environmental issues

[OPINION] Effects of reclamation and dredging shows government’s failure to protect our seas

Jerwin Baure

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[OPINION] Effects of reclamation and dredging shows government’s failure to protect our seas

Nico Villarete/Rappler

'We don’t need tokenistic and performative tree-hugging activities while actual mangrove trees are being destroyed, and coastal communities continue to be vulnerable from disasters'

A year ago, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) canceled the  environmental compliance certificate (ECC) of a 51-hectare reclamation project in Coron, Palawan. The cancellation of the ECC was widely welcomed by many environmental groups;  however, hectares of coral reef and seagrass beds had already been destroyed by the time of the ECC cancellation. A biophysical assessment by the team of Dr. Filipina Sotto showed that 27% of corals died while the remaining corals were slowly dying due to sedimentation. Residents also reported the destruction of a nearby mountain which was the source of filling material for the said reclamation project. The irreversible damage has been done, and it would take many years and huge amounts of money to rehabilitate the damaged ecosystems, with no assurance that it would be restored to its original pristine state.  

All over the Philippines, the government, both national and local, and private corporations are proposing to reclaim coastal waters (i.e. dump soil to coastal waters to create more land area, thus reclamation or dump-and-fill) for residential and commercial developments. The latest record of the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) as of September 2022 shows a total of 50 reclamation projects at different stages of development in the Philippines, with an estimated total land area of 11,796.43 hectares or roughly the size of Quezon City. This is significantly lower compared to the 187 proposed reclamation projects recorded in February 2022. However, this is still a gross underestimation, as some reclamation and dump-and-fill projects have not yet declared their proposed area.

At least four other reclamation projects in Dumaguete and northern Manila Bay (e.g. 2,500-ha Bulacan Aerotropolis and other dump-and-fill projects of San Miguel Corporation in Navotas, Bulacan, Pampanga and Bataan) are not included in the list of the PRA. With these considerations, it is possible that the total area for reclamation and dump-and-fill projects may double in size (i.e., at least 24,000 ha) than what was reported.

The disruption of such a large area would have extremely alarming impacts on marine and coastal ecosystems. The destruction of mangroves, seagrasses, and corals will lead to marine biodiversity loss and food insecurity. Amid a worsening climate crisis, reclamation will also exacerbate hazards such as land subsidence, flooding, and storm surge experienced by coastal communities. It would also be difficult for marine organisms to repopulate the seas if coastal areas are turned into dry land. The Philippine Association of  Marine Science (PAMS) previously warned against reclamation during the 16th National Symposium on Marine Science last July 2021. Indeed, the ongoing reclamation projects in the country, especially in Manila Bay, are counterproductive to the conservation and rehabilitation  programs implemented under DENR.  

Aside from the dumping and filling of soil to coastal areas, reclamation also requires dredging or the excavation of sand from beneath the sea and other bodies of water. The ongoing dredging activities in Manila Bay are linked to said reclamation projects. For example, reclamation projects in Cavite as well as San Miguel Corporation’s Bulacan Aerotropolis obtain their filling materials from San Nicholas Shoal off the coast of Cavite.

During a public hearing for one of  the reclamation projects in Cavite in August 2021, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic  Resources (BFAR) said that the San Nicholas Shoal is a traditional fishing ground of fisherfolk. Given the large area of various reclamation projects in Manila Bay, where will the other  projects obtain their filling materials? If all reclamation projects in Manila Bay obtain their filling materials in San Nicholas Shoal and other nearby municipal waters in Cavite, how will dredging affect benthic ecosystems and subsequently fisheries production? Would there be  enough sand to supply to all reclamation projects? Would it be sustainable in the long run? Fisherfolk in Cavite are already complaining of dwindling fish catch ever since dredging activities started. They report being barred from fishing in their traditional fishing grounds where dredging occurs, and that there was no proper consultation before dredging activities began.  

During the Senate deliberation for the 2023 budget of the DENR, senators grilled DENR officials on the massive reclamation in Manila Bay, to which the Environment Secretary replied that they will look into it. During a forum with different stakeholders held by the DENR in May 2023, it was mentioned that the cumulative impacts of reclamation projects must be studied to determine if reclamation should still be pursued in the country, especially in Manila Bay where there are at least 22 reclamation projects in the pipeline. Since these cumulative impacts are yet to be determined, and the guidelines for the approval of reclamation are still being reviewed by the DENR, the agency should instead implement a moratorium on all reclamation activities to avoid any further damage to our marine ecosystems. While the PRA recently issued a moratorium through Presidential Directive No. 2022-016) on new applications for reclamation projects, the DENR has not issued a moratorium on ongoing reclamation projects that have been previously approved. Are they waiting until it is too late again?  

What happened in Coron should be a wake-up call for the DENR administration. The ECC for the Coron reclamation project was only revoked after irreversible damage was done to the  environment. This could have been avoided if careful, comprehensive, and scientific assessment was conducted. The LGU and DENR should have also listened to their constituents who opposed reclamation projects. The DENR’s belated action against the destructive reclamation project in Coron shows how reactive their approach is toward  environmental management, and how they are indifferent to the sentiments of the affected  communities.

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Philippine fishermen balk at land reclamation projects

Philippine fishermen balk at land reclamation projects

All over the country, coastal communities that are affected by various development projects as well as scientists and various environmental groups have been calling on the DENR to stop these projects. Since August 2022, the People’s Network for the Integrity of Coastal Habitats and Ecosystems (People’s NICHE), a wide network of fisherfolk, coastal residents, church people, environmental groups, and scientists, have been seeking a dialogue with DENR Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga to talk about destructive reclamation and dredging activities in Manila Bay. It was only on April 14, 2023, eight months  after the dialogue was requested, when DENR finally held a formal dialogue with the People’s NICHE.

Meanwhile, a dialogue between BFAR and the fisherfolk of Cavite happened last February 24, 2023 after the latter held a protest against a reclamation-related dredging activity in their area. During the dialogue, BFAR mentioned that the DENR did not consult with them regarding dredging activities in Cavite. BFAR also clarified that they did not issue area clearances for any reclamation project in Manila Bay.  

To further express their disappointment with how poorly the DENR addresses environmental and social issues related to reclamation and dredging, different groups and communities of  fisherfolk, coastal residents, scientists, academics, and environmentalists from all over the country participated in the third National People’s Summit Against Reclamation last June 3–4, 2023. In this event organized by the People’s NICHE, lectures and panel discussions on the situation of communities affected by reclamation and dredging across the country were delivered by invited speakers. A sunset protest in Manila Bay on June 3 and another protest in Mendiola on World Environment Day last June 5 were also held to express their opposition to destructive reclamation and dredging projects. The people are clamoring to stop these projects, and the government, especially the DENR, must listen to them!  

The DENR should revisit the concept of “rehabilitation.” In 2008, the Supreme Court issued a  Continuing Mandamus mandating DENR and other concerned agencies to rehabilitate Manila  Bay. But what’s happening right now is the complete opposite. Allowing dredging, mangrove cutting, and the dumping of soil in our coasts is the total opposite of rehabilitation. Manila Bay remains to be full of trash. While DENR regularly reports the decrease of coliform counts in certain stations in Manila Bay, that is still not enough. Plastic pollution is still rampant from the  mangrove forests in Bulacan and Navotas, to the slums in Tondo and other parts of Metro Manila, up to coastal communities in Rosario, Cavite. The DENR should address that first instead of allowing destructive dredging and reclamation. Moreover, the DENR must also consult with BFAR especially since these projects would affect coastal ecosystems that serve as nursery grounds for fish and marine invertebrates. The DENR must also review the ECC process to avoid irreversible damage to our marine ecosystems, and to also ensure that these development projects will truly benefit communities. Genuine participation of affected communities must also be ensured.  

It would be a disservice to the Filipino people if this kind of approach to environmental management continues. We deserve proactive, pro-environment, and pro-people leaders. We don’t need government officials who only cater to the interests of corporations and the elite. We don’t need tokenistic and performative tree-hugging activities while actual mangrove trees are being destroyed, and coastal communities continue to be vulnerable from disasters. We are tired of hearing false promises of climate solutions that will never be properly implemented. The Marcos administration is almost one year in office, and yet the DENR and its high officials who are tasked to protect our environment and conserve our natural resources are failing in this responsibility.  

We cannot afford another Coron tragedy. With the government’s failure to protect our seas, the people will collectively rise to protect what’s precious to us! – Rappler.com

Jerwin Baure is currently the public information officer of AGHAM – Advocates of Science and  Technology for the People, and a graduating MS Marine Science student in UP Diliman.

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