or the Moro Gulf tsunami in 1976 that claimed more than 8,000 lives?  This list goes on and on. 

We used to think that catastrophic events such as these were merely accidents of our particular time on earth, because they would occur only once in every hundred years or more.  But our recent experience has shown us that this is the new normal.  Global warming has changed our climate and weather patterns in ways that we haven’t even begun to fully comprehend.  So the message is, be afraid, be very afraid.  Because we don’t know where or when the next disaster is going to hit.  We don’t have the means to try to model, forecast or forewarn where the next disaster is likely to happen. 

Worse, we do not even have the means to do much about it when it does happen.  In a World Risk Index recently published by the United Nations, the Philippines ranked third, only below Vanuatu and Tonga, in terms of vulnerability to, and the inability to cope with, climate change hazards.  We are a resilient people, that is true, in our ability to accept and cope with the adverse consequences of natural disasters.  But we don’t do very well in terms of getting our people out of harm’s way before the damage takes place.

And yet, there are actions we can take, things we can do, to begin to attack this Gordian Knot of a problem.  The first has to do with governance, and this is where we can all play a role. 

The wanton destruction of our environment is, first and foremost, a governance issue.  We have laws in abundance to protect our environment.  But the very people who are supposed to be the keepers of the law, the guardians of our environment, are often among the worst exploiters.  They are the ones who issue permits where permits should not be issued.  They are the ones who turn a blind eye when unlawful exploitation of resources, for example, the illegal harvest of logs or of black coral, occurs. 

Sometimes, they themselves are the perpetrators, shielded by their political power.  Therefore, at the root of the problem of environmental degradation is the problem of graft and corruption, and the problem of abuse of power.  The fight to protect our environment is, ironically, the self-same fight to preserve our moral order which President Aquino is trying to do.  Many of us are not directly in a position to protect our dwindling biodiversity, but we can do our share by being responsible citizens and by educating those around us to act responsibly. 

The second action has to do with being better prepared to identify where and when disasters may threaten, and sounding the warnings early enough for our people to take themselves out of harms way. 

At the Lopez Group of Companies, some of our major businesses are in areas that are vulnerable to natural calamities such as floods and landslides.  Hence, we began to look further into the subject of climate change and natural hazards as part of our risk management and mitigation systems.  What we found was disturbing.  The current level of research into climate change and natural hazards is absolutely miniscule relative to what is at risk.  I have been told that, among our top 3 Philippine universities, we have published a total of only eight research papers on climate-related topics last year.  I don’t know how many papers all of the colleges of all of these universities published last year, but by comparison, the National University of Singapore alone published more than 4,000 research papers in 2011.

In the course of our research, we were also advised that the Philippines has actually distributed hazard maps, developed with the aid of multilateral funding and research, to local government units.  Unfortunately,  they are not of a scale to be useful and actionable.  The maps are on a scale of one-is-to-50,000, too wide to be of practical use.  We were advised that you have to zoom the maps down to a scale of one-is-to-5,000 for them to be of practical use for hazard planning.

Well, as the saying goes, the only way to get results is to put your money where your mouth is.  And so, the Lopez Group Foundations, Inc., representing our major businesses, has committed to establish and fund a center for collaborative research on climate change and natural hazards.   It will be collaborative in the sense that it’s principal purpose will be to encourage and fund research undertakings by both scientific faculty and students in the country’s major academic institutions such as your own, and to encourage joint research undertakings between those academic institutions, as well as between the academe and government. The finer details for this Center will still have to be agreed and acted upon.   

By establishing such a center, we hope to stimulate collaborative research within and between the country’s leading educational institutions, and hopefully with government agencies entrusted with protecting our environment, and protecting our people from environmental threats.

I repeat, the ultimate and overriding objective is, and will always be, to save lives and to take our people out of harm’s way. 

I thank you for your forbearance this warm afternoon.  But think of my discourse as a shrill, insistent alarm clock, waking you up to a clear and present danger.  Wake up to the threat!  Do something!  Protect yourselves!  Help others protect themselves!

Again, I extend to you and to your parents, teachers and mentors my sincerest congratulations and my best wishes for your race of Life.  Thank you.