Where Do We Go from Here?’:Grief and grime in Guimaras

‘The teeming seas gave a fisherman’s family a daily livelihood of PhP600 ($11.88) until the oil crept into their coastal village and changed their lives overnight. “Where do we go from here?” he cried.

Contributed to Bulatlat.com

Aboard a Coast Guard helicopter, the aerial view of Guimaras and its lush islets is one vast expanse of sheer beauty. Sen. Pia Cayetano, Rep. Miles Roces and I were on a joint congressional inspection of the area. Spread before us was the Taklong Marine Sanctuary in the southeastern tip of the island, a declared protected seascape of thriving mangrove forests, unspoiled reefs and rich fishing grounds.

That is why the devastating oil spill off the island’s southern coast is nothing short of heart-rending. The oil slick emanating from the sunken MT Solar I is a ghastly swath on the waters of Guimaras Strait, ominously snaking its way into pristine coves and inlets. Gov. Rahman Nava was reduced to tears as he made a public appeal to save his province, grieving over the catastrophe that has befallen an island internationally-recognized for its sustainable fisheries and ecosystems protection programs.

On land, we visited a barangay (village) where volunteers and local folk were frantically scooping thick black sludge from beaches and tidal flats with rudimentary tools and without much of any protective gear. The stench from the low-grade bunker fuel was noxious. The look on their faces was of weariness and seeming despair.

The elderly Melchor Cayanan of Barangay Tambo, Nueva Valencia town came up to us bemoaning Petron oil company’s policy of hiring only one family member at a daily rate of PhP200 ($3.96 at an exchange rate of $1=P50.49) for the backbreaking task of scrubbing, sweeping and scooping dreadful blobs from the bucolic seascape where he spent all his life. The teeming seas gave his family a daily livelihood of PhP600 ($11.88) until the oil crept into their coastal village and changed their lives overnight. “Where do we go from here?” he cried.

The initial efforts by the Coast Guard to contain the slick and prevent it from damaging fishing grounds seemed all too puny. Booms, dispersants, rice stalk (and now even chicken feathers and human hair) have been quickly deployed to stem the encroaching menace. Until the sunken vessel 3,000 feet underwater is retrieved or the two million liters of oil underneath siphoned off, the larger Visayan Sea, declared the richest marine biodiversity in the world, will be gravely imperiled.

Great calamity

What has this great calamity shown us – only several months after the Semirara oil spill? First, we are increasingly vulnerable to man-made environmental disasters owing to a lack of capacity for quick-response and clean-up action. Given the archipelagic make-up of the country, we do not have adequate containment and preventive mechanisms for extensive maritime accidents like this. The Semirara disaster spilled about 200,000 liters of bunker fuel and it took days of frenzied Coast Guard measures and calls for help before the National Power Corporation (Napocor), owner of the oil, took more decisive action.

“We are undermanned and underfunded,” Commander Allen Toribio of the Coast Guard laments. Toribio heads the ongoing efforts to the Guimaras oil tragedy, at least ten times larger than the Semirara spill, where equipment as basic as sonar technology to locate the sunken vessel is sorely lacking.

Second, the present legal and policy framework to address such calamities is scant and flimsy. The wrangling over tort liabilities, damages, insurance claims and clean-up funds reveals a pressing need to strengthen legislation that covers the creation of an oil spill liability fund, navigation routes for ships bearing oil or bunker fuel, requirements for double-hulled tankers, long-term rehabilitation and scientific research programs for oil spill-damaged habitats.

“We are only morally responsible, not legally liable for the spill,” Petron boasts. This stands in stark contrast to the far-reaching liabilities and health and livelihood damages claimed by local communities and the federal and state governments from Exxon Valdez, which in 1989 disgorged 11 million liters of oil into the pristine waters of Alaska.

While the Philippines is a signatory to the International Marine Pollution Convention, it still lacks the corresponding laws to effectively enforce penalties and liability claims. PD 979 governing marine pollution imposes fines at a paltry 10,000 pesos ($198) and needs to be amended. The Clean Water Act of 2004, while penalizing discharges into bodies of waters, would still be considered inadequate to address the large-scale implications of an oil spill in open seas.

Even so, the Clean Water Act, as with other new environmental legislation, is clear on the basic “polluters-pay principle.” Declaring affected localities as national or local calamity areas facilitates government action and appropriations for clean-up efforts, but government should not solely bear costs of containment and rehabilitation for massive pollution caused by corporate entities or the transport of privately-owned cargo. (The captain of MT Solar I is even reportedly without a license!)

Lack of scientific and research investments

Third, the two oil spill disasters in a span of eight months expose the glaring lack of scientific and research investments in the country for marine biodiversity and long-term coastal resources management. The Yale Environmental Sustainability Index notes that the low ranking of the Philippines vis-à-vis environmental governance owes in part to its low science and research investments, a mere 0.2 percent of GNP; the Department of Science and Technology has the lowest budget of any government agency. Dr. Josette Biyo, native of Iloilo and multi-awarded scientist, and Dr. Angel Alcala, marine biologist and former DENR secretary, both highlight the need for scientific research for environmental rehabilitation and conservation, and decrying the oil-smothered and dying sea grass in the affected coastline in Guimaras, critical habitat for fish, shellfish and other marine life.

Time and again, disasters like this remind us of how fragile our ecosystems are. And how a vast majority of our people directly depend on these life-support systems for livelihood and basic sustenance. “The environment, a healthful ecology, is the only social security system of the poor,” Lory Tan of the World Wide Fund for Nature underscores.

From the aerial vantage of a helicopter, Guimaras and its seascape, laid out on a grand expanse of sea and surf is awe-inspiring. But this belies the struggle for life and livelihood on ground, a struggle made more despairing now for over 5,000 families who have lost daily income and their free access to the bounties of their “only social security.”

In such a national emergency, it behooves Petron and other liable parties, the government and all sectors to do no less than clean and restore damaged coasts for as long as it takes – and prevent such disasters from ever damaging our pristine shores again. (Bulatlat.com)

Rep. Nereus Acosta (1st District-Bukidnon) is former Chair of the House Committee on Ecology, principal author of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and is currently Co-Chairperson of the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD).

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