Part 1: Philippine reclamations: Spreading, posing dangers
MANILA, Philippines – Within the last 60 years, Philippine reclamation ventures have enjoyed support not only from the national government, but also from local government units (LGUs) and companies pushing for urbanized development all throughout the country.
However, the rising reclamation industry, now dominated by LGUs and private businesses, thrive through insufficient regulation policies and a taxing bureaucracy, leaving the fate of dump-and-fill projects to the political, social, and financial capital of their proponents.
While emerging archaeological studies suggest that the mismanagement of reclamation ventures contributes to worsening floods in communities, business interests often still trump people’s demand for regulators to enhance provisions on environmental care, public participation, human rights, and safety when evaluating reclamation projects. Fisherfolk, affected residents, and environmentalists say this fight for inclusivity and transparency has become a constant struggle in recent years.
The LGU and business power
Assistant General Manager Joseph Literal of the Philippine Reclamation Authority’s (PRA) Reclamation and Regulation Office said that the process for assessing reclamation proposals often begins at the local level, where the majority of projects are initiated.
February 2022 data from the PRA show this trend: out of the total 187 approved and proposed reclamation projects nationwide, government agencies are leading 23 projects, LGUs with a private partner are leading 38 projects, LGUs without information on a private partner are leading 75 projects, while private companies are leading 51 projects.
The PPP, established during the late former president Benigno Aquino III’s term, is a contract between the government and a private actor to provide a public asset. Local reclamation initiatives are usually pursued using this framework, specifically by having joint venture agreements with respect to local PPP ordinances.
Sometimes, these reclamation PPPs are born out of unsolicited proposals wherein the private sector voluntarily pitches a project to the government. If attractive enough, the LGUs back the venture.
Although lawyer and campaigner Golda Benjamin sees the PPP framework as a possible sustainable means to support LGU projects, she thinks that nuanced measures for unsolicited reclamation proposals are still needed to improve their regulation.
“Reclamation for me is such a big project that requires a lot of buy-in from the LGUs,” she said, referring to the many impacts a reclamation may bring to a community, such as landscape changes and environmental risks. But LGUs take on dump-and-fill projects even if it’s not part of their development agenda, Benjamin said.
There seems to be no standards in the country’s laws on what constitutes a good and sustainable reclamation, she said, adding that this setup leaves the decision on the necessity of reclamations mostly with the LGUs.
According to available records on reclamation PPPs, the LGUs’ private sector partners range from corporations, real estate developers, construction firms, to port companies, among others.
Several of these businesses have multiple ventures based on PRA data as of February 2022.
These include the Frabelle Fishing Corporation with five projects, SM Prime Holdings, Inc. with four, and Silver Dragon with three. RII Builders, Century Peak Corporation, S&P Construction Technology and Development Co. Inc., Alltech Construction Inc., Argonbay Construction Company Inc., and Home Invest Realty Ventures Inc. each have two projects.
As private companies’ participation and business interest in reclamations grow, Benjamin said disclosure and transparency efforts such as scrutinizing a company’s ownership and funding capacity for projects is needed to strengthen checks and balances.
She said this is especially vital since based on her observation, many of these companies aren’t technically qualified to do reclamations. They instead contract outside partners for the dump-and-fill works of the projects.
Lobbying for transparency
Many environmentalists and fisherfolk consider reclamation PPPs more of business opportunities rather than genuine development, notorious for their lack of transparency – from paper to practice.
Environmental group Kalikasan’s former national coordinator Leon Dulce, who has been monitoring environmentally destructive projects across the country in the past decade, observed that businesses’ stake in reclamation projects has led to the hastening of regulatory processes at the expense of communities disenfranchised along the way.
He alleged this malpractice has intensified in recent years since the Duterte administration passed the Ease of Doing Business Act in 2018 to streamline all government transactions.
In addition, Dulce said there are no strong and clear mechanisms on how the public can really participate in defining existing reclamation regulations as civil society and independent experts are given only small and token spaces to engage in.
He has witnessed these gaps in some projects, such as the San Miguel Corporation’s (SMC) Bulacan Aerotropolis, that proceed after just a single public hearing and without resolving issues raised by stakeholders. Dulce said environmental compliance certificate (ECC) requirements have also become merely a “running target” for some proponents after they are issued project permits.
Fernando Hicap, longtime chairperson of national small fisherfolk federation Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamalakaya ng PIlipinas (Pamalakaya), said that the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in the past two years have been used to quickly secure requirements for reclamations. With the lockdowns, fisherfolk and environmental advocates couldn’t organize to oppose the supposed railroading of some ventures.
Reclamation requirements are mainly composed of the legal and financial capacities, economic and fiscal viability, environmental plans, and technical aspects of the project.
Aside from LGUs, various national and regional government agencies, including the PRA, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), the Department of Finance, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), are responsible for assessing these requirements needed to start reclamation projects in the country. Specifically, the regional offices of the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau either issue or reject environmental permits for dump-and-fill activities.
While the PRA is the body mandated to both regulate and advance reclamations, Literal explained that at some point, approving or rejecting projects becomes “ministerial” for the agency since the basis of its assessment is whether or not the proponents have satisfied all of the requirements.
Benjamin said that getting and understanding technical information on reclamation projects is another struggle due to the country’s weak freedom of information laws. Without access to these types of documents, she said proponents can skirt legal mechanisms meant to regulate dump-and-fill ventures.
Benjamin experienced this herself when the LGU and a private contractor unexpectedly proposed a 174-hectare Smart City reclamation in Dumaguete City in July 2021. The situation pushed her and local residents to do their own documentary investigation that proved the project was illegitimate and proponents lacked coordination with the PRA.
Such disputes on public transparency often happen because the agencies tasked to regulate reclamations, such as the PRA, the PPP Center, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government, also lack accountability tools, according to Benjamin.
For example, once the requirements for the proposal reach the PRA, the agency does not have the capability to demand a review or allow civil society to appeal a project. The overall power to approve or veto reclamation projects also rests on the executive department after former president Rodrigo Duterte transferred the PRA under its wing in 2019 through Executive Order No. 74.
“The most that you can do is register your objection and then go to court on grave abuse of discretion, which is a really tough standard to prove in court,” she said.
Biggest, undeclared reclamations
Of the 187 approved and proposed reclamation projects, there are six that each span at least 1,000 hectares. These are the 4-Island Cavite Reclamation, MMISEC, and Sangley Point International Airport projects all in Cavite; the Los Baños Reclamation in Laguna; the Leganes Reclamation in Iloilo City; and the Cordova Reclamation in Cebu.
Of these planned reclamations, at least three are PPP ventures, two are local government-led, and one is a private initiative by a construction firm.
The 11 approved port and mixed-use development projects – with the Horizon Manila Reclamation Project added into the mix, following PRA’s May 2022 update – cover a total of 2,571 hectares, or about 44 Rizal Parks. Majority of these ventures, which faced public transparency, environmental, and displacement issues, are under PPP contracts.
The average project size of these greenlighted reclamations is almost 234 hectares – more than thrice the previous average, which was nearly 71 hectares, based on PRA’s list of 18 completed reclamations from the years 2000 to 2015.
Benjamin noted that the larger scale of most modern dump-and-fill ventures may be attributed to reclamation’s growing commercial purpose, unlike before, when it was done mostly for port and airport expansions.
Archaeologist Vito Hernandez, who did excavations that found evidence of reclamation-related floods in Manila Bay and Luzon, also noticed this increasing commercialization of reclamations by private businesses.
“At the end of the day, are we willing to have our lives run by or corporatized that way?” Hernandez asked.
He added: “[Food is now expensive] whether from the sea or land, and [do] you think these businesses are going to give it away for free or make it any healthier for us? History will tell us [otherwise], so we have our right to guard against these kinds of development.”
Other big reclamation projects notably missing in the PRA’s official records, based on advocates’ monitoring and the PPP Center’s summary of projects from October 2019, are SMC’s projects: the New Manila International Airport (NMIA), also known as the Bulacan Aerotropolis; the over 16,000-hectare Manila Bay Integrated Flood Control, Coastal Defense and Expressway Project; and the Preservation and Development of Laguna de Bay Project that will involve a 2,000-hectare reclamation.
The NMIA, which is only part of the 2,500-hectare reclamation, displaced hundreds of local fisherfolk families at the height of the pandemic in 2020. The massive project reclaiming productive and critical areas of Manila Bay is being pursued despite scientific studies by independent and government institutions saying construction in the area would increase disaster risks for affected and neighboring communities in Bulacan.
The Laguna Lake Rehabilitation and Development Project is also absent in the PRA’s official documentation. According to a written response by the PPP Center to Rappler, this is the only project in the pipeline with a reclamation component based on available data. Pending approval of government bodies, the project started as an unsolicited proposal by a private consortium and is now in partnership with the Laguna Lake Development Authority.
Not a reclamation PPP but joining this list of unaccounted dump-and-fill works is the infamous Dolomite Beach project that drew widespread criticism for “beautifying” Manila Bay during the early months of the pandemic. The DENR’s artificial “beach nourishment” project, which dumped potentially hazardous white sand along the Manila Baywalk in September 2020, isn’t aligned with the bay’s rehabilitation program, the University of the Philippines’ Institute of BIology said in a previous statement.
Although aware of the Manila Bay Integrated Flood Control, Coastal Defense and Expressway Project, the PRA told Rappler that the proposal is still with NEDA, whose board was the approving body for reclamations when the venture was applied.
The agency also has information on the Preservation and Development of Laguna de Bay Project and the Laguna Lake Rehabilitation and Development Project, but these proposals have no formal applications yet with its office.
As for the NMIA and the Dolomite Beach, the PRA explained that both projects are not considered reclamations, thus limiting the agency’s jurisdiction.
The agency said documents showed that the NMIA is located at unsubmerged and titled properties, making the area non-public land. This led to the airport project being classified as a land restoration project, with the DENR issuing an ECC for land development.
“[Given] the approval or the award of the airport project to San Miguel [Holdings Corporation], the congressional franchise issued [to the project], and also the presence of titles over these properties, [it’s quite] challenging for PRA to impose our mandate,” he explained.
In 2019, the Department of Transportation, the primary government partner for the NMIA, sealed the deal with SMC’s infrastructure unit. The following year, lawmakers also unanimously granted an unprecedented franchise to the Bulacan airport amid criticisms.
To date, the NMIA construction is ongoing and targeted for completion by 2024 – even without a land restoration permit, which the proponents should still have applied for with the PRA, Literal said.
The PRA also clarified that the agency doesn’t view the Dolomite Beach project as a reclamation due to the lack of a containment structure, such as a breakwall, that would effectively create permanent land in the area.
But Hernandez argued: “We should correct our definitions of what reclamation is. When we reclaim the sea by dumping or building structures, that’s already reclamation.”
Benjamin said this “definitions problem” that is caused by the outdatedness and lack of specificity in the country’s national and local reclamation policies contributes to the misregulation in the reclamation industry.
“Because the law is unclear, what’s not prohibited is allowed,” she said. According to her, this is why some projects could be framed as rehabilitation or shore protection, like in the case of the illegal Pantawan 2 reclamation in Dumaguete City.
Despite the many challenges in the bureaucracy, Literal gave assurances that the PRA is improving its
“safety nets” and control mechanisms to better manage reclamations in the country, as well as the expectations of various stakeholders.
The agency is now developing a National and Regional Reclamation Development Plan, a zoning plan that will predetermine which areas can be reclaimed and which areas are off-limits to avoid overlapping and conflicting projects at the local, regional, and national levels.
But Benjamin hinted that as far as managing reclamations go, the “profound problem” would be stakeholders agreeing on a starting point since not all believe that the practice is destructive.
Should a conversation on regulating reclamations happen, she said that “sober and objective” scientific studies on the genuine impacts of reclamations must be made available, as well as technologies needed to manage its effects. But for her, it’s the policymakers and government leaders who should take on the actual task of managing.
Dulce, meanwhile, recommended that proponents of reclamation projects genuinely involve communities in planning and managing their natural resources, and for robust science to guide such development projects.
Until science-based and inclusive policies are in place, he said there should be a moratorium on reclamations as these ventures, according to him, will most likely continue to displace fisherfolk and coastal urban poor communities, worsen flooding, and destroy ecologically critical areas across Philippine shores.
“The environment is a very kind [but] vulnerable mediator [of society],” Hernandez said. “But when everyone works together, including these people that have capital to invest in it, it would mean that we share in all the profits. We. All of us.”
But the problem, he said, is that not everyone appreciates or likes equity. – Rappler.com
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