land reclamation in the Philippines

[OPINION] Marcos still fails to protect Manila Bay despite suspending reclamation

Jerwin Baure

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[OPINION] Marcos still fails to protect Manila Bay despite suspending reclamation

Guia Abogado/Rappler

'It has been almost 15 years since the Supreme Court issued a continuing mandamus to rehabilitate Manila Bay, and yet what’s happening on the ground is the complete opposite'

The announcement of President Bongbong Marcos Jr. to suspend all reclamation projects in Manila Bay was widely welcomed. Fisherfolk communities, scientists, and environmental groups who relentlessly opposed these projects since the Duterte administration considered this a resounding victory brought by years of collective action.

While the suspension is commendable, the Marcos administration has been rather slow in responding to public clamor against reclamation. As early as August 2022, member organizations of the People’s Network for the Integrity of Coastal Habitats and Ecosystems (People’s NICHE) have requested a dialogue with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) regarding reclamation and dredging projects in Manila Bay, and yet it took the environment agency eight months to grant this request. During the dialogue, the DENR announced that they are going to conduct a cumulative impact assessment on all reclamation projects, but they still seemed reluctant to issue a moratorium on all ongoing projects as a precautionary measure to avoid further damage to the environment.

The suspension of all 22 reclamation projects is a big win for the environment, BUT IT IS STILL NOT ENOUGH. The suspension only included reclamation projects listed by the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA), while other coastal development projects that are equally or even more destructive were not included. These projects include reclamation-related dredging activities and dump-and-fill projects that were considered “land development” by their respective proponents.

The biggest among these development projects is San Miguel Corporation’s New Manila International Airport, popularly known as Bulacan Aerotropolis. Based on documents obtained from PRA, the 22 suspended reclamation projects that will undergo review have a total area of 6,780.32 hectares. The biggest among these projects is the 844-hectare MCTE Reclamation Project in Bacoor, Cavite. Meanwhile, the Bulacan Aerotropolis has an area of ~2,500 hectares, which is almost 3× larger than the MCTE Reclamation Project. The impacts of this airport project alone could dwarf the impacts of all other smaller reclamation projects.

In fact, SMC’s Aerotropolis project is the most controversial among all these projects. Since 2018, fishing communities in Brgy. Taliptip, Bulakan, Bulacan reported mangrove cutting in the area, and have also been subjected to different forms of human rights violations such as intimidation and red-tagging by the military and police. By the end of 2020, all fisherfolk living in the area were completely displaced from their communities. Despite compensation given by SMC, displaced residents disclosed that the amount given was not enough. Furthermore, fisherfolk in nearby towns of Paombong, Hagonoy, Obando as well as Malolos City have also reported military intimidation since 2021.

Recently, the Aerotropolis, which is being constructed at the mouth of a river and thus could potentially affect the flow of water, was blamed for recent heavy flooding in Bulacan. Other geological hazards in the project site were also identified in a previous study by AGHAM. The environmental and social impacts of SMC’s Aerotropolis project are detailed in a comprehensive report published by the Global Witness last February 2023. San Miguel Corporation can continue arguing that the Aerotropolis project is not a reclamation project, but they cannot deny the well-documented environmental and social impacts of their project. While SMC promises economic growth brought by this project, the government should not turn a blind eye to the project’s socio-ecological impacts.

The impacts of SMC’s Aerotropolis project are not only felt in Bulacan but also in Cavite. SMC’s Aerotropolis and other reclamation projects rely on dredging activities that excavate sand in the seabed, which are then used as filling material for reclamation and dump-and-fill projects in Manila Bay. Previously, fisherfolk in Cavite reported dwindling catch ever since dredging began in their coastal waters. They have also reported that dredging activities did not stop even after Marcos ordered to suspend reclamation projects in Manila Bay.

Aside from this, another project of SMC, the Manila Bay Integrated Flood Control, Coastal Defense, and Expressway, which will be built across the entire coast from Bataan to Bulacan, is also being proposed in Congress. While this project is still in its planning phase, environmentalists are wary about the impacts of this infrastructure project on mangrove ecosystems in northern Manila Bay, particularly on a Ramsar site (wetland of international importance) in Sasmuan, Pampanga.

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Given these, the cumulative impacts of not only PRA-listed reclamation projects but also dredging activities and all other coastal development projects should be investigated by DENR, otherwise key ecosystems will be lost. Coastal ecosystems in the northern (Bulacan) and eastern (Cavite and Metro Manila) parts of Manila Bay, where reclamation, dump-and-fill, and dredging activities are currently concentrated, have high biomass of fish eggs and larvae based on a study published by scientists from the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute in 2017. Mangrove forests, mud flats, and benthic ecosystems serve as habitats and nursery grounds for fish and marine invertebrates, and their interconnection will have compounding implications on marine biodiversity, fisheries production, and food security. This is why the statement of a certain PRA official that only 5% of Manila Bay will be reclaimed is rather alarming as such a statement disregards the fact that coastal ecosystems support marine life in the entire bay despite their relatively smaller area. Manila Bay is not yet dead, but pursuing destructive reclamation projects will further push it to the brink of ecological collapse.

The Marcos administration, especially the DENR, should take this matter seriously. It has been almost 15 years since the Supreme Court issued a continuing mandamus to rehabilitate Manila Bay, and yet what’s happening on the ground is the complete opposite. Mangrove deforestation, dredging, and reclamation have become rampant. Instead of focusing on addressing pollution, the DENR poured hundreds of millions into a dolomite beach project that has nothing to do with improving the water quality of Manila Bay. The suspension order and the plan to conduct a cumulative impact assessment are the first steps in doing the right thing, but the government, especially the DENR, should include the Bulacan Aerotropolis and reclamation-related dredging activities in the suspension and investigation. Marcos should not exempt the projects of his late father’s cronies, particularly Ramon Ang of SMC, in the suspension order and cumulative impact assessment. The government’s efforts to rehabilitate Manila Bay will be all for nothing if they leave out the biggest coastal development projects and allow them to continue their destructive activities.

In pursuing development projects, we must always ask these questions: Development for whom? Development at the expense of what? What’s the point of developing the economy when only the rich could benefit from it, while marginalized sectors are left in the dust? How can we achieve sustainable development goals when our natural resources have already been destroyed? –

Jerwin Baure is currently the public information officer of AGHAM – Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, one of the member organizations of People’s NICHE. He’s been opposing reclamation projects since 2018. He recently graduated with a degree of Master of Science in Marine Science in UP Diliman.

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