The Philippines’ first carbon-neutral city leverages eco-tourism for development

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on April 19, 2012

“Seven years ago,” Puerto Princesa mayor Edward Hagedorn said over the weekend, “when we began promoting eco-tourism there were two flights a day to Puerto Princesa. Today, there are 22.” The increase in flights to Puerto Princesa is the result of expanding demand. From a trickle of domestic and international tourists when the mayor kicked off the campaign, the sprawling city attracted more than half a million tourists last year.

Puerto Princesa distinguishes itself from other attractive destinations in the Philippines and Southeast Asia through bonafide eco-tourism, not just public relations hype. It engages respected consultants to help it accurately measure carbon output, and develop programs to neutralize or offset damage to the environment by doing things that contribute to a sustainable environment.

Mr. Hagedorn didn’t have to look far for his consultants. Three years ago, ADEC Group (ADEC)—a Philippine-based group of companies that helped pioneer the IT-BPO industry here—founded FirstCarbon Solutions (FirstCarbon). In that short span of time, it has grown into a global provider of what ADEC president and CEO James Donovan describes as “a global provider of comprehensive environmental and sustainability solutions” for both enterprises and governments. (Disclosure: ADEC is a client of my firm.)

The company has clients in 12 countries and has distinguished itself by being the first company in its industry to “fully integrate consulting, software, and deep expertise in back office data processing to deliver integrated energy and sustainability solutions.” When I explain to investors and clients in the Philippine IT-BPO industry that non-voice outsourced services preceded the more popularly known voice services, I point to ADEC as an example.

In 1998, ADEC began providing offshore clients with back office data processing services. It started small, and grew quickly as its clients as well as the services it offered expanded. Today, more than 5,000 people—including domain experts in disciplines as varied as quality, environment, and data security—deliver services from the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Hong Kong, and Singapore aside from the Philippines.

Over the weekend Mr. Hagedorn announced that FirstCarbon will help Puerto Princesa achieve its goal of transforming one of the Philippines’ largest cities into “a city within a forest, where man and nature harmoniously exist.” It is perhaps best known for its underground river, which is said to be one of the “new seven wonders of nature.” The mayor is also concerned about the seas and coral reefs near the city, claiming it has one of the healthiest coral reefs in Southeast Asia and the Philippines.

The assistance is intended to balance the tradeoffs between economic growth and sustainable development. According to Mr. Donovan, FirstCarbon will achieve that goal by helping Puerto Princesa prepare for the ISO 14001:2004 Environmental Management System (EMS) certification. An EMS that meets requirements of ISO 14001:2004 is a management tool enabling organizations to identify and control the environmental impact of their activities, services and products.

The EMS also provides the means and processes for improving environmental performance, and an organized method that will set and achieve environmental objectives and targets, and demonstrate the way they are achieved. When asked why this is necessary, Mr. Hagedorn said the impressive success Puerto Princesa has achieved marketing itself means it must now deal with new and complex issues success presents.

For Mr. Hagedorn, this means taking environment management to the next level, so that the city is capable of welcoming half a million or more tourists annually while at least maintaining its carbon-neutral status. “We can’t sit still,” he said.

I’m about as skeptical as they come when it comes to dealing with local government officials, but it seems to me that Mr. Hagedorn is doing something unusual. He’s not treading water in a sea of bureaucratic and political malaise. He’s not making mostly meaningless incremental improvements in infrastructure betting that his constituents are not smart enough to understand.

Instead, he’s demonstrating and acting on strategic foresight. Mr. Hagedorn—whatever his motive—is preparing his city and its citizens to realize and enjoy the benefits of a prosperous and healthy future. Perhaps it’s for that reason that Mr. Donovan said, “It is an honor to work with the local government of Puerto Princesa. We have all been inspired by the city’s efforts, which reflect our goal of encouraging and enabling other local communities and organizations in this country to achieve a sustainable future.

“FirstCarbon Solutions is proud to have been selected by Puerto Princesa to help the government to maintain its status as an environmental steward,” he concluded. There are lots of beautiful places in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. And there are lots of resorts in self- or otherwise-proclaimed environmental protection zones. But there are few places that are as proactive as Puerto Princesa is proving to be when it comes to taking the environment—not just today but decades from now—seriously.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn. Copyright © 2012 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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