By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – When fisherman Virgilio dela Rosa was 12, a typhoon deluged their coastal village in Bulacan drowning four of his family members and leaving an indelible mark in his memory. Whenever he speaks of the tragedy, he sounds like it happened only last week.
Yet years have passed. He notes with worry how, for every added project expanding Manila Bay via reclamation, the floodwaters correspondingly rise every typhoon season. Aside from the immediate causes that are high tide and heavy rainfall, three dams would simultaneously release water in times of strong typhoons. Plus, as a Bulacan CENRO tells him, there is also climate change. Now dela Rosa is 71 years old, still tall and lean but with a bit of a stoop from years spent rowing his fishing banca.
Speaking at a dialogue with personnel of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on October 16, he appealed for the agency’s help in putting a stop to the reclamation of Manila Bay, particularly the part where they live and fish in the towns of Obando and Bulakan in Bulacan, a province north of Manila.
No less than 700 mostly fisherfolk families stand to lose their homes and jobs if the unsolicited proposal of the San Miguel Corporation to construct the Bulacan Aerotropolis were to push through. The National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) and President Duterte have approved the project last April but the final concession agreement with the DOTr (Department of Transportation) is not yet finalized. It has yet to produce an environmental impact assessment and hopefully, a settlement with the affected communities.
The country’s largest beverage, food and packaging company would build an international airport and an adjoining city of new real estate in Bulacan, right over 2,500 hectares of swamp and mangroves, and a deep and wide network of rivers meeting the sea and teeming with fish, mussels, shrimp, among other kinds of seafood. If their planned aerotropolis did not push through, Ramon Ang, SMC chairman, said they would still develop the 2,500 hectares into a vast real estate project probably starting 2019.
The “Consignacion of Malabon, Navotas, Obando, among others come to us to buy our fish, mussels, shrimp and other catch,” dela Rosa told the DENR’s personnel in charge of Manila Bay and Bulacan coasts. “This is what’s going to be destroyed by the SMC project,” he reiterated. “Here also is where the fingerlings and juvenile fish come from.”
Mr. dela Rosa was born and bred along the coastal waters of Bulacan. He has sent his children to school through fishing. In the communities to be affected, there are many more like him, lean, hardworking fishermen who can’t imagine a life far from the bay.
“Pag natuloy ang proyekto, gugutumin na kami, lulunurin pa kami,” (If the project pushes through, we will not just go hungry. We will also be killed by drowning. )
Accompanying the Bulacan and Cavite fishers to DENR was Salvador France, vice-president of fisherfolk group Pamalakaya. He, too, called on the DENR to save such a bountiful source of fish and seafood from being buried under tons of concrete just to build an airport and a new city.
Will DENR allow SMC to freely cut down mangroves, bury fishing grounds, displace locals?
Some 2,500 hectares of coastal mangroves and fishing grounds are to be buried to build the San Miguel Corporation’s proposed aerotropolis and real estate projects in Bulacan. While it has yet to muster all legal requirements for the project, the communities it would displace are already rattled by talks – mainly coming from their barangay captain, Michael Ramos.
In meetings with his appointed officers of fisherfolk groups per sitio a couple of weeks ago, Ramos has been saying the project is “good to go.” The locals said Ramos also said some areas will be fenced off soon, maybe this coming December or January next year. The locals said they are also being warned against organizing to oppose the projects. ‘You will lose more,’ he was said to have threatened the locals if they start raising questions or are seen joining those who do.
The barangay captain is promising his followers that they would be relocated. But there are no details yet such as to where or how or when or if at all, they would be relocated. A short talk with any of the residents willing to speak out would reveal that relocation is not what they truly harbor in their heart.
The week after some fisherfolk formed a network at a church in Obando to prepare in facing the SMC land projects, at least three boatloads of government soldiers reportedly arrived in the coasts of Obando and Bulakan, Bulacan. In August the fisherfolk also complained that some old growth mangroves in three sitios of Barangay Taliptip in Bulakan were cut down without proper permits. The mangrove cutting has added to the villagers’ sense of foreboding.
At the dialogue with the DENR last Tuesday, October 16, the affected residents learned that the DENR, the Land Management Bureau (LMB), the MBCO (Manila Bay Coordinating Office), the DENR -PENRO and CENRO (Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office and Community Environment and Natural Resources Office, respectively, from Bulacan), have yet to see the details of the planned aerotropolis and land development in the coastal towns. Their investigation into the mangrove cutting has also been stalled because they say they couldn’t proceed further – nobody seems to know who paid the men who cut down the mangroves.
Dela Rosa and France urged the DENR to go to the villages and conduct a more thorough investigation, citing the fear that likely bars the witnesses from coming forward. They urged the DENR to ask the village captain Michael Ramos, or Bulakan Mayor Patrick Meneses. The DENR personnel said they will value and rely on what the fishing communities themselves could tell them, and on the laws governing the said lands. In Taliptip, the DENR-CENRO in Bulacan said data from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources shows there are only two registered fishpond leases.
Most of the residents in the sitios to be affected by SMC land projects are decades-old tenants of landlords who must have sold their stakes to SMC or its companies and representatives over the years. According to the locals Bulatlat interviewed in Taliptip, the Taliptip barangay captain is one of the leaseholders of the fishponds.
At the dialogue in DENR facilitated by Julie Ibuan, the chief of the DENR’s Stakeholders Management and Conflict Resolution Division, the fisherfolk heard the DENR representatives’ assurances that they are there to preserve the environment. She said they still have to study the SMC project’s likely impact on the environment, but they have yet to get copies or details of the planned “development.”
Bulatlat asked the Bulacan CENRO representatives if they are for or against the planned reclamation, aerotropolis and land development. They refused to give a categorical answer, saying they, too, have to study it first. But they said they hope to be ‘partners’ with the fisherfolk.
Leon Dulce, national coordinator of the environmentalist group Kalikasan PNE, warned that not only Bulacan but the entire Manila Bay will be destroyed in the planned reclamation. He said the flooding will get worse in other low-lying towns, as the water coming down the mountains will not immediately drain to Manila Bay.
“The low-lying areas from Bataan to Cavite would turn into a huge catch-basin. Will we accept the SMC’s promise of one million jobs due to the aerotropolis and land projects if, in return, more than one million will be submerged more often and more deeply?”
Taking off from the accounts of the Bulacan fisherfolk, Dulce reiterated that the local government itself is serving as a conduit of the SMC in facilitating the implementation of its reclamation. He urged the DENR to come up with a strong, definitive statement in defense of the environment, marine life and sustainable ways of responding to transport woes.