All rise for Benham! That is the phrase embroidered on the left chest of a shirt worn by a select number of people belonging to the Technical Working Group (TWG) of the Philippine Extended Continental Shelf (PECS). This shirt was first donned during a celebratory gathering to commemorate a historic victory in Philippine territorial and sovereignty entitlements.
Ten years ago today, on April 12, 2012, the United Nations (UN) through its Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), adopted in full the outer limits of the continental shelf in the Benham Rise Region, as recommended by the PECS Team. This UN adoption added a seabed area of almost half the size of the entire Philippine landmass. (Editor’s note: On May 16, 2017, Benham Rise was renamed Philippine Rise by virtue of Executive Order No. 25.)
The Philippine ECS victory did not come overnight. Sometime in 1999 (that reveals my age!), I started attending meetings in a claustrophobic but rather cozy conference room at the 3rd floor of the Jorge Bocobo Hall of the UP College of Law. The meetings were organized by the Institute of International Legal Studies (IILS) attended by about a dozen people composed of a mix of government scientists and administrators, lawyers and UP professors. At that time, practically nobody had ever heard of the word “Benham Rise,” much less of its existence as a submarine feature off the eastern coast of Northern Luzon – save for geologists dabbling in offshore geophysical research and geodynamic studies.
In fact, even within the geological community then, there were differing opinions as to the viability of filing an ECS submission in the region, given that, as one revered UP professor claimed, the Benham Rise region was made up of an old volcano that pierced through an oceanic crust some 40 million years ago and therefore could not be entitled a continental shelf. It was quite a challenge to convince that professor that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sees continental shelf as a juridical term rather than geological.
By early 2000s, a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was signed by several government institutions that eventually led to the creation of the TWG-PECS. Soon thereafter, the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), designated as the lead agency of the TWG, commenced conducting bathymetric surveys over the Benham Rise region.
Using its two survey vessels, BRP Presbitero and BRP Ventura, NAMRIA carried out no less than 18 offshore cruises between 2004 and 2008. These 2 ships could only gather bathymetric data, barely sufficient to satisfy all the other requirements listed in the 10 chapters of the Scientific and Technical Guidelines of the CLCS. Foremost among these data sets are seismic profiles – images of the inner layers of the earth below the seabed for several kilometers – which provide crucial information in establishing natural prolongation, a most important proof in arguing for an extended continental shelf. The TWG thus turned to other sources and had to search far and wide around the world, including data-gathering visits to marine scientific organizations and agencies in the United States, Mexico, Germany, New Zealand, Japan and, China.
The Philippines was faced with the daunting task of beating a May 2009 deadline (date depends on when the state party ratified the agreement) to make the submission to the UN. Marathon meetings and discussions then ensued, held behind closed and open doors, both witnesses to heated discussions and debates that sometimes literally and figuratively drew sweat and blood among the TWG members.
Success despite challenges
Despite serious challenges and seemingly insurmountable difficulties, the Philippines on April 8, 2009, barely beating the 15-year deadline by only a month, submitted its case to the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS) of the UN. On the 25th of August of the same year, the team was called to New York to make its first defense of its submission before the commission en banc of the CLCS, and the rest is history.
The adoption by the UN of the Philippine ECS submission in the Benham Rise region on April 12, 2012 posted a record of sorts as it was obtained only within three years from the date of submission. Submissions by other UN state parties have lasted 10 years or even more, before their adoption. The Philippine success was all the more laudable as it was achieved despite the absence of an appropriate marine geophysical research vessel to gather subsurface data below the seabed. Some state parties with advanced and highly sophisticated survey vessels have taken a longer time to obtain adoption of their submissions.
Today, 10 years hence and with four of the original TWG-PECS members having passed on to the other life, the Benham Rise region remains wanting to be studied. The absence of a proper geophysical research vessel is a major obstacle in gathering subsurface information underneath the seamount and its surroundings, which is key in understanding the nature and wealth of this precious piece of crust. – Rappler.com
(The author Mario Aurelio, Ph.D., is a professor at the National Institute of Geological Sciences of the University of the Philippines–Diliman. He is a member of the TWG-PECS that prepared, submitted, and successfully defended the submission of the Philippines for an extended continental shelf in the Benham Rise region before the UN-CLCS.)