For many years, scientists and environmental advocates have cautioned the government against approving more proposals for land reclamation and coastal development projects in Manila Bay. The historic bay, they emphasize, is unsuitable for such projects because of the risks posed by floods, intensified typhoon-induced storm surges and other related consequences.
Yet 22 land reclamation projects were approved during the Duterte administration, despite continuing protests against the perils to the marine ecology and socio-economic impact.
Not long after assuming office, Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga of the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources looked into these protests and the extent of compliance by the project proponents to DENR requirements. It’s the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau that issues the environmental compliance certificates (ECCs) to the project proponents.
Additionally, Loyzaga invoked the Supreme Court ruling in 2018 ordering 13 government agencies, including the DENR, to rehabilitate Manila Bay and restore its water quality to its pristine state.
Over the past few months, she has consulted with stakeholders – nongovernment organizations, people’s organizations, fishers’ groups, the academe and scientific organizations and the private business sector – to gather inputs to guide her scrutiny of the projects.
After these consultations, Loyzaga announced that DENR was convening a team of local and foreign experts to start a “cumulative impact assessment” of the Manila Bay reclamation projects. Many of these experts, she said, were already involved in evaluating certain of these.
All along Marcos Jr. seemed to have ignored his DENR secretary’s important initiative. He didn’t think of giving it a positive mention in his second State of the Nation Address.
Then, last week, the US embassy spokesperson called attention to a big reclamation project involving a Chinese construction company that he said had taken part in building the artificial islands (now serving as China’s military outposts) in the West Philippine Sea. The company, said the spokesman, had been blacklisted by the US government years ago and the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank had cited it for “fraudulent business practices.”
The explanation of US Ambassador MaryKay Carlson was that the embassy was concerned by the environmental impact of large-scale reclamation. The project also could cause damage to the “cultural and heritage appeal of the historic Roxas Boulevard which lines its shores.”
Flooding and other environmental problems to be caused by the questioned project, she continued, would lead to “potentially losing whole neighborhoods.” “We are in that neighborhood,” she stressed, referring to her embassy’s strategic location on prime, previously reclaimed land along Roxas Boulevard.
Quickly, last Monday Marcos Jr. gave an oral order to suspend and review all the Manila Bay reclamation projects, except for one that he said had “already been reviewed.” Many questions have since been raised about which project had been exempted. He explained:
“There are many problems. We saw many [of the projects] which are not being conducted properly. But anyway, that is another problem that needs to be fixed. Because if they all push through many rivers will be clogged, including the ones emptying into Manila Bay. The water will have nowhere to go. Even on Roxas Boulevard, the sea will disappear.”
Environmental advocates, usually critical, were happy with that. Among them:
• Agham (Advocates of Science and Technology for the People): “We welcome the decision to suspend all reclamation projects in Manila Bay. This victory was achieved through the collective actions of various civil society organizations (CSOs), which have tirelessly campaigned against reclamations for years.”
• NICHE (People’s Network for the Integrity of Coastal Habitats and Ecosystems) recalled that for years the civil society organizations, local communities and academic experts have opposed the reclamation projects because of their “clear negative environmental and social impacts.” The group observed that recently, government and nongovernment institutions manifested the same concern, citing investigations conducted by the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the US embassy most recently.
Both Agham and NICHE pressed the administration to be transparent in identifying which project was exempted from the suspension and on what ground.
• Kalikasan PNE (Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment): “The Filipino people have scored a resounding victory with this recent declaration. This is another prime example of how collective action, from community activities to national-level dialogues, can push policy in the right direction for the protection of the people and the planet.”
The network, however, called for vigilance against any attempt by project proponents who may appeal the suspension order and “find ways to circumvent the moratorium.”
• Pamalakaya, the nationwide alliance of fisherfolk, demanded that government hold the project proponents liable to compensate the families displaced from their coastal communities.
• Equally bothered by the seeming secrecy, the international environmental group Oceana said: “We are alarmed by the exemption of one project that was not divulged. It should be revealed to the public so that CSOs, fisherfolk, science and academe and other key stakeholders can validate the reported review that merited the exemption.”
Oceana noted that the reclamation projects were approved despite the DENR and other groups having identified Manila Bay as a “Key Biodiversity Area.” At least eight species of shellfish – including the tahong that we all enjoy grilled and in a flavorful soup – along with 50 species of fish can be found in its waters; these include the Sardinella pacifica, a new specie discovered in the bay in 2019.
Furthermore, Oceana urged Marcos Jr. to “permanently stop the projects as they put in peril food security, violate our constitutional rights to a healthy, balanced, safe and resilient environment and the rights of artisanal fisherfolk and coastal communities to their fishing grounds and livelihoods.”
The various groups urged the government to come clean on how it would enforce the moratorium.
In assuring them, Secretary Loyzaga pointed out:
“I’ve been an advocate of transdisciplinary work – not interdisciplinary, not multidisciplinary… When you say transdisciplinary work, we learn from communities, from experts in practice. We don’t learn only from scientists who are professors.”
Published in Philippine Star
August 12, 2023