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Scientists' group refutes Roque, says local experts can do research in Benham Rise

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATES) – A scientists' group on Wednesday, January 24, refuted Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque's claim that Filipinos cannot conduct research in Benham Rise.

In a statement, Advocates of Science and Technology for the People or AGHAM said Roque's statement is an insult to Filipino scientists "who have braved the deep oceans despite inadequate support and funding" from government.

"Roque should realize that it is through the efforts of our scientists in which we have continually strengthened our claim to disputed territories such as the Benham Rise," AGHAM noted.

Benham Rise, which President Rodrigo Duterte has renamed Philippine Rise, is a 13-million-hectare underwater plateau thought to be rich in minerals and gas.

On Tuesday, January 23, Roque defended the approval granted by the Philippine government to China to conduct marine scientific research in Benham Rise.

When asked why Filipinos could not just conduct the research on their own, Roque said "no one can do it because, apparently, it's capital intensive."

Calling Roque's pronouncement as "unfounded," the group on Wednesday pointed out that Filipino scientists were the first to explore the Benham bank, with most of the researches funded by the government and some of them done in collaboration with foreign institutions.

The group also listed several research expeditions in Benham Rise, such as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-NAMRIA's bathymetric and hydrographic survey, the Department of Agriculture-BFAR's fisheries research, and the University of the Philippines (UP) National Institute of Geological Sciences' seabed exploration.

AGHAM said during two expeditions in 2014 and 2016, local scientists have documented the rich biodiversity and potential in Benham Rise.

Lack of support, priority

The group then refuted government's claims, saying the issue at hand is not one of affordability, but rather, of lack of support and priority.

"We have brilliant and patriotic scientists who are willing to study our natural resources and use such knowledge for national development. However, the lack of government funding and support has been a hindrance to maximizing the research potential of the country's vast natural resources," the statement read.

To utilize resources in Philippine territories, the group urged the government to support Filipino scientists "instead of being servile to China in exchange for foreign aid."

Any international scientific collaboration, AGHAM said, should be conducted "on the grounds of an independent foreign policy and ensuring that these investigations primarily serve Filipino interest."

Without mincing words, the group then warned against "deceitful international activities that pose as research expeditions but are used to cover up schemes to exploit our country's natural resources."

"As enshrined in the Constitution, these natural resources are part of our national patrimony and its utilization should primarily serve the Filipino people. The government should immediately terminate existing agreements that do not pass to these standards," they added.

The group called on their fellow Filipino scientists to "belie the Duterte government's false assertions," to "reject their shady deals," and to join the call for greater government support for local research and development.

UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea Director Jay Batongbacal also refuted Malacañang's claim, and enumerated the instances that Filipino scientists had successfully surveyed and made discoveries in the Benham Rise region. (READ: Filipinos exploring Benham Rise region for years)

He said "the limitations upon Philippine marine science capacities and capabilities" is a matter of priorities, and not of poverty.

"The modest efforts to date demonstrate that with the proper budgetary support from government and clear research goals and objectives, as well as a good vision and great confidence in our own people and expertise, the Philippines can do these things on its own," he said.

Batongbacal also called Roque's statement that Filipinos need China to explore Benham Rise as "both a brazen falsehood and a disservice to the hard work and dedication, the talents, and capacities of the Filipino scientific community." – Rappler.com

Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.

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