by Renato Redentor Constantino, 20 April 2020

To friends he was Sonny Alvarez, a man who carried many titles in his storied life. Senator and congressman, oppositionist and cabinet secretary, human rights advocate and environmentalist. As politicians go, he was imperfect, as pretty much all politicians are, especially those who’ve stayed in the public eye long enough. But he made his mark indelible in many areas — ahead of most who today have acquired the platform he once dominated through sheer will and perseverance, and as a result it is easy to reach a conclusion only a few will ever enjoy: in the end Heherson Alvarez served his country well.

It is easy to dismiss politicians, particularly in our current period and its toxic habit of framing every debate with maximal partisan politics and creating a quarrel between caricatures — a brutish ruling regime and its troglodyte supporters versus followers of the weak and indecisive previous dispensation. But as COVID-19 has shown, and as Sonny Alvarez would have argued in terms of climate change, life is infinitely far more complex than the way purveyors of political polarization have chosen to define our nation’s options. There are dangers that have yet to gain full strength that we will have to face as a people, dangers that exist side by side with common outcomes we should be fighting for, together.

He had disagreements with many because he was the opposite of shy. He was provocative, outspoken, and bombastic, a loquacious individual who seemed always ready to engage in passionate polemics or to tease out raucuous laughter over ridiculous stories of human foibles and frailties. He spoke often with a swagger and a bit of finger-wagging, though he frequently found time as well to laugh at himself while quoting philosophers and the wisdom of common folk. When excited, he would curl his consonants and deliver declamations with or without a platform, producing impassioned impromptu homilies with a twinkle in his eyes, which would furtively roam around to see who was listening to his orations.

Perhaps such a personality is required in order to secure the gifts he leaves behind. Sonny Alvarez was not just ahead of his time; he had the courage to dig in his heels and insist to a disbelieving public — and as well as to disbelieving peers distracted by short-term matters — that the threats facing his country and the world were real, and they were menacing, unforgiving, but also ultimately they could be overcome. This, from someone who has seen oppression and tragedy up close and personal. Sonny Alvarez was one of the fiercest adversaries of the Marcos dictatorship, and for his unrelenting stance his younger brother, Marsman, who also fought martial law, was murdered so brutally their father died from a grief-induced heart attack months later.

Almost by his lonesome, long before it became popular, Sonny Alvarez helped advance understanding and debate on climate change and its long-term implications to ecosystem integrity and our nation’s development aspirations. He invited ridicule in the 1990s, when climate change was considered a fringe issue, unlike today when skeptics of global warming and decarbonization are seen more as anti-vaxxer, flat-earth advocates. It was no surprise when he was appointed as the country’s founding chief of the Climate Change Commission. As well, decades ago, again virtually by himself, he led and helped organize an anti-nuclear flotilla with Greenpeace. As a senator, he was instrumental in establishing what is known today as the Department of Energy.

Sonny Alvarez relished playing the role of maverick and the nation is all the better for it. He was a pioneer of climate change advocacy, calling earlier than all for developed countries to cut their emissions first, to cut them deep and decisively in order to avoid the worst impacts of warming temperatures worldwide. But he did not hesitate in applying the logic on his own country. He would not buy the argument saying because our emissions are tiny, the current generation should have free rein in destroying what the future will need. He is remembered in places such as Negros Occidental, by women such as Romana delos Reyes and Elay Jacildo, who both fought strenuously against the construction of a coal plant in their province and who, along with countless women-led communities who braved incessant threats by politician warlords, were rewarded by the decisiveness of then Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Sonny Alvarez as he thumbed down the coal plant’s application for an environmental permit.

Sonny Alvarez should not be remembered as a victim of the pandemic. In ICSC, beyond the recognition bestowed by official titles, we choose to remember him instead as a pioneer, a climate change campaigner, an environmentalist who blazed a path that has allowed many advocates today to more easily gain greater influence and deeper, further inroads towards the ultimate social transformation and decarbonization that had always fought for.

The country should weigh less because of his passing, but in truth the nation is more because of the legacy he leaves behind.