Advocates continue to oppose China-backed reclamation projects in Manila Bay

“Save Our Sunset, Save Manila Bay”

This was the call of environmental groups that continue to oppose the reclamation projects in Manila Bay in Metro Manila, Philippines.  On October 19, over 600 individuals representing various churches, faith-based organizations, fisherfolk communities, environmental advocates and other grassroots groups formed a human chain along Roxas Boulevard fronting the Manila Bay.

Environmental activists and advocates led by the People’s Network for the Integrity of Coastal Habitats and Ecosystems (People’s NICHE) and the Church-CSO Empowerment for Ecological Sustainability (Eco-Convergence) organized the activity to call for an immediate and full suspension of reclamation projects in Manila Bay.

Environmental group AKAP KA Manila said the Marcos Jr. government has not released any clear legal guidelines or actual legislation to legally back and formalize the suspension of the reclamation projects.

“Hundreds of communities across the Manila Bay area and its surroundings are still in jeopardy,” said Jonila Castro, a spokesperson of the group.  

The “Save Our Sunset, Save Manila Bay” activity was held to urge President Marcos Jr. to fortify his reclamation project suspension by issuing an executive order. 

Another anti-reclamation advocate, Jhed Tamano, pointed out the reclamation projects have caused the number of state-sponsored violence in coastal areas to rise dramatically since the projects started during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Tamano and Castro themselves were victims of political harassment. They were abducted on September 2 in Orion, Bataan, while they were engaged in consultation activities with fisherfolk affected by reclamation projects.

Save Manila Bay activists. Photos credit: NICHE

Signs of Chinese influence

Demolition operations against urban poor communities are also being feared. In Manila, urban poor residents stand to be affected by the 50-hectare expansion project of Manila Harbor Center by the R-II Builders, the 50-hectare project of Baseco Rehabilitation and Development (Bradi), the 40-hectare PRA reclamation project, and the biggest 407-hectare City of Pearl project, proposed by a Chinese firm UAA Kinming.

The groups are calling on Marcos Jr. to release an executive order suspending reclamation projects. On August 10, Marcos Jr. declared an indefinite suspension of 22 major land reclamation projects. His order came at the heels when the United States issued its own statement about environmental damage the projects were causing. The U.S. is also taking issue with the involvement of a Chinese company which is on the U.S.’ blacklist for building Chinese military bases in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

The company, state-owned China Communications Construction, is on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Entity List. The U.S. Embassy in the Philippines said the company was involved in the Chinese military’s construction of artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea.  Companies in the Entity List are prohibited from trading with any U.S. companies without a special license. China has earlier protested against the list, denouncing the U.S. sanctions as illegal.

According to reports, China Communications Construction has admitted that one of its subsidiaries, China Harbor Engineering, is part of a project that includes building three artificial islands in the Manila Bay near suburban Pasay city.

Activists against reclamation.

Mass displacement of fisherfolk

There are 187 development projects all across the Philippines, and 16 percent of these or 30 are in Manila Bay, which spans across the cities of Manila, at Pasay, Paranaque, Las Pinas, Navotas and coastal areas of Cavite, Bataan, Pampanga, and Bulacan.

As of February, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have given environmental compliance certificates (ECCs) to 21 reclamation projects in Manila Bay. Among these are the 420-rectare project in Bacoor City, the 2,500 hectare-Bulacan Aerotropolis project of the San Miguel Corporation (SMC), the 260-hectare project in Pasay, the one in Navotas City with an area of 650-hectares, and the 419-hectare Horizon Manila project.

Based on estimates of NICHE, 1.56 million Filipinos are directly affected by ongoing and proposed reclamation projects. One million of these Filipinos live in the cities and provinces surrounded by and along Manila Bay. The number of those who will be potentially affected by the indirect effects of reclamation in Metro Manila and Metro Cebu are pegged at 16 million.

Fernando “Ka Pando” Hicap, a fisherman and president of the Pambansang Lakas ng Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya or National Alliance of Fisherfolk of the Philippines) said fisherfolk have unassailable reasons for going against reclamation projects.

“Fisherfolk and ordinary Filipinos have never benefited from these reclamation projects. Thousands have already been driven away from their homes and communities in the last decade. They were forced to relocate to far-off sites where they had no means of livelihood just so the projects can be built,” he said.

Hicap said SMC forced hundreds of fisherfolk in Bulakan in the Bulacan province to leave their homes and fishing grounds where they have had familial roots for decades.

“Fisherfolk from the surrounding towns of Malolos, Obando, Hagonoy were also banned from fishing in the waters close to the aerotropolis. In Cavite, dredging projects caused the catch of fisherfolk to drastically dwindle to practically nothing,” he said.

According to estimates of environmental groups, fisherfolk stand to lose up to 90 percent of their incomes because of the damage caused by the reclamation projects.

44-year-old fisherman Roldan Anjacas from Las Pinas City said that since the reclamation projects started, the P6,000 (US$105) he used to earn from one day’s fishing efforts has dwindled to P3,000.

“It’s been very bad,” he said. “The ocean waters have become muddy because of the dredging operations. The machines are also very loud. All these have caused the fish to either stop laying eggs or to completely leave their usual breeding grounds where we also harvest them in the fish pens.”

Anjacas said the waters of the Manila Bay in the Las Pinas area used to be teeming with different kinds of fish and squid. “There were anchovies and crabs, sapsap, salaysay, banak, tilapia and other kinds of fish there. Since the reclamation projects started, we barely catch anything,” he said.

According to national and local laws, consultations with communities in the sites of government and private sector development and commercial projects should be done before any projects can begin.

“We were never consulted. We just saw the ships coming in and the dredging activities started,” Ancajas said.

Still, according to reports, many of the rehabilitation projects already have environmental permits, among these are the 420-hectare Bacoor Reclamation project, 2,500-hectare Bulacan Aerotropolis project, 360-hectare reclamation project in Pasay City, 650-hectare reclamation project in Navotas City, and 419-hectare Horizon Manila project.

Ancajas and other fisherfolk also decried how the reclamation projects caused flooding in their communities.  They said the streets and alleys became flooded after five minutes of hard rainfall. The reclamation projects caused water from four rivers connected to the Manila Bay from Las Pinas City to back up.

Environmentalists said if the rehabilitation operations continue, they can lead to six to eight meters of flood in Las Piñas City and nearby cities. Six-meter is already the height of a three-story building.

Activists with signboards.

Environmental damage

Coastal reclamation is known to lead to the loss or degradation of natural habitats, disruption of ecosystems and alteration of coastal dynamics.

The national coordinator of the Kalikasan (Nature) People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan-PNE) Jon Bonifacio said reclamation projects heighten and worsen the existing threats that come with typhoons, earthquakes, and other natural calamities.

“In many documented cases, it’s been seen how communities near reclamation sites become more vulnerable. Sea levels rise, there’s land subsidence, storm surges, massive flooding, and liquefaction,” he said.

In their community outreach and impact documentation activities, environmental groups have already seen how there were dramatic economic losses because of what they said were irreversible environmental impacts of reclamation such as fish catch depletion, massive destruction of fish habitats such as mangroves, seagrasses, and corals, and the worsening water quality.

Activists, including many from church-based organizations.

Crab farmers protest

In other regions, there are also ongoing protests against coastal development and   infrastructure projects related to reclamation.

Crab farmers in Gubat, Sorsogon south of Manila are also among those most actively denouncing the projects.

Gubat is a second-level coastal municipality covering 42 barangays or towns and 13 fishing villages. It has many mangrove areas and a long coast. Most residents rely on fishing and related activities for their livelihood. Gubat is home to the common mud crab, and harvesting these crabs is a significant source of income especially for those who live in the poorest fishing communities.

In the last two years, the residents have been battling the construction of coastal roads and shore protection projects in Sorsogon, saying that these disturbed the natural growth process of marine life in the coastal areas which, in turn, have a negative impact on the livelihood of fisherfolk. 

Locals have aired their concerns against the construction of the Balud Del Norte-Cota na Daco-Cogon Costal Road and Shore Protection project being built in Gubat. The project spans 3,142 square kilometers.

Residents led by local fishing and crab-gathering associations organized the Save Gubat Bay Movement. It is a multi-sectoral alliance with five member organizations, namely the Sorsogon King Krab Association (SKRA), Cota na Daco Crablet Workers Association (COTAW), Alay sa Kalikasan Cooperative, and the Alyansa san mga Parasira sa Sorsogon (ALPAS). 

Since its establishment, the alliance has been campaigning for greater environmental protection. They have been holding events to promote the sustainability of crab gathering and other traditional forms of livelihood of local fisherfolk.

“We have trying to utilize different public venues to explain how coastal road projects and reclamation projects have possible adverse effects on aquatic resources and the livelihood of residents,” said Ernie Gallardo, president of COTAW.

Gallardo explained that the landfilling activities of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) including the placement of large rocks along the cost of Kalayukay Beach in Gubat have made it hard for the local fisherfolk to dock their boats. There have also been cases when some of the boats were destroyed because the waves bashed them against the rocks.

“Our crab gathering activities contribute greatly to the local economy, but in the last few years, our income has dwindled because of the road construction project,” he said. He shared that King Crab raisers have contributed at least P659, 690,000 in taxes to the local government of Gubat since 2018.

The growth of other species apart from the King Crab are also negatively affected by the road construction.   Sitio Gumang, Brgy. Cota na Daco also in Gubat is home to many hawksbill sea turtles, an endangered species that is included in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.  Along with five other sea turtle species, the hawksbill sea turtles are under threat of becoming extinct. In the last 10 years, its population fell by 80 percent.

Roldan Ancajas (left), a fisherman from Las Pinas and president of a local fisherman’s association. Ina Sliverio, Maritime Faritrade Philippine correspondent, reporting at the protest.

Massive financial interests

While the impoverished sectors are against the reclamation projects for their loss of income, government and private sector players are saying that the projects should proceed because the financial figures behind the reclamation projects are also substantial.

For the reclamation phase, the Philippine Rehabilitation Authority (PRA) reported that the value of direct investment in the projects are pegged at P650 billion, while the estimated value of raw land assets is at P734.71 billion. 

Information from the PRA also revealed that during the Horizonal Development phase, direct investments may reach up to P1.95 trillion, P19 billion in PRA fees, P4.8 million in real property taxes per hectare per annum and over P2.2 trillion in valuation of saleable land assets.

The PRA stands to collect P25 billion in fees from developers.

A lawmaker supporting the projects, Rep. Joey Salceda, has said the government stands to lose over P400 billion in revenues if the projects continue to be delayed. 

Colliers International, a global real estate services and investment management company, has stated that the value of reclaimed land in the Manila Bay area now ranges from P200,000 to P250,000 per sqm. This grows by an average of 30 percent annually over the past five years.

According to Colliers, the value of land in the Manila Bay area is significantly higher than the original cost of reclaiming it, which stood at P10,000 to P20,000 per sqm. It also said acquiring property in the area is proving to be financially viable given the 40 percent difference in cost compared to land in established business hubs across Metro Manila.

Calls to revoke all reclamation projects

As an alternative to the reclamation projects, environmental groups said that the Marcos Jr. administration should embark on efforts for genuine rehabilitation. This entails restoring ecosystems and providing support for fisherfolk communities.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is almost done with its review of the 22 reclamation projects in Manila Bay. Groups protesting against the projects can only hope that the results will be in favor of fisherfolk and the environment.

Hicap, the president of National Alliance of Fisherfolk of the Philippines, said: “We want the government to know that we are against all these reclamation projects because they are all damaging to the environment and to the livelihood of entire communities. 

“These projects were conceptualized and then carried out without consideration to what will happen to people who live in their vicinities. No genuine public consultations were made and people are just being forced to leave without the slightest compensation or assistance.”

Hicap also insisted that even if the approved reclamation projects went through legal processes, this does not mean that they are “moral and just”.

“Because most of these projects did not undertake democratic consultations among stakeholders, such as the fishing communities and independent environmental and scientific experts. 

“We maintain that existing reclamation projects, regardless of the status, must be cancelled. It would only take an administrative order and a strong political will on the part of the Marcos Jr government to revoke the environmental permits of approved reclamation projects.” 

All photos credit: Ina Silverio except where stated.

Top photo: Advocates against Manila Bay reclamation projects.

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