“The damage caused by the grounding of USS Guardian on Tubbataha Natural Reef Park is bigger, far more reaching and strategically fatal to the livelihood of Filipino fishermen and to the fishing environment directly linked to the protected reef park.”
By GERRY ALBERT CORPUZ
MANILA — In the next two weeks the Filipino people will remember the first year anniversary of the grounding of the USS Guardian at Tubbataha Reef Park, which activist groups assailed as the millennium rape of the marine environment and national sovereignty.
In a press statement sent to Bulatlat.com, the fisherfolk alliance Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) assailed the Office of the President and the Office of Solicitor General over the government’s lukewarm response to calls demanding for the US government to account for its crimes against the people and the environment in connection with the grounding of US minesweeper on January 17 last year.
The incident brought enormous environmental destruction to the UNESCO declared heritage site and generated wholesale condemnation from activists and other concerned groups in the Philippines and abroad.
Pamalakaya, one of the petitioners in the writ of kalikasan filed before the Supreme Court last year lamented that the United States government continues to snub the high tribunal’s request for Washington to answer the petition that named Scott Swift, commander of the US Seventh Fleet, and Mark Rice, commanding officer of the American minesweeper.
“The US government must respond to and account for their crimes against the people and the environment. That is simple as ABC, nothing more, nothing less. The incident merits the filing of criminal and other appropriate charges against officials and the 79 other crew of USS Guardian and the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty between Manila and Washington,” said Salvador France, Pamalakaya vice chair.
The high tribunal last year acted on the petition filed by a multisectoral group led by Bishop Pedro Arigo of Puerto Princesa, Palawan; Bishop Deogracias Iniguez Jr., Bishop-Emeritus of Caloocan; Frances Quimpo, Clemente Bautista Jr. of Kalikasan-Pne; Maria Carolina Araullo and Renato Reyes Jr. of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan); Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares; Roland Simbulan of Junk VFA Movement; Teresita Perez; Kabataan party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino; Peter Gonzales of Pamalakaya; Giovanni Tapang, Agham; Elmer Labog, Kilusang Mayo Uno; Joan May Salvador, Gabriela; Jose Enrique Africa; Theresa Concepcion; Mary Joan Guan; Nestor Baguinon, and public interest lawyer Edsel Tupaz.
In a 90-page petition filed last April 17, 2013, the groups asked the SC to assess the damage caused to the reef by the grounding of the USS Guardian. Apart from the issuance of the writ and TEPO, they also sought a determination of the fine to be imposed on the US Navy and the prosecution of the officers of the USS Guardian.
Petitioners are also asking the SC to order a stop to US war games and port calls by US ships in the absence of clear guidelines on environmental protection under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The petitioners were also seeking higher penalties for and criminal prosecution of US Navy officers and crew of the USS Guardian, which ran aground on Tubbataha Reef last January.
Admiral Cecil Haney, commanding officer of the US Pacific Fleet in a 160 page document said lack of leadership and faulty navigational equipment led to the grounding of the former USS Guardian on the Tubbataha Reef last January, which could have been prevented if the officers and members of the American minesweeper adhere to prudent, safe and sound navigation principles.
The US military official said the watch team’s observations of visual cues in the hours leading up to the grounding, combined with electronic cues and alarms, should have triggered immediate steps to resolve warnings and reconcile discrepancies.
Haney said the Jan.17 incident was a “tragic mishap” which is wholly preventable and was the product of poor voyage planning, poor execution, and unfortunate circumstances. The US report says the investigation uncovers no single point of failure; instead, there were numerous links in the error chain leading up to the grounding—had any one of which been appropriately addressed, the grounding would have been prevented.
The US report, however, recommended “further administrative action against the commanding general, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice, the executive officer and navigator Lt. Daniel Tyler, the assistant navigator and the officer of the deck at the time of the grounding.
“The US report on Tubbataha environmental disaster exonerated Washington D.C and reduced the highly questionable incident to a drama of unfortunate events and plain and simple human error,” Pamalakaya noted.
The Philippine government previously reported that the USS Guardian damaged 2,345.67 square meters of the marine protected area and had asked the US government to pay the Manila government a fine of P 58 million for the damage.
Meanwhile, Pamalakaya followed up their request to Department of Justice (DoJ) Secretary Leila de Lima to file criminal and other appropriate charges against officials and 79 other crew members of USS Guardian.
The militant group said it is wondering why until now there is no progress on their request letter to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, which they filed last February 5, urging the department to investigate and file appropriate charges against officials and 79 other crew members of the US minesweeper ship.
The group said it appeared to them that Secretary de Lima has abandoned her job of filing criminal and other appropriate charges against officials and 79 other crew of USS Guardian that ran ground in Tubbataha Reef last January 17 this year.
“It appears to us that Secretary de Lima is not keen on charging the rapists of the UNESCO declared heritage park. In the first place, she did not do anything to stop the US prime time rapists ofTubbataha from leaving the country,” said Pamalakaya.
Pamalakaya said Secretary de Lima carries the sentiment of Malacañang and US Embassy in Manila. All they want is to call it quits with Washington D.C for the sum of P 58 million ($1.348 million).
“The DoJ Secretary is a willing hostage of this political tale of blockbuster puppetry of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III to US government. How can we rely on her? The letter of complaint we filed at DoJ urging Secretary de Lima to extradite the officials and crews of the American minesweeper has no future and will forever remain in oblivion,” said Pamalakaya.
In their letter to Secretary de Lima, leaders of Pamalakaya and Anakpawis partylist insisted that the Philippine government should settle the score with the US government in connection with the grounding of American minesweeper that destroyed over 4,000 square meters of coral reefs.
They said Secretary de Lima should decisively take legal action against US navy officials and the 79 crew personnel of USS Guardian—an American navy minesweeper that ran aground off Tubbataha Natural Park near Sulu and West Palawan Sea.
In their letter of appeal and complaint, the groups strongly persuaded Secretary de Lima to file charges, recommend the immediate and unconditional pullout of US troops, warships and aircraft inside the Philippine territory to avoid repeat of Tubbataha disaster and prevent Washington from perennially violating the country’s sovereignty and national patrimony.
In the same vein, the Pamalakaya leaders strongly recommended to DoJ to endorse the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Mutual Defense Treaty and the urgent pull out of all US troops, warships and aircraft in the Philippine territory to prevent a repeat of an environmental disaster similar to the January 17, 2013 Tubbataha tragedy.
The Pamalakaya leaders insisted said the DoJ should file cases against Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice and Lt. Daniel Tyler, the officials of the USS Guardian along with 2 other Navy officials and 79 crew members of the American minesweeper. Both groups insisted the US navy officials and the 79 crew of USS Guardian are liable for violating Republic Act No. 10067 that declared Tubbataha a protected area, and that individuals who violated the law may be punished with up to six years imprisonment and may be slapped with fines of up to P 300,000.
The initial assessment as to the extent of the damage revealed that about 4,000 square meters of corals in Tubbataha Reef park have been severely damaged is just the tip of the iceberg. Some quarters said the damage could be more than what was projected.
“The damage caused by the grounding of USS Guardian on Tubbataha Natural Reef Park is bigger, far more reaching and strategically fatal to the livelihood of Filipino fishermen and to the fishing environment directly linked to the protected reef park. It will take one year for a millimeter of mostly hard corals in Tubbataha’s South Section to go back to its sound condition and it will take 250 years for a meter of coral to mature,” the group said.
According to Pamalakaya, Tubbataha Reef is home to 360 species of corals or about half of all coral species in the world and it is also the breeding ground of 1,500 fish species in the country out of the 2,400 total fish species found across the archipelago.
The Tubbataha Reef Park also plays an important role in maintaining the average annual production of 800,000 metric tons of fish in the West Palawan Sea and Sulu-Celebes Sea, two of the country’s major fishing grounds which are connected withTubbataha.
The productive network of corals of Tubbataha had helped fish generation and production in nearby fishing areas that extend to major fishing grounds such as Panay and Guimaras islands, Negros island, Cebu and Bohol Islands and the rest of Visayan Sea.
The damage created by the USS grounding on Tubbataha would have a strategic negative impact on fish production and livelihood of no less than 100,000 fisherfolk and fish workers in commercial fishing vessels in West Palawan Sea and Sulu-Celebes Sea and adjacent fishing waters in the Visayas and Mindanao.